Friday, November 11, 2016

Elections 2016 and beyond...

On a warm and sunny day, March 7, 1996, my father and I arrived at the LAX, Los Angeles, escaping from the institutional disintegration of the Soviet Union. I was turning 18 and America as a new home was emphatically my choice. As a teenager, growing up in Armenia and Russia, I had been absorbing the values and principles of Russian dissidents and intellectuals, Vladimyr Vysotsky, Igor Talkov, Sergei Parajanov. I was reading world history and classics, was closely familiar with the French liberal philosophy that became the foundation upon which America built its independent democracy in 1776. I studied all of American history and classics from Mark Twain to William Faulkner. I had also received an Honorary degree from my gymnasium (High School) in Moscow for presenting an analytical research paper in English at a city conference on William Faulkner’s ‘The Mansion.’ I had concluded in that paper that Faulkner’s deeper message in the novel was that evil could not destroy the evil, only love could do that. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness…” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said.  

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I learned America was even better than I read about it. This was a country where immigrants were welcome, were receiving financial aid from the government to get on their feet, learn English, get jobs, and assimilate fully into the bigger culture. This was a land of law and order, but also of strong protection of civil liberties, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a country with free elections. This was also a melting pot, where it was quite acceptable to continue cultural traditions of your native land. I saw a Korea Town, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and Glendale was home to more and more Armenians escaping the same destructive conditions in the former Soviet Union. This was a country where education was a great priority and students would get all kinds of student loans and financial aid to get a college degree. I had to wait for a year to become a permanent resident to receive aid and enroll into the Glendale Community College to start my general education degree and transfer to UCLA two years later. But I got my college degree essentially for free. Of course, I did work my way through college, like most of us. I worked at Radio Shack as a sales associate from 1997-2002 until I went to law school.

As a newcomer I was fully following Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996, running a platform based on the working class values and financial accountability of the government. He was running a very successful and all-inclusive government, had reduced unemployment, reduced inflation (which was quite unusual, as low unemployment translates into a high inflation, as I learned in Macroeconomics 101), balanced the budget, created a surplus, appointed women to high posts. I was truly in love with my new Homeland that I had chosen and was making my dream to become an attorney. I had chosen my major in Political Science with concentration in American politics to study more closely the history behind the two-party system and development of current American political institutions. I was writing research paper after a research paper at UCLA on various topics in American politics and international relations. In 2001 I graduated UCLA with High Honors and with a lasting friendship with my professors who had a profound impact on my principles and views as a civic participant.

Meanwhile there was the 2000 election. I could not vote yet, but I still rallied around Al Gore and remember a Halloween night at our UCLA campus at a Gore rally. Gore was running an even more robust liberal campaign than Clinton, based on environmental protection and consciousness of global warming. When Bush was instituted as the next President by the U.S. Supreme Court, I was deeply disappointed but accepted the reality, as I believed in the functioning of our government system.

Then there was the 9/11. I remember that day as good as the day when we came to the USA. I was at our home in Woodland Hills, when I turned on my computer and was reviewing the daily news, when I saw something I could not believe. The photos of the crash of the Twin Towers are seared in my memory. As I was reading the lines, for a moment I thought it was about some other place elsewhere. After all, I had been accustomed to seeing those types of pictures about other places in the world. I had faced an earthquake in Armenia of 1988, and seen the tanks roll in the streets of Moscow during the putsch. But living in the USA for about 5 years, I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams that America would be under an attack. America was a safe haven we had dreamed about and found.

The 9/11 proved to me that America was fragile and vulnerable and it required more vigilance to protect it from external forces and real or perceived enemies. Then the Bush Administration commenced the war on terror, and the war in Iraq ensued with half-hearted support of the establishment and in violation of international law. There was the Patriot Act greatly curtailing the freedoms and rights of Americans. Then there was the Guantanamo and the shameful treatment of enemy combatants. Torture and other unspeakable methods of interrogation were used by the American forces to gather intelligence from war prisoners in violation of many international laws. Fear governed in many corners of America, and Bush was reelected to a great dismay of many. But since the country was facing unprecedented challenges, Americans had to rally around their President and I understood why Bush was re-elected, despite such strong opposition and the excesses of his Administration.

