National Perspective: A year of disruption and dismay

By David M. Shribman

Now, finally, there is a logic — a strategic and even ideological rationale — for a presidential campaign that has shattered all the assumptions of logic, all the strategic and ideological precedents, of our politics.

With the final presidential debate now in the swiftly receding past, the final balloting now swiftly approaching, the banalities and bathos now reaching their inevitable but welcome ends, we see clearly what this election is about.

The ultimate disrupter now has a limited amount of time to disrupt the process that has given him the Republican presidential nomination but now threatens to deny him the ultimate prize. The consummate curator of the conventional now faces the limited challenge of running out the clock on an election that once seemed hers to lose, then seemed possible to see her losing, and now seems within her grasp.

In sports terms, we have the two-minute drill against a "prevent" defense. In music terms, we have a master of the scat line against a virtuoso of the sonata-allegro. Manhattan businessman Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are struggling, respectively but not respectfully, to produce and to prevent a surprise symphony.

The remarkable thing about this dispiriting campaign is that neither of the roles these two pugilists have assumed is natural — they are acquired, though to say that they are an acquired taste is to give to them more honor than they deserve. Indeed, these roles go against the instincts and histories of both of the principals, to say nothing of their fast-vanishing principles.

Consider Trump's background: a businessman, albeit with a showman's flair. Whether on Wall Street or Main Street, or on the downtown avenues and coastal resorts from Bay Street in Toronto to Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, business executives ordinarily prize stability — and yet Trump is the personification of disruption.

Consider Clinton's background, from the New England afternoons of her anti-war activism to the commencement morning of her Wellesley education to her stereotype-smashing years as first lady in the governor's mansion in Little Rock and in the White House. Always, until now, she has been the sworn enemy of the status quo — and yet in this race she is the personification of the ancien regime.

There never has been a series of presidential primaries, there has never been a set of presidential debates, there has never been a general-election campaign, remotely like this.

That may seem a facile statement in a relatively young country with Heinz "57 varieties" presidential elections. But the United States is a mature democracy — the phrase need not prompt a chorus of snickers — and its recent dozen or so contests have settled into a reliable pattern.

In tone and timbre, in insults and importations, Trump and Clinton have shattered that pattern. No one — not even the combatants themselves — can admire the depths to which this campaign has descended, tarnishing our political system. Whether this proves to be the road not taken in the future will make all the difference in the future of our politics.

But now, the more immediate path ahead seems clear. The disrupter hopes to create one more disruption — in the narrative, and then in the momentum, of this race. The conventional candidate must preserve its motion and rhythm. Here the businessman is the provocateur. Here the longtime agitator has the stake in the status quo.

All this was on display in Wednesday night's debate and in the combat that followed. Trump taunted Clinton by declaring, "Such a nasty woman." Clinton characterized his refusal to say he would accept the verdict of the election as "horrifying." He accused her of "criminal intrigue." She suggested he was a "puppet" of Vladimir Putin.

Earlier debates are remembered for one line at most — "There you go again, Mr. President" (former Gov. Ronald Reagan to President Jimmy Carter, 1976), or "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience" (Reagan to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, 1984). There have been so many thrusts and parries in the 2016 events that the conventions of presidential debates themselves lie, like so many other elements of our politics, in ruins.

This has been a campaign not of great mobilizations across established fronts but instead of improvised explosive devices — and we may look back on this moment in our national passage either as a diversion or (and here is a phrase employed only in regret) the new normal.

In transition are the party alignments (blue-collar voters to the Republican nominee, a patina of elitism to the Democratic coalition); the traditional forms of presidential politics (party loyalists not always rallying behind their nominee); the language of politics (Clinton said her rival "choked" in his late-summer visit to Mexico; Trump said his opponent "shouldn't be allowed to run" because she was "guilty of a very, very serious crime"); the content of politics (whether one candidate was a physical abuser of women and whether the other was an intimidator of women); and the conduct of debates (interruptions, menacing background movements).

Some of these elements are of substantial political moment: If, for example, the Democrats are losing their New Deal coalition, and if the Republicans are adopting a fresh appeal to working Americans, we may be witnessing a landmark turning point.

