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The Year of Voting Dangerously
The Derangement of American Politics
By Maureen Dowd
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Trapped between two candidates with the highest recorded unfavorables, Americans are plunged into The Year of Voting Dangerously. In this perilous and shocking campaign season, The New York Times columnist traces the psychologies and pathologies in one of the nastiest and most significant battles of the sexes ever.
Dowd has covered Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton since the ’90s. She was with the real estate mogul when he shyly approached his first Presidential rope line in 1999, and she won a Pulitzer prize that same year for her penetrating columns on the Clinton impeachment follies. Like her bestsellers, Bushworld and Are Men Necessary?, The Year of Voting Dangerously will feature Dowd’s trademark cocktail of wry humor and acerbic analysis in dispatches from the political madhouse. If America is on the escalator to hell, then The Year of Voting Dangerously is the perfect guide for this surreal, insane ride.
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Escalator to Bedlam
When you have lived through extraordinary history—watching a president get impeached, covering father-son presidencies, chronicling a cooked-up war, seeing the wacky woman from Wasilla go rogue, savoring the election of the first black commander in chief—you don't expect to be exponentially more astonished.
Indeed, you might find yourself becoming a jade, thinking you'd seen it all.
But then America got mad—and went mad.
Donald Trump glided down that escalator and promised to build that wall and bragged about his manhood and dissed the Pope and politics vaulted past parody.
We are watching the most epic battle of the sexes since Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs. The former first lady and first woman ever to run for president as the nominee of a major party is going up against a thrice-married Rat Pack reality TV star who still calls women "sweetheart" and rates their racks.
What could go wrong?
On previous wild political rides, we were still operating within the usual boundaries and hoary traditions. That's why McCain aides called it "going rogue" when Sarah Palin tried to dart away from typical campaign mores.
But 2016 is a dizzying dive through the looking glass and into Donald Trump's Narcissus pool—and must-follow Twitter feed.
"It's as though Trump blew up the science lab, exposing the raw nerve of America's stream of consciousness," says Jon Meacham, the presidential historian.
The Republican Party, held hostage to the whims of its 70-year-old high-chair king, is imploding. The Democratic Party, held hostage to the Clintons' bizarre predilection for arrogant and self-defeating behavior just when things are going well, had to stitch itself back together after its unexpected civil war.
Tectonic plates are grinding. Gatekeepers, old rules and old media are vanishing.
We have an out-of-control id taunting a tightly controlled superego. We have the king of winging it versus the queen of homework. She says he's too unpredictable to be president, he says she's too predictable. Trump can excite his crowds but falters on substance; Hillary has substance but falters on exciting her crowds. "The boor versus the bore," Time's Charlotte Alter call it.
He's anti–political correctness and she's always overcorrecting. He does the post-ideological shuffle and she does the whatever-it-takes-to-win slide. The Republican nominee trashes the press but constantly engages with us and the Democratic nominee praises the press but routinely hides from us. Oddly, the Trumpster, as he calls himself, at times sounds like more of a dove than the Warrior, as Hillary's friends call her.
We have two candidates with the highest unfavorables ever recorded and a majority of voters who feel stuck voting against, rather than for, someone. Both parties nominated the only person who could possibly lose to the other. Voters are agonizing about whether they can trust either candidate. Will Trump, who has scant impulse control and who's willing to say the most insulting, provocative things that people wouldn't say at a dinner party much less a global forum, get into a tweet battle with a madman and start a world war?
Will Hillary ever seem on the level? Or will she always be surrounded by a cordon of creepy henchmen and Clinton Inc. sycophants, shrouded in a miasma of money grabs and conveniently disappearing records and emails?
Both candidates have a Nixonian streak and a fluid relationship with the truth, and both love to play the victim. Trump whinges and sends out self-pitying tweets about how the press and fellow Republicans are being unfair to him and not giving him enough credit. Hillary always does best when she's up against a bunch of pasty-faced, hectoring white male Republicans determined to bring her down—or just a sole taunting Tang-colored one.
