the body politic

After Orlando, It’s Clearer Than Ever: This Election Is a Civil War

The battle lines are being drawn.
The battle lines are being drawn. Photo: Getty Images

On the night that Omar Mateen killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump’s friend and former campaign adviser Roger Stone wrote a post on his website that was seemingly unrelated. It concerned Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. In the brief post, Stone idly wondered if, in addition to being Clinton’s “chic gal pal,” Abedin might not also be a “Saudi Spy? … Foreign Spy?” or “Terrorist plant?”

On any other day, after any other week, Stone’s comments might well have been written off as nothing more than his readily expressed bigotry. But at this juncture, they seemed in sync with the larger message that Stone’s compatriot Donald Trump was about to push through major media. Appearing on Fox News the morning after the shooting, Trump said of President Barack Obama’s refusal to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism”: “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

You don’t need to recall that Donald Trump got his political start with Republicans by waging a lengthy campaign to force our first African-American president to cough up a birth certificate to understand the Republican nominee’s suggestion that Obama is working with or supporting or at least sympathetic to Islamic terrorism. And you don’t need a roadmap to understand his ally Roger Stone — who on Monday took his show to the airwaves, arguing in a radio interview that “now that Islamic terrorism is going to be front and center, there’s going to be a new focus on whether … the administration of Hillary Clinton at State was permeated at the highest levels by Saudi intelligence and others who are not loyal Americans” — was trying to cast similar doubt on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, in this case via her long-time aide. “I speak specifically of Huma Abedin,” Stone said on Sirius radio, “the right-hand woman, now vice-chairman or co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.” He went on to describe Abedin — whose background is well known — in birther-esque terms of mystery. “She has a very troubling past. She comes out of nowhere. She seems to have an enormous amount of cash … so we have to ask: Do we have a Saudi spy in our midst? Do we have a terrorist agent?”

These suggestions from both Trump and Stone are so brazen and grotesque in their bigotry and dishonesty that they might take your breath away were they not so in keeping with the tone and substance of the larger electoral war being waged around us as we turn a perilous corner toward the fall.

As Hillary Clinton noted last Friday in a speech to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, this election is not like previous presidential contests. It “isn’t about the same old fights between Democrats and Republicans. … This election,” Clinton said, “is profoundly different.”

She isn’t kidding.

Even before the horror of the Orlando shooting unleashed a new wave of poisonous rhetoric, last week looked and sounded like no other in American political history. And in some ways the least remarkable thing about it was the fact that Clinton became the first woman to win the nomination of a major party for the presidency. The turn from the primaries into the general election has already included political battles that are bolder and less mealy-mouthed, cruder and more chilling than any we’ve seen for decades; it is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. There is no taming of the Republican who ostensibly staked out extreme positions to grab attention in the primary; there is no pivot to the center from the Democrat supposedly pulled to the left by her primary rival. Democrats and Republicans are making issues of identity and inclusion central to their campaigns, both symbolically and in terms of policy. The contest we’re entering feels ever more like a civil war.

Symbolically speaking, Barack Obama’s enthusiastic endorsement of Clinton (“I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.”), followed closely by Elizabeth Warren’s, were reminders of how swiftly (though still incompletely) our models of leadership are expanding, in ways that have troubled not just the Roger Stones and Donald Trumps of this world — but also Omar Mateen, the American citizen and security guard who opened fire in a gay club, killing mostly Latinos, and who is said by a former co-worker to have openly seethed with hatred for “blacks, women, lesbians and Jews” and to have resented women’s increased rights and the fact that “he has to be nice to … women just to sleep with them,” and whose former wife has claimed that he beat her.

In the midst of such open resistance to the rise of previously underrepresented groups, it can be difficult to celebrate symbolic victory without courting fury. But Clinton managed a fluid acknowledgement of the significance of her primary win, presenting it wisely as having been made possible only by the work done by so many who came before her and who remain unrepresented; her victory night video featured scenes from suffrage demonstrations, the civil-rights and gay-rights movements, and from the 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm.

Her Republican opponent spent the week before the Orlando shooting attacking that very diversity. Donald Trump doubled down on his racist attacks on federal judge Gonzalo Curiel — later broadening his remarks to include sexist assertions about the inability of women judges to be impartial — and then gave a speech to Ralph Reed’s Evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference in which he spoke, awkwardly, about the “sanctity and dignity of life,” as well as keeping out Syrian refugees, warning of radical Islamic terrorism, and promising that “we will respect and defend Christian Americans. Christian Americans.” Trump may be the least convincing Evangelical ever, but his rhetoric matches the calls of many extremists in his party to protect certain kinds of Americans from other kinds of Americans, other kinds of people.

At the same conference, Georgia senator David Perdue borrowed a line that Obama-hating Christians have been using for years, suggesting to the audience that they should be “very specific in how we pray [for Barack Obama]. We should pray like Psalms 109:8 says. It says, ‘Let his days be few, and let another take his office.’” The Psalm this sitting senator was invoking with respect to our sitting president, as many on Twitter noted, goes on: “Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.” Why are we so shocked by the mass murder of LGBT Americans, just two days after a U.S. senator obliquely calls for the death of the first black president?