I went to a law school, named after Martin Luther King Jr., committed to his values and public service. That is where I studied more closely the history of civil rights in America and human rights in the world. This is where I learned in the words of Dr. King, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

My law school years coincided with the Bush Administration and I had the opportunity to view the ongoing actions by Bush and his cabinet from a legal perspective.
The war in Iraq and the trickle-down economics of the Bush Administration, the renewed tax cuts for the rich, caused the greatest economic recession for America since the Great Depression. The Wall Street executives ran the country into a big hole without any regulation by the government. The greed and lack of accountability were running the field. The financial markets crashed and the Bush-Cheney oligarchy left the country in ruins from top to bottom, not to mention leaving America’s image around the world in the gutter.  

That is why Barack Obama with his apocalyptic promise of big change and audacity of hope came in as a savior. America was desperate. It lost all faith in the political institutions. The working people thought they no longer had a fair shot and unimaginable poverty was on the rise. The abyss between the rich and poor was enormous and we were surely on the brink of another Great Depression. Obama renewed all faith in the American institutions, ran a very all-inclusive and powerful campaign. He was the spokesperson for the people, a messenger from God. He raised a big coalition composed of American independents, liberals, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, women and men, young and old that carried him to a big victory in 2008, the first time I was excited to cast my vote as a U.S. citizen, by voting for him.  

But as the first black President Obama was bound to face enormous challenges as a President. He won the election in large part thanks to the unprecedented support of the African-American community in American history. People who had never voted in their lives, cast their votes for him. There were very high expectations on Barack Obama. But his mission was to unite America, not to further divide it by racial politics. In the first two years of his Presidency he put enormous energy in talking with the other side of the aisle. That did not succeed as the Republicans were determined to prevent achievement of all his goals. As he tried to tackle the Wall Street, he failed. None of the Wall Street executives who had been exposed in predatory activities were indicted by the Obama Administration. He made the move to save the big banks and companies from bankruptcy, which was viewed as a ‘sell-out’ by the people. The goal was to save jobs, but the people perceived it as siding with the big business. Then he enacted the Obamacare, which was supposed to be a great relief for millions of Americans, but ended in mixed results and attacks from both the Republicans and Democrats.

Because of his race, anything Obama did or did not do was under an assail. No President in the American history had faced such animosity as Obama. His birth place was being examined, his religion was being questioned. I would talk to people and they were telling me, ‘Obama is Muslim and he is siding with the terrorists.’ How did this virus spread out and how the Americans were being infected with it, was unclear. But clearly America was turning out to be more racist than I thought. There was no other explanation for the animosity that Obama was getting, because none of his policies or plans were any different from Clinton’s. But he was facing double standards.

Meanwhile, the racial divide was getting larger in the nation. The resentment against Obama for becoming the first-black President was being explored by Republicans to further weaken his Presidency. The whites felt as the ‘disenchanted minority’ fearful they were losing their voice and were no longer relevant. The ‘white privilege’ syndrome that had been displaced by electing the first black President, was backfiring on us. It was now about ‘us’ against ‘them’, that was taken up by the Republicans to prepare the ground for the next elections. Obama was unable to unite the country unfortunately, primarily because of his race and the resentment he aroused in the white America. This resulted in further racial awareness and consciousness around America. The African-Americans were becoming more focused targets of law enforcement agents in the streets. One by one, young African-Americans were being shot and killed by white police, which turned into a cyclical distrust and hostility between the racial minorities and the police, as agents of the establishment. In my ten years of experience in our criminal justice system, I saw blacks (and Hispanics) disproportionately arrested, charged and convicted, with maximum sentences. The criminal justice system did not work for them. Their civil rights had been shed.

We had formation of political groups as the Tea Party and Occupy America as manifestations of these deep racial and economic divisions. We had Black Lives Matter as the movement of racial awareness and inequality.
Obama did not take any strong measures in protecting the civil rights of African-Americans under attack by the law enforcement and ultimately by whites in the streets. First, because he had been largely discredited as a President by the Republicans who captured the majority in Congress soon enough to stonewall all his practical measures. Second, because he was the President for all Americans, not only blacks and still was cherishing his promise to unite America.

