Any pundit or professor or poobah or peon who tells you the 2016 presidential election is a done deal needs his or her head examined. In the Federalist Papers, the Founders warned about the evils of “factions” but all revolutions have had factions and one of those factions elected the third president. Nobody has questioned the two party system since, but it’s entirely possible that a majority of voters are questioning it now.
Indians watched all this from the sidelines and Indians have no real choice in 2016. In Donald Trump, the Republicans are about to nominate an Indian fighter on the level of former Sen. Slade “the Blade” Gorton. Trump—no political science theorist---has a track record on tribal sovereignty.
The status of American Indians in the constitutional order is a difficult political science question with every decision point fraught with an awful history of theft and homicide. It’s not easy for experts in the field. Even experts in the field who are Indians. Because we have not been a reliable voting bloc, US politicians outside of Indian country don’t even wade into that theoretical swamp.
We laughed at George W. Bush’s remark that “state law reigns supreme” in Indian affairs as a failure to read the Constitution, but Bush’s remark was not all that much out of the mainstream. Nor was his walking it back when somebody explained the Indian Commerce Clause to him. We are not organized well enough to be a big deal outside of a few districts.
Indians are not monolithic in the voting booth or anywhere else, but only one faction I can identify can consider voting for Trump. The faction that believes voting in the colonial elections is an act in derogation of tribal sovereignty is politically neutered by their 17th century understanding of sovereignty, but the faction that believes tribal governments are hopelessly corrupt and staffed by so many self-seeking incompetent drones that they are better abolished have their candidate in Trump. The rest of us have no choice but to vote for whomever the Democrats put up.
Constrained by history, we are watching from the cheap seats as both parties splinter in a manner that would be no big deal in a parliamentary system but is a very big deal when there are only two parties and both of them are facing a revolt from below.
Trump is in the process of consolidating a hostile takeover of the Republican Party as one establishment figure after another acts in accord with the maxim that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. Trumpian Indian policy is clear but Indian policy is about all that’s clear. The only apparent pattern in his shifting policy prescriptions is power seeking. What he will do with the power is anybody’s guess. He has not even been consistent when asked of his slogan—“Make America Great Again!”----when America was last great?
In his populist rebellion, Trump has bridged the yawning gap between economic conservatives and social conservatives. He offers the former freedom from environmental and labor regulations and even more tax cuts than they’ve already gotten in the Reagan Revolution. He offers the latter lip service and it works because the evangelicals have finally decided they are tired of being used and discarded by the GOP establishment. If Trump the rebel does the same, they are no worse off and might be better off.
The Democratic Party’s rebel, Bernie Sanders, does have a lifetime of consistent adherence to “democratic socialism,” a phrase with more meaning in Europe than in the US. Real issues between Sanders and the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, are exacerbated by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, tilting the process in favor of Clinton from the get-go by sinking Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig’s challenge to big money and rigging the debate schedule to deny Sanders an audience.
Sanders says the system is rigged and the rigging has not been subtle enough to leave Clinton a scrap of plausible deniability. Sanders says the doctrine of corporate personhood combined with the Supreme Court’s “one dollar-one vote” First Amendment perversions have put democracy on the auction block. Sanders calls attention to Clinton speaking to the investment bank its victims call Golden Sacks for 40 minutes, earning over $200,000 for the speech and then refusing to share the exquisitely expensive content with the public.
It will not be lost on the Democratic Party’s rebels that Clinton will rake in more Wall Street cash than Trump. Clinton’s denials notwithstanding, the voters know who will get their calls returned. The Democratic Party used to represent the working class proudly; now it joins the Republican Party in questioning whether there is a working class. There is a deep division in the party by class, but it’s not the only division.
The AFL-CIO—or what’s left of it---has to a dismaying extent bought into the nonsense that green priorities threaten jobs. Green priorities threaten traditional industries that are already organized but they grow jobs that cannot be outsourced and conventional wisdom says can’t be organized. So you have a significant part of the labor segment of the New Deal coalition at odds with the environmental segment, which during the formation of the New Deal only stood for environmentally sound farming methods to defeat the Dust Bowl.
The racial divide is as deep as it ever was within the Democratic Party but overt racists—the Dixiecrats—long ago decamped the Democrats over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1968. The area Democrats used to call the “solid South” is now solidly Republican.
Within the remaining Democrats, the divide is between those who see formal equality as inadequate and those who would declare victory and fold the civil rights tents. When the vestiges of the Civil Rights Movement turn from political inequality to economic inequality, there is pushback from white people who have been part of the Democratic Party base.
The generation gap in the Democratic Party is, in the parlance of the day, “yuge.” The younger voters like Bernie but they also despise the establishment for bedding down with the interests that have benefitted from the largest redistribution of wealth since the New Deal. While the popular meme calls them “the one percent,” the numbers show most of the increase in GDP going to the top one half of one percent. At the same time, a college degree is the new high school diploma and getting one means taking on absurd debts.
Will Rogers famously remarked that he was not a member of any organized political party but instead was a Democrat. In his time, there was no environmental movement and no question that the party represented the working class. The two big divides were over alcohol prohibition and how to deal with the KKK, which ran the party in several states.
The Democrats go into 2016 deeply divided on several axes. The only politician capable of uniting the warring factions is Donald Trump. If the Democrats defeat Trump the Indian fighter, the result will have little to do with Indians. It will be because of Trump’s public insults of blacks, of Hispanics, and of the environmental movement. Most of all, it will be because of The Donald’s woman problem.
More women vote than men and Trump has a long record of judging women by their looks and doing it very crudely. When challenged by a woman, his instinct is sexist belittling. He has advanced the careers of a number of women within his organization, but he sometimes speaks of professional women in terms that make Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe insignificant.
The number crunchers claim that Trump must get his woman problem down to less than 10 points to win. This is doable because younger women are not lining up to support Hillary Clinton. Like voters generally, women don’t trust her. Since she doesn’t trust the voters, the voters return the favor.
Hillary Clinton has been the target of one fake scandal ginned up by her political opponents after another. But the paranoia caused by that has not served her well. From her clumsy sleight of hand with the Rose Law Firm records to her idiot decision to locate State Department email on her personal server to her failure to release the content of her high dollar speech to Golden Sacks, she does not believe the voters can handle the truth and so she operates as if she were Richard Nixon hiding a Watergate.
Does anybody seriously believe Clinton told Golden Sacks that if she gets to be POTUS she intends to crack down on investment banks? That’s about as likely as the debunked claim that she watched the Benghazi attack in real time from a surveillance drone and ordered rescuers to stand down. The Republicans lie about her all the time but her distrust of the voters enables the lies.
So the Democrats came into 2016 having rigged the nominating process to favor the most unpopular politician on offer, Hillary Clinton. The Republican response was to nominate a non-politician who quickly became even more unpopular.
As this column is written, there’s a general election poll of New Hampshire voters showing Clinton leading Trump 44-42, within the margin of error. Bernie Sanders would lead Trump 54-38, but nobody has been shooting at Bernie. National polls are beginning to show a Clinton-Trump horserace much closer than makes sense when you look at most of Trump’s positions being slippery as a squid. Perhaps the advantage is that every voter can pick their favorite pander out of Trump’s speeches?
So we have the two most unpopular politicians in the country representing two splintered political parties. Either turnout will slump because both parties are bought or turnout will soar because each candidate has rabid enemies. If Donald Trump were not the long-standing Indian fighter that he is, most Indians would have the same response to the 2016 donnybrook:
Pass the popcorn!
But it’s because we have no choice—not because we don’t care.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.