Friday, May 6, 2016

The age of electile dysfunction

When tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister of Italy—a notorious era when the country was a flying circus of bimbos, corruption and scandals—Americans could afford to snicker. 

You know, those wild and crazy Italians; only they would think of electing a billionaire with strange skin tones and a slippery grasp of facts, figures or truth in general. Those Italians—over there—just can't get their act together to watch a pot of rigatoni.


Silvio, are you laughing at us?

But now that Americans have Donald Trump, an orange-haired Berlusconi, stirring his own pot of demagoguery and hate—and inching his way to the White House—we're not laughing. 

Stew and I read an e-mail summary of The Guardian, an English daily, and watch some BBC newscasts, and it's unsettling to watch the rest of the world react to the U.S. electoral process with a mixture of bemusement, scorn and alarm, as if saying what the fuck?

It is difficult too to explain the Trump phenomenon to Mexicans, a politically cynical bunch if there ever was one, used to corruption and political clowning as a way of life.  

Shortly after moving here, Stew took a volunteer job teaching English to young Mexicans who would often pose unanswerable questions about American politics. 

"Maybe we could understand why Americans elected George Bush the first time," a student once asked Stew, "but twice?" 

To answer that, Stew would have had to explain Karl Rove and dirty politics, the corrupting influence of big money in U.S. elections and other details that may have sounded awfully similar to the Mexican political system. And after that, there would have been little time left for English grammar. 

It is just as difficult for me to explain the rise of Donald Trump, who was universally dismissed as a freak show only six months ago. Indeed, I feel defrauded by the American democratic system for allowing someone so repugnant to come so close to becoming the nominee of one of two major political parties.  

Some analysts say Trump may have tapped a vein of resentment among white Americans who see themselves losing their historic demographic and political advantage, especially after enduring almost eight years under a black president. 

Others theorize that working folk in the U.S. feel the economic system is rigged against them. What's good for "job creator" Mitt Romney turns out to be not as good for the struggling middle class. Trump is the guy willing to fix the problem or at least pay attention to the victims. Trump may be a serial fabulist but when people are pissed they tend to skip the fact-checking or the fine print.

Or perhaps Trump is a vile demagogue who'll say anything to rile up his supporters. 

More perplexing is why the Democrats have failed to formulate a credible alternative to Trumpist lunacy and sleaziness. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders has led a progressive campaign that has captured and enraptured a large, young following but his proposals, for instance, for single-payer health insurance and free college tuition don't sound too realistic. I shudder at the prospect of what the Republican wolves in Congress would do with them and four more years of gridlock.  

Then we have Hillary Clinton who is plain old and not just chronologically—she and I are contemporaries—but in her ideas, which sound as exciting as leftover meatloaf. In foreign policy, for instance, I'd like to listen to someone present a new vision that doesn't involve American men and women fighting wars and drone-bombing the natives the world over, in perpetuity. We can't afford any more blood or treasure in such adventures. She sounds like a hawk, which means more of the same. 

Or a candidate that would recognize the legitimate grievances of labor unions and the workers they represent, and the fact they've been sidelined by a new economic order that favors Wall Street financial manipulations. Instead we have Hillary who has made a fortune in speaking fees in Wall Street and won't even reveal the content of her talks. 

A few weeks ago I received one of those jokey emails, this one about the new phenomenon of "electile dysfunction" supposedly affecting millions of American voters thoroughly unaroused by the choices they face in November. 

And all I could say to myself was, "Yep." 

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