That is where most African-Americans felt let down and left behind. The poverty was still on the rise in their communities. The middle-class was shrinking. The blue-collar America was depressed. Obama did not turn out to be the agent of change they all hoped for. Obamacare brought some relief to the low-income Americans, who had no safety net of employment covering their health care. Obama put a lot of federal funds into relief measures for various states to uplift communities. But that ended in adding to the deficit as the tax loopholes for the rich were not being lifted by the Republican Congress to fill the treasury. Obama created and saved jobs in some industries but the incomes of people were not rising due to inflation. There was still a lot of work to be done, a lot of measures his cabinet was proposing, while Republican Congress was intransigent and obstructionist. While the economy improved and the country got out of the recession, many parts of America did not feel the benefits due to larger forces Obama was not capable of controlling. Globalized markets had their irreversible effect on the American job market, something only economists are qualified to explain. While Obama restored America’s image around the world by his diplomatic course in foreign policy, the people were less concerned about the image of America abroad as much as about their pocketbooks.

This was the state of the divided Union, when Americans faced 2016 elections. While Obama’s rating overall was the highest for any recent Presidents, a lot of Americans faced uncertainty. Fear, anger and resentment among many were forces deeply dividing America along racial, political and economic lines. This is where Trump and Clinton came in. Clinton as the first brave woman to dare to attempt to crack the glass ceiling, was the well-known, powerful, controversial agent of the elite political establishment. Trump was the perceived outsider, a newcomer to the political arena, who was not being taken quite seriously. It seemed his status as a wealthy businessman would not resonate well with middle-class Americans, as he represented the top 1% of the population, and bragged about not paying taxes. Why would a billionaire care about the middle-class?! But soon enough it was clear that Trump was unstoppable. No one was capable of stopping him, neither the Republican candidates nor the Democratic party.

On a warm evening on November 8, 2016, my heart was beating fast, as I was watching the history in the making, state after a state going red and Trump sweeping the Electoral College map. My mind was racing with questions, ‘How could this happen?’ ‘Where did we go wrong?’ ‘Where did we fail?’ I could not find the answers and was moving into despair, as my candidate Hillary was on the brink of a hurtful loss.

How did Trump win?! He ran an unprecedented campaign of trashing all lines of decency and etiquette, political correctness, lashing out in temperamental outbursts, would silence and order journalists out of the room, where he would make fun and insult just about anyone he did not like or agree with, where he targeted and denigrated women, Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, veterans, disabled, just about any group and finally was exposed as the biggest pervert who did not even have decency to adequately explain and apologize for his past actions towards women impugning his character.

The campaign turned into a personality contest between Hillary’s character and Trump’s character, instead of focusing on what was at stake. Americans were being distracted by meaningless talks about Hillary’s emails, a partisan FBI investigation hanging in the air, instead of focusing on the qualifications, expertise and values Hillary espoused over Trump. As a woman despite her long record of accomplishments that many male politicians would dream of having, Hillary was under a strict scrutiny for all her past perceived mistakes from Benghazi to the use of private email server, while Trump as a male got away with refusing to release his tax returns, cheating and denigrating people, groping ‘pusses’ and allegations of sexual assault by women. Trump attacked the entire political establishment, complained everything was rigged and everyone was corrupt, by taking the eyes off the blatant lack of his qualifications and fitness to become President. Never mind he was among the biggest beneficiaries of the same establishment that allowed him not to pay taxes and accumulate enormous wealth! His character flaws were being covered up by a generalized attack on Hillary as ‘crooked’ and ‘criminal’ without any substantive evidence. Chants to jail Hillary by reputable politicians at the Republican National Convention were the most bizarre manifestations of how low our political discourse had fallen.

But more importantly, Trump won by capitalizing on the disenchanted white America, that felt under a siege after the country elected the first black President and raised racial awareness more intensely than ever since the 1960s. It is disheartening to say, but the reality is Obama gave us Trump. It was inevitable. No one was going to stop Trump, except the Obama coalition, which failed to rally behind Hillary to turn a critical mass and swing the election in her favor. Why not?!

