Jay Parini: Donald Trump's comment on prosecuting Hillary Clinton smacked of authoritarian vindictiveness
I can't wait for the next month to pass, and for us to get back to the usual political discourse, he says
Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Why do I feel like taking a long, hot shower – with lots of body scrub – after this past political weekend? I suspect that my fellow Americans in large part feel the same way, regardless of where they stand on the political divide. It’s time to move on.
This lost weekend began, disturbingly, with the lewd video of Donald Trump in conversation with Billy Bush on a bus in 2005. As a basketball player, I’ve spent a lot – a lot – of time in locker rooms over the past five or six decades. Let me put this bluntly: Never once in the reek of soiled gym clothes and sweaty sneakers did I hear anyone talk like this, bragging about kissing girls because they just couldn’t resist the urge, claiming to grab them by the “genitals,” as they keep saying, as if not wishing to offend cats.
Had Donald Trump been 14 years old instead of 59, one might have excused this talk as misplaced teen braggadocio. But his age only made it worse, even more embarrassing, if such a thing is possible. I listened to the tape because, well, it was a form of rubber-necking. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off a terrible accident. (I wish I were more disciplined, and had just driven on without looking.)
I suppose Trump made some people feel better by telling them in a video recorded shortly after the revelation of this tape: “I pledge to be a better man tomorrow.” I don’t know why, but that remark actually made things worse for me.
Then came the debate.
I don’t know about you, but I felt vaguely sickened by the whole thing. I wanted to turn off the TV when Trump called Clinton a “devil” with “tremendous hate in her heart.” When asked to respond to the horrible video at the beginning of the debate, he shifted the subject to Bill Clinton, whom he has called “the worst abuser of women in the history of politics.”
I suppose he doesn’t consider himself, as of yet, “in the history of politics.” Think what we might have to look forward to in the next eight years!
For me, the low point of the debate came when Trump declared that, if elected to the highest office in the land, he would prosecute Clinton for her use of a private email server. She would be in jail, he said.
Let’s pause for a moment. This is the sort of thing Russian President Vladimir Putin might do, or some far-flung dictator without scruples. But for a presidential candidate to declare that upon election he would prosecute his rival seems beyond the pale as civilized political discourse in a democracy where the rule of law is primary. It smacks of authoritarian vindictiveness.
But this sort of talk is in keeping with what one hears regularly from Trump’s supporters on the campaign trail, where they chant in eerie unison: “Lock her up!”
Hillary Clinton has her flaws, but they are of a piece with most candidates in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. She has been around for over three decades, as first lady, senator and secretary of state; she has made mistakes at times. She has, however, admitted and apologized for her errors of judgment: her vote on the Iraq War, her choice of a private email server.
Perhaps she didn’t behave nicely to the women her husband seduced. But this is behavior of a different order from anything we’ve seen from Donald Trump, especially during the past weekend, when we were subjected to a lewd, inconsiderate, bullying and unbalanced man who has managed to rise almost to the top of the political heap. He is really and truly being considered for the leadership of the free world.
Frankly, I can’t wait for the next month to pass, and for us to get back to the usual if often noisy, even clamorous, sausage-making of American political discourse. The public appears to agree, as viewership of the second debate apparently fell markedly.
But will we ever rid ourselves of the stain of Trump?
I felt this morning like Lady Macbeth when she cried, “Out, out damn spot,” knowing that “all the perfumes of Arabia” will probably not freshen us again in the wake of this dispiriting election, where every form of ignorance and bigotry has poured over us, making us stink as a nation. The smell of blood can take a long time to pass.
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He recently published “New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.