These sorts of disruptions upend political assumptions, and they have occurred, among other times, in 1828 with Andrew Jackson, in 1980 with Ronald Reagan and during the Al Smith/Franklin Roosevelt transition of 1928 through 1936. They set in motion important intellectual and ideological forces.

We may be witnessing such a moment this fall. But we also may be witnessing merely the coarsening of our culture — and the further diminution of our politics. The newest Rasmussen Reports survey indicates that half of likely voters say they will be selecting the lesser of two evils. It is an election of the lesser angels of our nature.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has a vacation home in Kearsarge.


  • Category: Columns

Gail Collins: The debate in one scary answer

OK, Donald Trump won’t promise to accept the results of the election. That’s truly ... good grief.

“I will tell you at the time. ... I’ll keep you in suspense,” he told Wednesday’s debate moderator, Chris Wallace. The word “rigged” came up. Yow.

Hillary Clinton noted that Trump tends to presume that whenever he loses anything, the system was rigged: “There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged.”

“I should have gotten it,” Trump retorted.

This is obviously what we should have known was coming when the host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” wound up as a presidential nominee. But jeepers, people, this is serious. Trump was refusing to acknowledge it was even possible for him to lose a fair fight. At one point, he announced the election was rigged because Hillary Clinton was in it. (“She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails.”)

The rigged-election moment overshadowed everything else in the debate, during which Trump made very strange faces while Clinton was talking, but did manage to avoid going completely off the rails. Does that make him a success? We are once again faced with the problem of the very, very low bar. Still, no.

He did manage, particularly in the early part of the debate, to ignore Clinton’s effort to get his goat. When she claimed he “choked” at his meeting with the president of Mexico, he kept pretty calm. Although Trump did observe, weirdly, that when it came to immigration, under President Obama “millions of people have been moved out of this country. ... She doesn’t want to say that, but that’s what’s happened ... big league.” Is moving people out not the whole Trump plan?

They also had a whopping argument about — guess who? Vladimir Putin! “Putin from everything I see has no respect for this person,” Trump said, referring to Clinton. The fight went on for a while, until she cannily managed to divert the discussion to the possibility of placing Trump’s “finger on the nuclear button.”

OK, two critical takeaways. Trump won’t promise to concede if he loses, and if he wins, he gets control of the nukes. These are the only things you need to think about for the next two and a half weeks.

We have been down this debate road before, and we knew before the evening started that when Trump was asked about groping women, he’d deny everything, blame it on Hillary Clinton and then bring up the emails. And that when the emails came up, Clinton would mention the way Trump insulted John McCain’s war record, the Mexican-American judge and the parents of the dead war hero.

“Such a nasty woman,” Trump said at one point. As the debate went on, he got more sullen, his expressions stranger. One of the things we have now learned for sure, three debates running, is that he has a serious stamina problem. Hillary Clinton has many faults. She tends to give long, rather boring answers. She has never learned how to deal with the email question. But the woman is an absolute rock in these long-running, high-stress critical encounters.

Also, she made it very clear that she would accept the results of the election, even if she lost. God help us all.

Clinton was not particularly good in defending the Clinton Foundation. However, it did seem fair for her to point out that Trump used some of his own foundation’s money to purchase a 6-foot portrait of himself. (“Who does that?”)

But what difference did it all make? The man wouldn’t promise to concede if he loses. Later on CNN, his campaign manager said Trump would indeed accept the results “because he’s going to win the election.” This was not particularly reassuring.

If you were totally ignoring the entire event, you might want to know that nobody shook hands, that it took Clinton an hour to mention that Trump had never released his tax returns and that whenever she pointed out that he had purchased the very same Chinese steel and aluminum he complained was ruining the economy, he said that it was her fault for not changing the laws.

She did bring up the Miss-Universe-is-fat moment, and Trump said “Give me a break.”

He promised to run the country “the way I run my company,” and a great part of the listening public contemplated the fact that this is a guy who’s declared bankruptcy six times. But we’ve already forgotten all about it.

Only one thing matters. The man says he won’t promise to accept the results of the election. All those establishment Republicans who’ve been hoping to get through this ordeal by just being quiet and looking sad have got some work to do. Fast.

