Letter from Portland

David Biespiel on the US presidential campaign and its candidates' slogans

Over the next year, as the United States goes through the process of electing its 45th president, poet, critic, and Politico contributor David Biespiel will occasionally send us a letter from his home in Portland, Oregon, on the status of the campaign.

I WRITE THIS to you with the certainty that events will overtake it. It’s hard to predict how, or even if, the aftermath of the Paris attacks will sober up our presidential campaign, which has been a cross between populist dream and populist nightmare. Last week the mayor of Roanoke—a Democratic mayor, mind you—cited the World War II Japanese internment camps as a public policy model for Muslim refugees coming out of Syria. The Clinton campaign, for whom this dumbass mayor was a surrogate, denounced him and shipped him back to Virginia where they hope he will never be seen again. 

This hasn’t prevented a banner week of bigotry. Donald J. Trump asserted that “there’s absolutely no choice” but to monitor mosques or consider closing them. He said at the very least the United States should track Muslims using “surveillance, including watch lists.” This, despite the fact that Muslims have been living and worshipping in the United States since before the American Revolution. This, despite the First Amendment’s clause against an establishment of religion or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

Is NRA-backed Dale saying guns are too easy to get in Texas? Perhaps if Muslims promised to purchase firearms and join the NRA, Dale and other right wing Americans would be more welcoming.

Crude ignorance and stereotyping doesn’t end with Trump. The GOP candidates running to be the standard bearer for the party of small government are on record for advocating the deportation of 11 million people, closing mosques, diners, and Internet sites, and administering religious tests for refugees. This “small” government ethos recently bumped into a small government reality down in my home state of Texas. Concerned about a security gap, state representative Tony Dale (a Republican from Cedar Park, just north of Austin) asked Americans to “imagine a scenario” where a refugee is admitted to the United States, “purchases a weapon and executes an attack.” Is NRA-backed Dale saying guns are too easy to get in Texas? Perhaps if Muslims promised to purchase firearms and join the NRA, Dale and other right wing Americans would be more welcoming. 

Or should I have said, “white Christian Americans?” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Texas senator Ted Cruz have proposed admitting only Christian refugees out of Syria and not admitting Muslim refugees. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. Florida senator Marco Rubio tried to out-do even Trump, saying he would support “closing down any place, whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an Internet site, any place where radicals are being inspired.” (Senator Rubio might also benefit from a reintroduction to the First Amendment’s “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”) In the last few days, Trump has said again that he "absolutely" would implement a database of American Muslims and that participation would "have to" be compulsory. Asked how that would differ from the registration of Jews in Nazi Germany, he responded only with, "You tell me.” 

All this after the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008. Fifty years ago there were very few elected black American representatives, even in the North. Americans twice elected Barack Obama at the beginning of this century by easy majorities. Obama’s victories, however, have not cooled right wing xenophobia or even the political dysfunctions of the federal government. And yet if a Republican had won the election of 2008, there still wouldn’t have been an effect on the legal or political standing of Americans. These are matters of the law and Constitution.

But it is my opinion America has been better off with Obama. He passed historic heath care reform that has reduced the uninsured by millions. He passed Wall Street reform in response to the crash of 2007, limiting large banks’ ability to trade with customers’ money for their own profit, and also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He ended the war in Iraq, turned around the U.S. auto industry, repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” reversed the Bush-era torture policies, and signed a historic anti-nuclear deal with Iran.

The brief euphoria that accompanied Obama’s victory in 2008 gave way to an ongoing hysteria that has lasted seven years.

Of course, there have been failures—the failure to close Guantanamo, the feckless approach to the Syrian civil war, an inability to work with Russia, the failure to overcome Republican intransigence in Congress. And it’s that last item that is at the root of this year’s presidential election. The brief euphoria that accompanied Obama’s victory in 2008 gave way to an ongoing hysteria that has lasted seven years. The conservative right revolted against the civic norms of democratic electoral outcomes (Donald Trump led the birther movement, let’s not forget), while the Left grew disenchanted when the utopia it imagined failed to materialize. 

In fact, the near-violent hysteria on the right has only increased during this year’s primary election—but it’s a hysteria that’s been building for two decades. Conservatives are now terrified of America in the 21st century as the country steadily becomes a minority-majority nation. Supply-side economics, a staple of GOP theory since the 1980s, has failed to help everyday Americans, and that failure has led to distrust of government, institutions, even science. (Conservatives refuse to countenance climate change.) Add the election of the first African-American president, and you’re left with a conservative electorate that believes it’s under assault from all sides. Its response: retreating to an alternate reality, from which it communicates with the real world by way of FOX News. “We report, you decide,” FOX News tells viewers as it skews its reporting through the filter of ideology. Eight years hounding Bill Clinton followed by eight years of chest-thumping for the Bush wars followed by eight years trying to delegitimize Barack Obama has given rise to a made-for-FOX-News TV candidate Donald Trump.


SLOGANS HAVE A rich history in presidential politics. Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 slogan for the Republican nomination had nothing to do with slavery or cessation. “Vote Yourself a Farm” referred to his party’s promise to grant free homesteads to settlers of western lands. “Our Rights, the Constitution and the Union” was the slogan of Lincoln’s Democratic Party opponent, John C. Breckinridge. That slogan was put into action the following year as, one by one, Southern states seceded.

If American elections are contests to repeal and replace—old Ike for cool JFK, paranoid Nixon for earnest Carter—then it would seem like an intellectual is going to be swapped out for a fascist.

This year, the Republican’s slogans are fabulous metaphors for candidates’ personalities. Ted Cruz—currently surging in Iowa polls because of canny debating skills and extreme positions on immigration, taxes, health care, and religious fundamentalism—is “Reigniting the Promise of America.” (Some might say Cruz, enormously unpopular among senators of both parties, wants to set America on fire.) Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was born, like Bill Clinton, in Hope, Arkansas, and is a former preacher, offers the slogan “From Hope to Higher Ground.” But his poll numbers are underground. When he drops out, no one will miss Huckabee, who, after the Paris attacks, called on Americans to “wake up and smell the falafel.” Marco Rubio calls for a “New American Century,” while New Jersey governor Chris Christie vows to keep “Telling it Like It Is.” The other day, Christie told it like it is to refugees not yet old enough for pre-school: "we need appropriate vetting [of Syrian refugees], and I don’t think orphans under five...should be admitted into the United States at this point...they have no family here. How are we going to care of these folks?” 

And then there’s Donald J. Trump: “Make America Great Again.” And classy, one wants to add. Trump promises to build a solid gold wall from Texas to California along the southern border. “It’s going to be a Trump wall,” he says at rallies. "It’s going to be a real wall. And it’s going to stop people and it’s going to be good.” (With classy golf courses in its shade?) He’s also going to keep a list of the names of every Muslim in America (a great list?), and shut down all the mosques, and round up 11 million illegal immigrants in buses—classy buses—and drive those “criminals, drug users...rapists…and some, I assume, are good people” back to South America. “You’re going to have a deportation force,” Trump said earlier in November. “People will leave, people will leave, they’re going to go back where they came from. That’s the way it’s supposed to be...You’re going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely.” (We recently got a sneak peak of what that might look like, when Trump supporters wrestled a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground during a rally.) Trump has led nearly every state and national poll for four months. If American elections are contests to repeal and replace—old Ike for cool JFK, paranoid Nixon for earnest Carter—then it would seem like an intellectual is going to be swapped out for a fascist.

In brief, the differences between the candidates in the Republican field are superficial. All of the candidates ascribe to conservative orthodoxy with few disagreements, mostly in international affairs. All the candidates favor lower taxes for individuals and corporations, repealing ObamaCare, increasing military spending. They are all opposed to abortion and to an increase in the minimum wage. They all favor expanding gun ownership as well as drilling for oil to produce more energy. Most oppose the science of climate change or are silent about their support.

To the Republican right wing in the fullness of hysteria, governing is code for compromise, surrender.

As much as slogans are metaphors for personality, few are as obvious—and strangely paradoxical—as those for Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Bush, who began the campaign asserting that he was “his own man” to differentiate him from his father and brother (former presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush), offers the shortest slogan in the history of presidential slogans: “Jeb!” It’s not even a call to action. Just his name. Plus exclamation point. The history of the exclamation point, it may be interesting to note, begins with the Latin word io, meaning joy. And those of a certain age will remember that typewriters before 1970 or so didn’t even have a dedicated key for the exclamation point. You had to type a period, then hit the backspace bar, then type an apostrophe. The Republican electorate so far has sent Jeb his marching orders—backspace, apostrophe!—because he advocates governing. To the Republican right wing in the fullness of hysteria, governing is code for compromise, surrender. Exclamation point. 

Hillary Clinton’s slogan also goes the first name route: “Hillary for America.” That’s “Hillary” independent from “Bill.” Too, her slogan, like Bush’s, tells you not only who she is but what she’s for.  Her slogan in 2008 was, first, “Hillary for President” and later “Solutions for America.” You can see how Clinton's new slogan simply fuses the first two slogans. But now, the presumptive nominee can run on her record as New York senator and US Secretary of State. She makes for a formidable candidate who, to the consternation of her less loyal supporters and the delight of the political media, ties herself up in knots with cautiousness. 

Could her opposing candidate be Donald Trump? His incendiary comments aimed at Mexican immigrants earlier in the campaign have fueled his presidential run rather than engulfed it. His latest demagoguery against Muslims—plus that of dozens of Republican governors—continues to stir up nativist passions. The Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof put his finger on the issue last Sunday: 

Yes, security is critical, but I’ve known people who have gone through the refugee vetting process, and it’s a painstaking ordeal that lasts two years or more. It’s incomparably more rigorous than other pathways to the United States. 

If the Islamic State wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, it wouldn’t ask a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at, say, Indiana University. Hey, governors, are you going to keep out foreign university students?

Or the Islamic State could simply send fighters who are French or Belgian citizens (like some of those behind the Paris attacks) to the U.S. as tourists, no visa required. Governors, are you planning to ban foreign tourists, too?

Refugee vetting has an excellent record. Of 785,000 refugees admitted to the United States since 9/11, just three have been arrested for terrorism-related charges, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

If Republican governors are concerned about security risks, maybe they should vet who can buy guns. People on terrorism watch lists are legally allowed to buy guns in the United States, and more than 2,000 have done so since 2004. The National Rifle Association has opposed legislation to rectify this.

All that makes sense. But the American electorate on the right isn’t interested in sense. It’s interested in a projection of Mussolini-like strength. A recent Politico article offered this point about Trump’s candidacy: "’On terrorism, as on so many other issues, what sounds outrageous to political and media elites can sound reasonable to large swathes of the American electorate,’ said veteran New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Dave Carney," who then added:

'When [elites] sit around and have a wine after work and some brie and they talk about the situation and geopolitics and what's going on in the Mideast they're talking about the Sunnis and the Shia and Alexander the Great and...what font the fucking French should've used to draw the maps after World War I. Americans after work, if they can have the time to have a beer and see what's going on, think there are these radical Islamist terrorists who want to kill us.'

In other words, Trump says what people are thinking. “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” was the slogan for 1964 right wing GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Take heart. Goldwater lost to LBJ in a landslide.


DAVID BIESPIEL's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Slate, The New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and The New York Times. His latest book is A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns (2015).

WHAT TO READ NEXT: “That title was highly evocative to me. It gave me an occasion as well as an emotion that sat atop my sketchbook. The title became my horizon.”