The 2016 race quickly became the nastiest in modern history, vicious and salacious. "You have to go all the way back to 1884 to find a choice between two candidates who had big liabilities the way Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump do," says John Dickerson, the host of CBS's Face the Nation. "Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock and James G. Blaine was dogged by a series of scandals in office." As Dickerson notes, Lord James Bryce wrote that the race became "a contest over the copulative habits of one and the prevaricative habits of the other." And Blaine supporters chanted "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" to which Cleveland's supporters responded "Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha!"
The flashes of violence at Trump rallies were acid flashbacks to the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago. Republican officials cringed but Trump didn't mind. He told me it added a frisson of excitement. His Cleveland convention featured a brass-knuckles law-and-order message. Trump's most loyal supporters were angry white men and Hillary's most ardent were black women.
"This is a deeply, deeply polarized country not just by party but by class," David Axelrod, former senior advisor to President Obama, told me. While Obama's attention to nuance and emphasis on diplomacy was seen by many as a strength after the bellicose, black-and-white W., Axelrod said, now some find those qualities a weakness and yearn for a strongman.
"There was a susceptibility to a guy like Trump coming along," he said. "Trump is the perfect antithesis of Barack Obama. He's defiantly, gleefully anti-intellectual, anti–'political correctness.' He is just as bombastic as Obama is deliberate. As much as anybody since George Wallace or Pat Buchanan, he has overtly sent dog whistles of race out to white working-class voters. That gratuitous defamation of group after group, person after person, is just anathema to Obama. He genuinely believes this guy would be a calamity for the country."
Unlike the Bushes, who outsourced their political thuggery, Donald Trump does his own wet work.
"He has ripped away what was left of the fiction that the candidates themselves are above the game they were in," says Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post. "Not to credit Donald Trump, because he's crude and combative and an egomaniac, but in a weird way, he's at least being candid. And I guess there's something oddly thrilling about a guy who rips the mask off it all and is standing there as the naked id of politics. He is the destroyer of the old world."
The Don Rickles act may wear thin, but the Republican nominee does have a bat-like sonar for sniffing out weak spots in opponents and political and policy arguments. "Trump has an intuitive ability to put his jam-smeared finger on things," Meacham says dryly.
When I asked Bill Maher if he had a good title for this book, chronicling Trump's rampage through the Republican Party, the host of HBO's Real Time replied with a reference to the Leonardo DiCaprio mauling in The Revenant: "Call it Raped by a Bear."
Or to borrow a different animal metaphor from the late, great columnist Mary McGrory, the Republicans' attempt to tame Trump reminds you of a very small man trying to walk a very large dog. Trump is so thin-skinned that he is just as determined to bite Republicans who have rejected him as he is Democrats.
The race becomes even nuttier when you consider the candidates' past parallels and intersections. Both are larger-than-life New Yorkers and members of famous dynasties: an ex-senator and secretary of state living in Chappaqua and a real estate developer born in Queens. Trump is a former Democrat and donor to Hillary's campaigns and the Clinton family foundation while Hillary and Bill were guests at Trump's wedding reception to Melania. And their daughters, Ivanka and Chelsea, are pals.
Bill Clinton was one of the last pols to speak to Trump before he jumped into the race and some Republicans have voiced suspicions that Trump is a Manchurian candidate, unleashed to sabotage the Republican Party and ensure Hillary's election.
The race is rife with racism, sexism, tribalism, jingoism, anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, gladiatorial bloodlust, conspiracy theories, federal investigations, hooliganism, xenophobia, puerile name-calling and, most absurdly, penis and "schlong" taunts.
Political campaigns have always been about throwing gorilla dust, as Ross Perot memorably put it, jockeying to see who can prove more alpha. But this year the metaphor turned real. Inevitably, given Trump's obsession with skyscrapers, Amazonian women, large crowds and poll numbers, size mattered. Americans watched the jaw-dropping spectacle of Marco Rubio and Donald Trump trading barbs about the size of Trump's manhood on stage. Mirabile dictu, indeed.
And, perhaps even more amazing, what were the odds that Hillary would find an opponent whose blond hair was a matter of greater obsession in the press than hers?