Gail Columns is a columnist for The New York Times and author of numerous books about politics, history and women, including “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present,” “As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda,” a biography of William Henry Harrison, “Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics,”

  • Category: Columns

Erik Eisele: America’s locker room tradition

“Locker room talk” is a catchy phrase and now the talk of the nation. Never have the tiled quarters of towels, benches and shower stalls garnered such attention. It is, however, a presidential year, so no wonder.

It’s been interesting to watch lines drawn around Republican nominee Donald Trump’s comments, “locker room talk” or “sexual assault” depending on your political leanings. His supporters rallied, some Republicans used the comments to justify severing support, and opponents pointed aghast saying, “See! See! We told you!”

But Donald Trump’s comments don’t make him a monster; they put him squarely within American culture. They mark him as an American male, the personification of American masculinity stated in stark terms, its dark edges exposed, things we don’t often dwell upon out. His “grab them by the p----” comments are not so far fetched or outlandish, not as far afield as many claim. This is the raw of American male conversations on sex, particularly among young men — proud, boastful men still finding their way across the landscapes of adulthood.

Trump’s comments shine a light into a world we look to ignore. Not a political point; this is a truth about us, about American male culture and the customs we carry. Donald Trump is no outlier here. He lives squarely within the American psyche, the sexual culture we cultivate. This is about American men, our mores and a tradition of celebrating aggression.

Sounds dramatic, but it’s not meant to be. American men are not predators. But we carry a school of conditioning, a cultural norm: From a young age, American men learn to talk about sex in grand terms. Sex is not a subject to ask questions about, something for discussion, learned easily within our social network. It is instead something to boast about, a way to prove your position within the pecking order. If you are an American male you’ve seen this before: raunchy conversations where participants compete to be the most brash, the most raw, the most confident and loudest. If you’re an American male, chances are you’ve felt your place within the hierarchy, and you’ve probably either striven to prove yourself or else felt ostracized by it. Likely both.

From middle school on there is pressure to conform, pressure to be the most experienced, the most promiscuous, the silverback, the alpha. Sex talk, “locker room talk,” is never gentle, thoughtful or considered. It is “grab them by the p----” and worse. This is how we grew up, our sexual education. It is where and how American men learn to talk about women.

Most men don’t act out these lessons. For most it is a show, a performance we make to fit in, part of joining the tribe of our peers. It does not become foundation for sexual assault or sexual violence but remains the bluster of “locker room talk.” Is it necessarily happening in locker rooms? No, but make no mistake, it’s happening.

And that bluster does two things: It leaves young men and boys feeling ostracized, wondering how their peers know so much about sex when they themselves are clueless (despite whoever or whatever we just claimed to have carnal knowledge of), and it permanently impacts the language we learn to use around sex, the character of the conversation we embrace. We adopt the swagger and bravado to fit in, and it is the swagger and bravado that make us afraid to ask questions, afraid we are the only ones who don’t know. To speak in opposition to the boasting rhetoric becomes unthinkable — it risks exposing ourselves as ignorant children, fakes. And with that coincides a tumbling loss of social position, a risk we cannot take.

And if men know the bragging and rough talk, women know the ignorance, the bumbling, the delicate male egos propped on false claims of past deeds. This is our “sexual education,” the path carved for young American men and women to reach adulthood, our incubator for home, family, partnership.

And it has consequences. It leaves young men groping to prove themselves, to show they are who they say they are. From private New Hampshire high schools to the swimming pools at Stanford we’ve seen young men from the top of the pecking order strike out, thrash their way into sex rather than risk a question, an about-face. Boys employing the crude tools our culture has equipped them with.

And their thrashing has consequences. Their thrashing leaves victims.

But they, too, are victims. They are victims of our collective unwillingness to talk openly about sex, our timidity and our vision of American maleness. They grow to be men never baring their ignorance, never risking what they don’t know. They learn only through thrash and bluster, bumping their way down the hallways. Then they have their own boys, and the cycle continues.