Disagreements over which Americans should enjoy respect and defense and opportunity — let alone life and liberty — have perhaps never been starker. In part, that is because Donald Trump is exposing the blatant prejudice behind Republican obstructionism, and in part because, in an uncharacteristic show of strategic and messaging coherence, Democratic party leaders showed up last week to make the case for the other side optically, rhetorically, and politically.

Leading the aggressive charge is Warren, who gave a speech on Thursday to the American Constitution Society in which she flayed Donald Trump, calling him a “thin-skinned, racist bully.” But, crucially, she also pointed out that Trump’s attacks on Curiel, while particular in their racism, were wholly in line with Senate Republicans’ obstruction of President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Both were examples of the rich and powerful trying to exert their will over an American legal system that would seek to limit their influence, argued Warren: “Extremist Republicans who reject the legitimacy of President Obama are determined to make certain our courts advance only the agenda of the wealthy and the powerful.” Even as Republicans tried to distance themselves from Trump’s racist rhetoric, Warren was showing how that rhetoric is of a piece with their refusal to acknowledge the authority of our first black president (and hence their refusal to work with him).

The relish the Massachusetts senator is taking in the role of progressive pit bull is fun to watch, as is her willingness to position herself and Clinton as a pair of tough broads, teaming up to chew up and spit out Donald Trump. Warren emphasized Clinton’s ferocity, contextualizing it as exactly the thing the Democratic Party has been missing. “Hillary Clinton won,” said Warren, “because she’s a fighter. … As a Democrat, one of the things that frustrates me the most is there are a lot of times we just don’t get in the fight. We ask pretty please if we can have things … and then wait patiently for the other side to agree to come along. We negotiate. … But sometimes you also ought to be willing to throw a punch. And there are a lot of things that people say about Hillary Clinton, but nobody says that she doesn’t know how to throw a punch.”

This pugilistic language echoed some of Clinton’s self-presentation back in 2008, when, at the direction of adviser Mark Penn, she was trying to get people to forget she was a woman by framing herself as some kind of hard-bitten boxer. But it sounds different now, coming from another woman, who’s also out there throwing punches, and it’s being set against a very different backdrop: one in which Clinton’s First Woman–ness is being amply acknowledged by the campaign and the media. And if anyone doesn’t like it? “You know, to me, this isn’t about palatable anymore,” Warren told Rachel Maddow. The interview concluded with Maddow’s question to Warren on whether, should Clinton choose her as a running mate, she thought she could do the job of the presidency. “Yes, I do,” Warren responded without a moment’s pause.

The next day, when Trump took to Twitter to call Warren “Pocahontas” again, and to accuse her of having a “nasty mouth,” Warren followed up on a tweet by Clinton’s team the previous day — “Delete your account” —  and met with both appreciation and derision. “No seriously,” tweeted Warren. “Delete your account.”

This is optics stuff, sure, the strategic alliance of an unlikely pair of women (Warren has laid into Clinton over her bad vote on a bankruptcy bill Warren opposed) working to defeat an opponent who is cartoonish in his awfulness, but very real in the threat that he poses to the nation.

But it’s not just about optics. Given that Warren is now “with her,” and spent part of her time on Maddow talking about battling the big banks and expanding Social Security, this pairing offers the promise of friendly pressure on Clinton to stay left.

Clinton’s speech to Planned Parenthood on Friday indicated that she plans to. For years, Democrats, including Clinton herself, have pussy-footed around abortion, staying away from the word itself and distancing themselves from the issue, walling off reproductive rights as a social distraction, a single issue, a women’s issue … as some pesky skirmish in a culture war.

So it mattered that Clinton’s first speech after securing the nomination, at the moment when it is traditional for politicians to pivot toward the center, was to the organization that has been most regularly and thoroughly attacked by Republicans and members of the tea party during the Obama administration.

In her speech, Clinton did use the word abortion, again and again, and she reiterated one of the most progressive of her primary positions — her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used for abortion — laying out exactly how it contributes to economic inequality and disadvantages women of color.

Clinton also drew out the ways that reproductive rights intersect with other progressive imperatives, including raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid family leave and affordable day care, ensuring equal pay, passing comprehensive immigration reform, addressing systemic racism, and passing gun-control measures.

This is the stuff that reproductive-justice advocates and progressive activists and lefty politicians — including Barbara Lee, who last year introduced legislation that would reverse Hyde — understand, but until now, these intersections of bias and inequality haven’t found purchase in the mainstream wing of even the Democratic Party. And they certainly haven’t been given voice by a presidential candidate as she moves into a general election.

They are also ideas and policies that strike at the heart of a larger progressive project: the expansion of economic, social, and political opportunity for more kinds of people who have long been kept at the margins. And it is this drive toward greater inclusion that is in turn driving the resentments and hatred of the right.

The battle lines are being drawn. This election is not like any other. This is a new world. And only one thing is certain: It is not your father’s.

This Election Is a Civil War