Out of all the things I've covered in politics over the years, watching Donald Trump morph from a Gotham toon into a presidential nominee is one of the most astounding.
I had covered him as a "short-fingered vulgarian," as Spy magazine called him, and as a blingy playboy ("Best Sex I've Ever Had," trumpeted the New York Post, purportedly quoting his mistress and later wife, Marla Maples). He was a beauty pageant and casino owner peacocking with beautiful women. His favorite movie is Citizen Kane, about a would-be politician who lived in a castle, perhaps because Trump has his own Florida Xanadu, perhaps because he does not realize that the 1941 film about William Randolph Hearst's shame spiral is Orson Welles's indictment of acquisitiveness or perhaps because he knows it's lonely at the top.
Once Trump began campaigning for president with a burst of bigotry about Muslims and Mexicans, he took a reputation as a huckster and turned it into a reputation as Hitler. He also elicited comparisons to Mussolini, Idi Amin, Hugo Chávez, a Marvel comic villain and an orange clown puffer fish.
By far the most shocked person watching Donald Trump's progress—the yuge crowds at stadiums and the Secret Service around Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue—was Donald Trump.
Trump scrambled the Republican Party dogma, presenting himself as an isolationist protectionist rather than an interventionist globalist free-trader, and breaking Ronald Reagan's commandment about never speaking ill of fellow Republicans. Trump dismissed the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, as a "choker," and rightly excoriated the last Republican president, W., for missing signals before 9/11 that Osama was going to attack and for taking us into a stupid war.
Through the primaries, everything that should have brought Trump down—when he mocked John McCain for being captured or a Times reporter for his disability, and when it came out that he had pretended to be his own PR man under assumed names on phone calls with reporters—bounced off.
I've seen lots of bad moments wipe out candidates, like Michael Dukakis looking goofy in the tank and Poppy Bush checking his watch and Al Gore sighing and John Kerry windsurfing and Rick Perry forgetting the three federal agencies he wanted to close and Marco Rubio acting like a malfunctioning robot.
But now, in the fever dream atmosphere of Trump and a freakingly fast news cycle, gaffes don't matter and neither does telling the truth.
"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters," Trump marveled at an Iowa rally.
The TV boss was so disoriented at his succès fou that he could not get it together to gather an A team or stop doing stuff like his embarrassing taco bowl tweet on Cinco de Mayo.
During a lunch interview at Trump Tower, as he crossed his arms over uneaten meatballs, he made a face when I asked him whether he would "pivot." He did not seem interested in raising his game beyond Twitter insults and ill-advised retweets (including one about Megyn Kelly as a "bimbo" and some that originated on white-supremacist message boards). Even the quietly supportive Melania told Donald to knock off the retweets.
He seemed to be constantly squandering his opportunities. When he tried to stop his always riveting and sometimes inflammatory riffs and use the teleprompter, he came off, as commentator Matthew Dowd said, like a tranquilized circus lion. Ignoring Lee Atwater's maxim to get out of the way when your opponent is self-destructing, Trump stumbled even on a day in July when he should have been triumphant.
After FBI chief James Comey chided Hillary over classified emails, saying she had been "extremely careless" and making it clear that she had been untruthful, Trump managed to get headlines for praising Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists without reading them their rights. The lugubrious Paul Ryan, the Irish undertaker of the Trump campaign, once more stepped in to object, telling Megyn Kelly about Saddam Hussein: "He was one of the twentieth century's most evil people."
Trump lives and dies by the numbers. Would all his misfires add up? As Bush senior's pollster, the late Robert Teeter, once told me, public opinion is like confetti: Little pieces of paper float down and eventually form patterns on the ground. Opinion takes time to coalesce, but once it does, it can be hard to change.
In addition to the wickedness, there have been moments of wicked fun with Trump. He made monkeys out of a lot of people who had it coming, and he gleefully exposed the hypocrisy, the fund-raising excesses and professional political vultures. Given the electoral history of the Republicans since Nixon's Southern Strategy, winning races by stirring up racist, homophobic and misogynist feelings, it was rich to see them criticizing Trump for those qualities. They simply wanted a nominee who would be a more subtle bigot, as party tradition demands.