Donald J. Trump. Alpha. Silverback. He stormed the pecking order with braggadocio, and now like so many of us he cannot risk an about-face. He is a man, built of words like so many other men. Some of us may fumble our way out of the locker room but still we find ourselves back there at times, fighting our way within the hierarchy. Billy Bush, the other man on the Trump tape, knows that fight.

What that tape shows us is ourselves. This is how we as Americans engage in conversations about sex. We learn young, and we learn well. Maybe we spend the rest of our lives unlearning it. But this pattern shapes our perspectives, forms our culture. And what we never learn to say shapes our children.

And so we should be grateful to Donald Trump. Because this conversation is one way overdue.

Erik Eisele is a reporter for The Conway Daily Sun.

  • Category: Columns

Tom McLaughlin: After Nov. 8

There’s a huge election looming, and Americans hate their choices. How did we get here? Most of us think no matter who wins, America loses. The two major candidates get plenty of exposure, and we can’t stand either one, so we look at the others. We see Gary “What’s Aleppo?” Johnson and Jill “Everyone’s racist” Stein and get even more depressed. Who gave us these choices? Well, we did. We’re to blame.

America is divided, but not so much between Democrats and Republicans or between liberals and conservatives. Those divisions haven’t gone away, but they’re increasingly overshadowed by another divide: ordinary Americans against the establishment of both parties who have more in common with each other than with those in the ranks.

Each party is divided within itself as well. Would Bernie have won if the DNC establishment hadn’t conspired against him? Millions think so and they’re furious at Hillary, especially after WikiLeaks document dumps prove what Bernie said all along — that the Democrat establishment conspired against him. Republicans have Trump because they’re not happy with their party’s leadership who they see cooperating with Democrats. Rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans all believe the system is rigged against them — and the leadership of both parties is screwing grassroots America.

There’s a lot of common ground between disaffected Democrats and Republicans in the ranks. Union and small business Democrats hate global trade agreements — and so do their counterpart Republicans. All feel betrayed by Democrats Obama and Hillary as well as Republicans McConnell and Ryan as all cooperate more with each other than with them.

So what if Hillary prevails? Will she win over Bernie Democrats? Can she govern when two out of three Americans don’t trust her? And what if Trump wins? Will he keep on tweeting? Will he keep his mouth shut? Will he stick to the script or will he continue tripping over his own tongue? Can he persuade Americans to like him? None of this seems likely.

Will the two-party system continue? It seems hard to avoid a fundamental re-alignment. Will the Republican Party split? After Obamacare, we saw the rise of the Tea Party, but it was quickly subsumed. After Nov. 8, will it break away? Some see an overlap between the Tea Party and Trump’s constituency. Will the GOP split with Tea Party/Trumpers on one side and #neverTrumpers on the other?

Might the Bernie Wing of the Democrats discover it cannot live within a Clinton-dominated party after Nov. 8? Wikileaks may yet cripple a President Hillary Clinton, and make her a one-termer. What will the 2020 election lineup look like after this unprecedented 2016 general election? Whoever wins will not be able to wash off all the mud, and there are three weeks during which to sling still more.

And how about the MSM (Mainstream Media)? What will become of them after Nov. 8? There are two deeply flawed candidates running, but the MSM (which includes NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc.) has gone out of its way to sling far more mud in the direction of Donald Trump while simultaneously trying to protect its favored Hillary Clinton by playing down the WikiLeaks documents and email scandals. Do they think grassroots Americans are blind to that? The MSM don’t even pretend to be objective anymore. WikiLeaks documents prove the MSM is a public relations arm of the Democrat Party. As a recent tweet by Matt Drudge put it: “Media CAN’T cover WikiLeaks Podesta sh**storm — because so much of it involves them! Will take a generation to recover from this corruption.”

Just before the first debate, The New York Times published Trump’s 1996 tax return from an illegal anonymous source. Was that Obama’s IRS? Just days before the second debate and barely one hour before a damaging Wikileaks dump about Hillary, NBC put out the 2005 Trump/Bush sex tape it had been sitting on for a decade. Coincidence? Will ordinary Americans buy that? Will the MSM retain enough credibility to protect President Hillary for four years? Bernie Sanders railed against Wall Street billionaires all through the primaries and developed an enormous following. Now WikiLeaks has proven that Hillary has been Wall Street’s girl all along. Yeah, Bernie has endorsed Hillary and even campaigns for her, but what about the millions who were “feeling the Bern”? Will their energy be turned into a flame-thrower aimed at President Hillary?