The Democratic party was too divided to renew this coalition. Bernie Sanders and his supporters inflicted a fatal blow to the ability of Democrats to renew this coalition. Watching the primaries and Clinton garnering major support of the minority voters in the South and elsewhere, I was hoping she had re-energized the Obama coalition. But the damage was done. Bernie supporters, energized and inspired with his Political Revolution and anti-establishment rhetoric, had attacked Hillary as an agent of the establishment, created fresh hatred towards her and discredited her, that was later taken up by Trump supporters with much greater animosity and venom. Trump even stole some of Bernie’s lines about Washington and Hillary.

When Hillary did ultimately get the historic nomination of her Party, she faced enormous challenges from both left and right, aside from conquering the virulent sexism and misogyny of the populace. On one hand, she had to mobilize the Bernie supporters, depressed and disillusioned, more left than her traditional supporters. On the other hand, she had to get the votes of American independents. She needed both groups to win this Election. But that put her in a very delicate position, harder ever for a female candidate who was being attacked as fake and fraud. Most independents in America are not so strongly for LGBT rights, are against government entitlements, have mixed feelings about government spending and distribution of wealth, reform of criminal justice system, or curbing excesses of the Wall Street, are not as much into environmental protection as the Bernie supporters were. Most want just more jobs and do not care that much about the federal minimum wage or government mandated health care plan. How could she build a platform to capture both the far left and the Independents! That was the challenge she faced gracefully but came short. If Clinton had not had the challenge of Bernie supporters dragging her to the left, she would have gone to the center, as her husband had done in his historic elections, and would have probably won this election. She lost the momentum to activate the Obama coalition, energize the white America and win the Independent Americans into her camp, because of divisions in the Democratic party and the Bernie factor. Of course, she was gaining steadily in the polls after her stellar performance in the debates, when the Americans were faced with clear and convincing evidence of her preparation and readiness to be President, while Trump was rambling and mumbling in stupor. But the renewed FBI investigation 11 days before the election had its last blow on the Hillary campaign.

She was too busy catering to Bernie supporters, missing the mood of the American independents, who sought an agent of change. This is where Trump was a brilliant demagogue. He caught on that sentiment very quickly. His negative ads portrayed a very bleak America, in the hands of Washington, special interests and the corrupt establishment. Hillary was staged as the agent of that corrupt political machinery. While Trump did not give any policy solutions or answers to this bleak picture aside from hollow promises, his slogan ‘Make America great again,’ caught on and was hailed by lesser educated blue-collar American voters, who had been disenchanted with Obama, and sought an alternative.

The danger of demagogues is that they say what people want to hear, and make promises to people without ability or commitment to keep them. They are also dangerous because they are chameleons changing their colors with any audience regardless of their principles. The Trump crowd soon was composed of racists, fascists, KKK supporters, Anti-semites, and sexists. Trump’s America was exclusive, was building walls between groups, alienating immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics. Trump’s promise to make America great again was reminiscent of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ building a Germany only for Aryan Germans. ‘Make America white again’ with a swastika inscribed by a Trump supporter in the news, reminded of just how fragile is our democracy and how much harder we have to work for it now. 

Thus, Trump was a clear and present danger to the core American values of all-inclusiveness, tolerance and commitment to freedom and equality. Because of his flagrant egocentrism and narcissism, he was a clear and present danger to all our democracy. To him, the U.S. Constitution revolved only around the Second Amendment, as he received big support from the NRA. As an experienced politician, Hillary built the most all-inclusive campaign yet to be seen in the Democratic elections. Hillary’s America was white, black, Latino, Asian, LGBT, women of all ages, children, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, veterans, just about everyone one can think of.
It came down to what mainstream Americans would choose, Trump’s America of ‘white privilege’ or Hillary’s America composed of all minorities, races and creeds. It was about whether America would go ‘high’ or ‘low’. It was about America choosing love and tolerance over hatred and fear.