The megalomaniacal Trump made an unlikely David, but when the Goliath of the GOP primaries, Jeb Bush, spent $130 million on his campaign, it was stunning to see Trump beat him with free TV, social media and trucker hats—on his own dime.
"What Donald Trump has done is turn the party apparatus and professional campaign whores on their greedy heads," one veteran Republican strategist told me. (But as his operation grew, he hired one of them, Paul Manafort, a lobbyist and political consultant whose firm had a lot of experience advising dictators around the globe, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Vladimir Putin's puppet in the Ukraine.)
Like many other Republicans, this strategist is holding her nose, waiting for Trump to crash and burn, and hoping that the bonfire of the vanities brings a fresh start.
"If the party repositions itself as the party of principle on taxes, government and opportunities with a young, dynamic leader, it can redefine itself," she says. "We have to move away from the NRA financing campaigns and go to tech and other businesses."
I interviewed Trump when he made earlier feints at the brass ring.
Back in 1999, I flew on his plane—stocked with gilt fixtures, a double bed and French impressionist paintings—when he went to his first presidential rope line and made his maiden foreign policy speech in Miami. He bashed Castro, much to the delight of the Cuban-Americans in the crowd. He looked shy when he came face to face with the Trump 2000 posters.
In many ways, Trump hasn't changed. As a friend of his once told me: "He transmits; he doesn't receive."
Then, as now, he had no PC restraints, the zingy put-downs were flying and numbers were the sentinels of his success: how many magazine covers Melania had been on; how many men lusted after her; how many zoning changes he had finagled; how many stories he had stacked on his building near the UN; how many times he had stamped the Trump name on the General Motors building; how high his ratings were on Larry King.
He complained, only half-joking, that he didn't want to be interviewed by me while my column was running in the Saturday paper; he wanted to wait until I was back in the higher-circulation Sunday paper.
"I am just very popular with the black populace," he told me then. "When Puff Daddy has a party, when Russell Simmons has a party, I'm the person they call." This past summer, some swing-state polls showed him attracting zero percent of black voters, which meant his only black supporters might be Dr. Ben Carson and the random guy at a California rally he pointed to and hailed as "my African American."
Trump was a caveman in how he talked about women, airing his views to me and on The Howard Stern Show, but he broke barriers for women in the construction business.
"Women are much tougher and more calculating than men," he told me. "I relate better to women. I go out with the most beautiful women in the world. Certain guys tell me they want women of substance, not beautiful models. It just means they can't get beautiful models."
Even though he was friendly with the Clintons back then, he said he thought that Bill had handled the Monica affair "disgracefully."
"People would have been more forgiving if he'd had an affair with a really beautiful woman of sophistication," Trump asserted. "Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were on a different level."
In the spring, Trump stretched the gender gap like it was taffy. When I asked him during the primaries how he could win if 73 percent of women disliked him, he murmured, "sixty-eight percent," citing a different poll.
Given the changing population of the country and how he was anathema with Latinos, a fast-growing demographic, Trump, like Mitt Romney before him, seemed to be running not so much for the presidency as the presidency of white men, conjuring a vision of the good old days that were not coming back.
* * *
Speaking of the good old days, I was also with Hillary Clinton at the beginning of her sojourn at the White House. We had dinner in May 1992 at a revolving restaurant in Covington, Kentucky. She was relaxed and interesting. As we sipped white wine, she told me about a summer job she had while she was at Yale Law School, scooping out fish entrails in a makeshift salmon factory in Valdez, Alaska. She began to get worried about the fish quality.
"They were purple and black and yucky-looking," she recalled. She confronted the owner about how long the fish had been dead and he tried to shut her up. But she wouldn't give up on it so he fired her.
"I found another job," she shrugged.
I was impressed. It showed her strong will and her desire to make the world a better place, even one fish at a time.