After this election, who expects anything to remain the same?

Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine.  He can be reached on his website at

  • Category: Columns

William Marvel: Bleak November

If everyone else is as sick of national politics now as I am, it will be a wonder if anyone goes to the polls next month. The most acrimonious election since 1968 has made socializing an even more delicate matter than it usually is during the quadrennial elections, especially with special interest groups deliberately trying to stir factional animosities. The trouble usually arises when one person who has firmly decided on a candidate, and will not be dissuaded by any arguments, attempts to proselytize someone else who is equally adamant about another candidate. That seems to be a common clash.

The most aggravating aspect of this cycle may be that there are really no political campaigns being run. Issues have been replaced everywhere with propaganda and fear-mongering. The top two candidates can think of no argument better than terrifying the public about the prospect of the opponent becoming president. The media have abandoned most pretenses of objectivity, going for the throat of either Trump or Clinton and doing their best to ignore alternative contenders. You can’t turn on the NPR station without hearing some program produced for the apparently express purpose of disparaging Donald Trump. The New York Times and the New Yorker are giving their all in the same effort.

The red meat on that side of the news is still the tape of Trump boasting about himself as a coercive Cassanova — in the tradition, if not the caliber, of Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, you would have to go to Fox News to hear a similarly damaging audiotape of Hillary Clinton (before she ditched her Southern accent) laughing about the client she got off the hook for raping a 12-year-old girl. Few people encounter both sides of our incurably partisan media, which I suppose explains why the vast majority of Americans are not thoroughly disgusted with both Republicrat candidates.

I can’t speak to the tactics of right-wing media, since I hardly ever hear it and never see it, but the moderate-to-liberal outlets have pretty clearly swung to Clinton’s side. They seldom say anything in her defense, either to preserve the illusion of balance or because there is so little to say, and instead they simply attack her opponent. A week or so ago, on my way to the dump, I heard commentators on The Diane Rehm Show discussing Trump’s claim that the election would be rigged against him. One woman remarked ruefully that Trump’s hypothesis of an unseen hand in American politics “resonates with Trump’s supporters.”

I can testify that it also resonates with many who are not his supporters. The orchestration of elections by party puppeteers may not involve fiddling with vote counts, but the favoritism Hillary Clinton enjoyed from the Democratic National Committee during the primaries illustrates political machination in action. Party czarina Debbie Wasserman Schultz put Bernie Sanders to any disadvantage she could, once shutting his campaign off from voter lists and other party information, and her leaked emails demonstrated that it was because she favored Clinton. Whether that was decisive or not is irrelevant; the question is simply whether political parties will manipulate their followers if necessary. Obviously they do.

The manipulation at this stage of the election consists of Democrats discouraging support for the leading third-party candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson. First, however ineffective, comes the plea to reason: Johnson is weak on foreign policy, goes the spiel, yet it was policy maven Hillary Clinton who voted for an unnecessary war in Iraq and played an even bigger part in destabilizing Libya. Then comes the strategic argument: Johnson can’t win, so your vote will be wasted, yet if your only choice is between two evils your vote is wasted either way. When all else fails, fear becomes the weapon of choice again, and Johnson supporters are urged to abandon the only unsullied candidate in the field lest they help Trump into the White House. Well, fat chance of that. For those who allow such fears to control how they exercise the franchise, this year may be the safest in a century for voting on the side of conscience.

The partisan myopia of the Diane Rehm commentator reflects what may, at the moment, be the greatest mistake in American politics. Writing off the widespread distrust of big-party machines as fringe lunacy assures that the disaffection behind the Sanders and Trump surges will only worsen. Certainly that dissatisfaction will never be eased, much less corrected, under the administration of the greatest political insider since Richard Nixon.

No one is coming out of this campaign clean. The next president will inevitably be elected by a minority. The unjustified euphoria so many of us felt at Barack Obama’s first inaugural should be much less infectious this time around, and it will be a lot more unjustified.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.

  • Category: Columns