When phone banking on November 8 as a Hillary volunteer, I had a chance to speak with many people in the swing states, both Democrats and Republicans. I did not hear as much enthusiasm from Hillary supporters, but heard a lot of anger and range from Trump supporters. Some supported him automatically because he was running on the Republican ticket. Others supported him because they “could not wait to make America great again.”Anger translates into votes.

After all the chips fell and the Election night was over, I have realized that we have failed in a major way. We have taken our democracy for granted for too long and did not fully reckon with Trump as a political force. We have failed to communicate to his supporters in a clear way how dangerous was Trump to America and how hypocritical he was in his promises and charges against the Establishment. We have failed to bring these people to the realization that fear-driven politics does not build a country and that divisions along racial, religious and ethnic lines get deeper when people do not respect and appreciate one another. We have failed to bring them to the basic American values of freedom and equality and that the strength of our nation is in our diversity, that building walls against nations or groups with different religious beliefs will weaken us. Stronger together was the slogan by Hillary who attempted to enlist broad segments of the population into her campaign to build a more hopeful future for America.

The dark forces of fear, anger and resentment prevailed despite the enormous efforts by Hillary and her campaign. As some commentators called it, this was a ‘whitelash’. The white America has backfired and has come back to prove its ‘majority’ status in the land. The free institutions of America are in danger in the hands of Trump and his supporters who demand a xenophobic definition of America. This is a surge of ‘redneck’ nationalism in America. It is a small step from nationalism to fascism and Nazism, as Hitler’s Germany proved it. Trump has proven to have enough strength and charisma to gather unhappy American crowds into a movement. He is capable of great many things if not stopped. He will bring change to America, on the way throwing many Americans off the board. It will not be a change that America should stand for.

Trump’s rise to power was also symptomatic of deeper problems with the American political institutions and electorate. It has shown once again how deeply polarized and divided is this nation and how divergent are the sensibilities and beliefs of Americans. Despite losing the Electoral College vote, Hillary won the popular vote, renewing the call to abolish this institution altogether. Because many voted for Trump running on the Republican ticket, the two-party system has proven largely ineffective. Many Republicans who clearly did not support Trump felt obligated to vote for him along the party lines. This partisanship infiltrates all levels of our government and does not allow voters to vote for candidates and their true qualifications. Hillary as a candidate was quintessentially more qualified than Trump to become President. That is why Trump’s victory was so surreal to many, because the issue was not whether to have a Republican or Democrat in the White House, but which candidate was remotely fit to be our President. The fact that so many people even considered voting for Trump was an indictment not only of our political establishment but of the maturity of our electorate.

Now after the Elections, the triumphant Trump voters are calling us to unite. If uniting entails support of a dangerous demagogue who is building a fascist America, I am not willing to compromise my core principles for that ‘Union’. Hitler rallied and unified Germany to commit outrageous crimes against humanity, of the magnitude we had not seen before. Our goal now is NOT to unite for Trump, but to open clear channels of communication between his supporters and ourselves, and stop him from destroying our country at every step of it. I will unite only for the common purpose of building America for all, not only for whites, as Trump has set out. If Trump’s America entails building walls, rejecting Muslims, denigrating women and immigrants, I will not be a part of building that America because it is antithetical to the America I have learned to accept and love. As Hillary has stressed to us in her concession speech, "We believe that the American Dream is big enough for everyone -- for people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Our responsibility as citizens is to keep doing our part to build that better, stronger, fairer America we seek."

Hillary Clinton will remain an iconic figure of our hard battles and struggles as Americans, especially as women. She signified resolute endurance and relentless determination to fight for what was right against all the odds.  

In the world where America is set out as a role model for its democratic institutions, America’s choice for Trump is perceived as a sign of great crisis within our political system and is greeted with a sigh of relief by our opponents. His statements have parroted the criticism the Western democracies have been enduring for decades. Russia’s Putin has expressed great support for Trump’s candidacy and has welcomed his victory, precisely because he is well aware of the fatal shortcomings of Trump. 

It is deeply troubling that we now have someone like Trump represent us in the world. The role of America as a superpower in the world depends entirely on the quality and character of its leadership and Trump is the antithesis of what America stands for. Will he be the Nemesis in our sky?!