I was sympathetic to Hillary's desire to bring the antiquated role of first lady into modernity. The job is a ridiculous tightrope, with women like Hillary and Michelle Obama, who have the exact same education and credentials as their husbands, having to deal with china while the president deals with China.
Still, I was dubious about her role shepherding health care in her husband's administration. Was it wise to put the spouse of the president in charge of 13 percent of the economy, given the fact that people in the administration might be afraid to push back or be honest with her?
However, covering Hillary when she came to present the emerging health-care plan to Congress, I proclaimed her appearance "bravura," "polished" and brimming with "crystal clarity." I wrote that she and Bill at the outset were doing "an elegant tango" on health care, avoiding all the possible pitfalls.
But Hillary ended up tanking health-care reform with her secretive, my-way-or-the-highway approach. That stubborn secrecy would come back to haunt her again and again.
Her husband, who has more nimble political instincts, did not intervene to insist that Hillary compromise on the plan, and some advisers believed that he felt too beholden to his wife for putting up with—and publicly defending—all his shenanigans. "She has a hundred-pound fishing wire around his balls," one of her top health-care deputies told me at the time.
Hillary was seen as so controlling by many voters that she tended to be at her most popular when she was losing control. She won her Senate seat in 2000 after being embarrassed by her husband over Monica and crowded in a debate by Rick Lazio. She got a wave of sympathy in 2008 after the New Hampshire debate with Obama when she was asked why she was not as likable as her younger rival and Obama ungraciously chimed in, not even looking at her: "You're likable enough, Hillary." She went on to pull out New Hampshire after she choked up at a Portsmouth café, frustrated by spending years in the shadow of one Natural from Arkansas only to be suddenly eclipsed by another from Chicago.
Over the years, I have written about the duality in Hillary that disturbs even many Democrats. She has the bright, idealistic public service side but it is offset by a dark ends-justify-the-means side. She's confident and capable but she can also make decisions from a place of insecurity and paranoia. The Clintons swept into the White House on a populist platform that people who play by the rules should get ahead. But then they don't always deign to play by the rules.
They offer a Faustian deal and it's purple and black and yucky-looking: You want progressive policies for women? Ignore Bill's unseemly affair with a 22-year-old intern and his hiding behind the skirts of his top women cabinet officials who came out to defend his lies. Ignore the Clinton attack dogs' efforts to smear Monica Lewinsky as a loony stalker.
You want a Supreme Court that's not retrogressive? Ignore Hillary's greedy Goldman Sachs speeches and the tangled web of monetary self-interest between donors to the Clinton Foundation and people doing business with Hillary's State Department.
You want to stop the Neanderthal Trump and put the first woman in the White House? Then swallow her extremely careless handling of classified information.
After turning the White House into Motel 1600, with a revolving door for donors, she and Bill left Pennsylvania Avenue like grifters, taking a truckload of gifts—sofas, rugs, a table, chairs, a DVD player. They gave some items back and paid back $85,966 after people complained that their gifts had been intended for the permanent White House collection. As she left the White House, Senator-elect Clinton eluded the Senate gift ban by quickly scarfing up expensive gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy Hollywood and New York supporters to appoint her Washington house.
As a top Clinton aide once astutely put it: "Hillary, though a Methodist, thinks of herself like an Episcopal bishop who deserves to live at the level of her wealthy parishioners in return for devoting her life to God and good works." Or as The Onion put it, her campaign slogan is "I deserve this."
What prompted Hillary to make three Goldman Sachs speeches for $675,000 on the cusp of a presidential campaign where the electorate was clearly in a pitchfork mood about bankers, after the Clintons had already earned $150 million in speaking fees and tens of millions more in book profits?
Trump mocks Hillary for a lack of stamina, but she has tremendous endurance. She has been on the national stage for a very long time, often defending herself or her husband, which must be draining. This is, after all, someone who has had Secret Service protection for 24 years. She admitted in one speech that she hadn't driven a car since 1996.
