The final days of the most surreal presidential campaign of this proud democracy’s 240-year existence are mercifully upon us.
Through the bickering, the boorish behavior and bad-mouthing; the endless fact-checking, fact-ignoring and even fact-creating; accusations of a rigged election and a dishonest media; widening gulfs among races, religions, gender and class; an awakening of the so-called alt-right; Twitter rants and condemnations and, of course, the most infamous email server of modern times, one indivisible truth will be evident when polls close Tuesday night and a new president is declared: Americans will remain as vehemently divided as the day Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald J. Trump took the stage as the two most reviled candidates in United States history.
Supporters on both sides are dug in, strangely not so much guided by the substance of their candidate, but rather by a deep mistrust, real or imagined, of the other. And both camps are fanning apocalyptic warnings if the other side wins — armed revolution from hard-liners on the right; on the left, fear of a strategic erosion of democratic principles.
Typically red Texas and Tarrant County might not be as split as other regions of the republic, still strong and opposing views are being voiced by an impassioned local electorate:
“I can tell you if she gets in, all hell will break loose,” said Greg Fox, 68, director at Northwest Tarrant Chamber of Commerce, referring to the possibility of Clinton nominating Supreme Court justices. “She is going to put people in there that are so left-leaning that your grandkids will be paying for it.”
“I don’t think Hillary’s a good leader, an honest person, trustworthy; I think she’s in way over her head,” said Geoff Rupp, a 55-year-old senior sales manager from Mansfield. “Yeah, I think he’s a bit of a loose cannon ... but she scares me a lot more than Trump does.”
“I would typically vote Republican, but I cannot support Trump,” said Lori Johnson, 35, who works in finance for a security company and lives in McKinney. “For one, I think he is a demagogue. ... The rallies, the way he shuts down his opponents, the way he whips up passions through fear-mongering, they are all examples of his demagoguery.”
“I would’ve preferred a stronger Democratic candidate, but anything is better than Trump,” said Danny Luna, 27, a manager for a staffing company who lives in Carrollton. “I fear he is too short-tempered and could put the country in danger with other countries.”
‘He deserves to be beaten soundly’
Both candidates are so widely disliked that each has fractured pockets of their own parties. The Republican fissure is epic with a chunk of its establishment running from Trump and refusing to vote for him. A large swath of Democrats preferred Bernie Sanders, a populist who comes across free of pretense and unbeholden to special interests. Some Sanders supporters still have yet to reconcile with Clinton. Some will vote third-party while others contemplate a protest vote for Trump regardless of how vile they believe him to be.
“I feel like at least with Bernie, how he comes off is he legitimately wanted to make America better,” said undecided voter Troy of Kennedale, a 30-year-old father of three who did not want to use his last name as to not make his political views public. “From a politics standpoint, I can see how a lot of people would be like, well he’s (Trump) not in this system and he wants to change the system. I also don’t like the morals Trump seems to (put) out there. Honestly, right now I’m stuck.”
John Weaver, the chief strategist for John Kasich’s presidential campaign, is an unapologetic Trump critic. But he blames the Republican Party’s “cynical” treatment of its constituency over the last two decades — i.e. an inability to control spending, a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act even when it knew it couldn’t with President Obama still in office — for giving rise to Trump’s unprecedented outsider presidential bid.
“We’ve kind of created a mob like you would see in the movie Frankenstein and they were out searching for the monster and they turned on us,” Weaver, an Austin resident and Texas A&M graduate, said of Republican voters. “And we nominated the only person Hillary Clinton could beat, and she’s going to beat him soundly. But he deserves to be beaten soundly. There’s not one redeeming quality that you would want your children or grandchildren to emulate from the man.
“He’s expanded the map because now you have states like Georgia and Arizona, maybe Texas, Utah are battlegrounds when they shouldn’t be.”
The last Democratic presidential candidate to take Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. The Republican candidate has won the state the last nine elections and the latest polls show Trump holds a lead in Texas despite some Republican angst that the gap is closing. Tarrant County is typically unshakably red. But Trump’s supercharged rhetoric toward African-Americans, Muslims and Hispanics, and his “locker room” talk toward women worries Republicans that these groups will vote in strong numbers.
‘I cannot stand with Hillary’
Texans are voting early in record numbers. Who’s voting and for whom is the question no one can answer yet.
“I cannot stand with Hillary,” said Mary, 75, who lives in Arlington. Mary did not want to use her real name because she feared receiving hate mail because of her views. “She will just do eight more years, or four more years of whatever, of exactly what we’ve got now, which is disaster.”
“I really am afraid to think (of a Trump presidency),” said Murphy Obevia, a 49, a healthcare worker and part-time teacher in the Fort Worth school district. “I think by him saying the ballot boxes are rigged and this stuff, he’s desperate. I’ve heard on the news that he’s trying to appeal more to minorities. I feel like he’s only doing that because he sees he’s losing.”
Judging losing, or winning, seems to be a subjective endeavor these days. Trump is losing, although gaining ground, according to most legitimate polls. Yet more than ever before, Americans, and especially those who identify as right-wing, question the legitimacy of those conducting the polls, believing them to be biased and untrustworthy, just as they rail against traditional American media as being a conduit for the left.
“The only polls that I believe aren’t really saying too much at the moment,” Fox, the Northwest Tarrant Chamber of Commerce director, said. “There’s so many different polls out there. They have such small samplings and, quite candidly, I think they’re doubling down on the same people asking the same questions. So I just don’t trust the polls.”
Fox does, however, unabashedly promote pro-Trump and anti-Clinton content via his Facebook page. Facebook has become a vital vehicle for partisan blogs and websites to disseminate information that drives their beliefs. Publishers, both right- and left-leaning, battle for the minds of readers, some of which have altogether abandoned traditional, or mainstream, media outlets.
‘He’s paid his taxes’
The right, and especially the more radical alt-right with sites such as InfoWars and Breitbart— whose chairman Stephen Bannon ascended to become Trump’s chief campaign executive in August — is more pervasive than the left, becoming militaristic in their dissemintion of agenda-based information, or misinformation as Weaver might label it.
“Some of the Trump people brag that we live in a post-fact world, Breitbart and those people,” Weaver said. “We don’t live in a post-fact world because facts are facts. But people can now self-choose, kind of self-populate their own ecosystem and believe what is fed to them because they chose to. It’s designed this way by Breitbart and others to hoodwink, trick and emotionally control wide swaths of the American voting populace.
“It’s bizarre, but it’s real.”
And it’s blurring the line between news and propaganda.
“Personally, I read all the different news,” said Barbara, a 57-year-old “homemaker, grandma, mother, wife and salesperson” said. She did not want to use her real name to keep her political views private. Barbara, who will vote for Trump although he would not have been her first choice for the Republican ticket, said she can’t be certain that voter fraud — a key issue continuously hammered by right-wing bloggers and websites — is not a real and imminent danger to the outcome of this election.
“Well, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Barbara said. “We have illegal immigrants that use people’s social security cards.”
Mary, the 75-year-old from Arlington, became defensive when asked why Trump’s treatment of women, his refusal to release his tax return and his tax evasion are non-issues for her: “He’s paid his taxes. Where are you getting that crap?” she said. “That’s what all this media, the Star-Telegram and everybody keeps saying.”
Anxiety is certain to be high Tuesday night when the 45th president of the United States will finally be declared and announced by every traditional and non-traditional media outlet on the planet.
But what transpires when the dust settles and the sun rises on Wednesday morning might just be as unpredictable as Trump’s next tweet.
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan