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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Cornell W. Clayton: Spokesman-Review wrong to endorse Trump

By Cornell W. Clayton

Last Sunday, The Spokesman Review endorsed Donald Trump for president. According to the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara, only two other top-100 newspapers in average daily circulation have endorsed the current president.

The Spokesman-Review is an incredible asset to our community and its publisher has done much for the city of Spokane. But this endorsement was a mistake.

To be clear, given how fixed peoples’ attitudes are about Trump, it’s unlikely to change many votes. The travesty lies in its failure to offer a clear perspective about what’s at stake in this election, nationally and locally.

Curiously, the endorsement calls Trump is “a bigot and a bully” who “panders to racists … tweets conspiracy theories … denies climate change,” is “cavalier” about COVID-19 and “a wretched human being.”

Let that sink in. This is how Trump’s supporters characterize him. It nevertheless recommends Trump for his economic policies. The “economy and markets roared under Trump,” Biden and Democrats favor “massive growth in government” requiring “unprecedented tax increases (or) catastrophic deficit spending.”

Set aside for now the mischaracterizations – Trump inherited a roaring economy which he ruined by mishandling the pandemic; Biden is no social democrat like Bernie Sanders whom he defeated in the primaries; Republicans, especially under Trump, have become the party of structural budget deficits (even before COVID-19 the deficit doubled from $585B in 2016 to $1,083B this year).

In normal times, politics would be about reasonable disagreements over such things as taxes and spending priorities. If Trump was an ordinary candidate, it would be fine to prefer him over a more liberal challenger on those grounds.

These are not normal times. Trump is not an ordinary incumbent. For four years he has demonstrated his unfitness for the office. His lack of competence and his disdain for democratic institutions pose an existential threat to our nation.

Trump’s response to the pandemic is not cavalier, it’s catastrophically incompetent. The U.S. has more cases and deaths than any other country. The nation with the most advanced health care industry and top infectious disease experts hasn’t marshaled its resources to lead the world’s response to COVID-19, instead becoming its pitied victim.

Trump’s indifference to governance and inability to grasp complexities of policy is a hallmark, not a bug, of his presidency. He’s run government like he ran Trump University and his bankrupt businesses. From his failure to produce a health care or infrastructure plan, to his chaotic policies on the border, to the undoing of America’s intelligence agencies, Trump’s incompetence is palpable.

For the first time in a century the GOP, under Trump, failed to produce a policy platform. Serious Republicans like Senator Ben Sasse are now ask themselves, “What the heck were any of us thinking, that selling a TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea? … It’s wasn’t.”

The pandemic, for which Trump still has no plan and treats like a public relations crisis, only exposed what ineptitude looks like in a real crisis – one-quarter of million American deaths and untold economic devastation.

More troubling is Trump’s disdain for democratic institutions and constitutional norms. This is not about style or his “wretched” character. Trump daily demonstrates authoritarian impulses. He attacks a free press, ignores legal and constitutional safeguards limiting his power, pathologically lies and misleads the public (over 22,000 lies), routinely corrupts government policy for personal financial or political gain, spreads dangerous conspiracy theories, undermines democratic allies, supports dictators, and unabashedly embraces a voter-suppression and ballot nullification strategy to try to steal an election.

This is how authoritarians behave. It’s not hyperbole to say that another four years seriously risks our democracy. That is why this election is not about disagreements over fiscal policy.

Finally, Trump’s reelection would end any chance of returning to a more civil, centrist form of politics, nationally and locally. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s quip that “all politics is local” is no longer true. Partisan politics today is nationalized and polarized. Local candidates no longer run on local issues (like roads and schools) but campaign on national ideological divisions – who is most conservative or liberal, who supports the president or their party’s congressional leaders. Spit-ticket voting has nearly disappeared.

Trump embodies the populist wing of his party, which has waged war on party moderates (they derisively call RINOs) since the days of the Tea Party. Trump represented a hostile takeover of the GOP, which is why its former standard-bearers like John McCain, John Kasich and Mitt Romney, opposed him.

There are important analogues at the state and local level. People like Matt Shea, Clint Didier and Loren Culp also have waged war on moderate “mainstream Republicans” here in Washington.

Make no mistake, four more years of Trump will spell the end of GOP moderates. A Biden victory, on the other hand, will force the party to re-evaluate the direction it’s veered and return to a more centrist politics.

Similar dynamics hold true in the Democratic Party. Progressives like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez battle their party’s moderates. The difference is that Biden leads the moderate wing in his party, Trump does not. A Biden victory will strengthen Democratic moderates, a defeat would give progressives the upper hand shaping the party.

The return to a civil, centrist and productive politics requires that we stop voting for candidates at the extremes.

We can again have the form of politics supposed in last Sunday’s endorsement, in which reasonable people simply disagree over taxing and spending policies. But that will happen only if we remove the cancer of extremism and incompetence that currently threatens our democracy.

Cornell W. Clayton is the C.O. Johnson Distinguished Professor at Washington State University,