Tina Fey fought for Alec Baldwin for 30 Rock, knowing that working with him would make her a better actress. But despite a lifetime spent with the two most gifted politicians of her era, Bill and Barack, Hillary never learned how to master the stagecraft of politics. "If you could just sit down and have a drink with her, you would love her," a former Clinton White House aide told me recently. Her boosters say that so often, to offset her guarded demeanor and distaste for the press, that it has become a punch line in our office: She's a hoot in private.
After waiting eight years for her delayed coronation, Hillary was barely able to fend off a 74-year-old Democratic socialist with a slim Senate record and a brusque demeanor. It must have been awful for her to lose all the excitement to usurpers twice, one a fresh face and rare talent, but one Bernie Sanders.
The Vermonter became an unlikely youth idol and money raiser on the Internet, attracting the young women who were expected to thrill to Hill. Clinton played Katy Perry and Taylor Swift at her relatively small, subdued campaign events, but most young women were feeling the Bern. Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher dismissively that girls were going to Bernie events merely to meet boys, and Madeleine Albright chastised young women who preferred Bernie as ungrateful for all she and other women had done. These comments drew sharp rebukes from young women, who correctly pointed out that moving beyond identity politics and feeling free to choose a candidate of either sex was a positive evolution, exactly what older feminists had fought for.
Multitudes of young women told interviewers that they weren't driven by a now-or-never feeling about a woman becoming president. They knew a woman would be president. They just weren't sure they wanted this woman. They agreed with Jon Stewart, who told David Axelrod on The Axe Files podcast that Hillary seems to be "a bright woman without the courage of her convictions because I'm not even sure what they are.... Maybe a real person doesn't exist underneath there."
Young people wanted to vote for someone they felt passionate about—and it was the old guy with the rumpled hair and crumpled suit railing against Big Money and offering a lot of free stuff.
As Olivia Sauer, an 18-year-old college freshman and Bernie supporter from Ames, Iowa, told the Times during the Iowa primary: "With Hillary, sometimes you get this feeling that all of her sentences are owned by someone."
Everyone questions Hillary's authenticity but no one questions her toughness, even neocons. She can pull the trigger. But does she know where to aim?
I would feel more confident in her judgment if she ever talked about acquiring wisdom from her stumbles on health care, Iraq and the lack of planning after the NATO-led intervention in Libya and dislodging of Muammar el-Qaddafi. (President Obama told Fox's Chris Wallace that this inadequate preparation was the worst mistake of his presidency.) Or if Hillary said she had learned anything from her misadventures hiring scummy strategists like Dick Morris and Mark Penn; her spendthrift, botched campaign in 2008; her outrageous homebrew server fiasco or her moneygrubbing.
Even President Obama poked fun at Hillary at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, saying: "If this material works well, I'm going to use it at Goldman Sachs next year, earn me some serious Tubmans."
Hillary apologizes only when backed into a corner, and even then conveys the attitude that she merely regrets being caught, not the actual mistake.
* * *
This bumfuzzling race of 2016 will be remembered as the year politics utterly fused with entertainment and social media. As James Gleick, the author of Chaos, says, "Running for president is the new selfie."
There have long been elements of show business: Joe Kennedy purveying the glossy dream of the perfect American family, all thick hair and flashing white teeth and Hyannis Port and Newport mansions. And supporting Hollywood player Ronald Reagan turning the presidency into the leading-man role of the century.
But The Apprentice
- "Dowd was born to write about this race. And she dissects its main characters with poison in her pen and poetic punch in her delivery...Dowd surely captures the theater of our politics better than anyone else: The Clintons. The Trumps. The Obamas. The Bushes. She has been in their heads as long as they have been on our minds. She's the establishment's resident shrink."—New York Times Book Review
- "Maureen Dowd bakes a cookie with razor blades for the trick-or-treating nominees in The Year of Voting Dangerously."—Sloane Crosley, bestselling author of I Was Told There'd Be Cake
- "[The] ultimate political satire, a human comedy of errors full of sound and fury, signifying everything. Dowd, the red-haired siren of snark, has...held her place. Presidents come and go, but journalists tend to stick around. It has to be said: The Dowd abides."—The Washington Post
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2016
- Page Count
- 464 pages