Homegrown violence and the presidency

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 22, 2016

WASHINGTON — The epidemic of violence in the nation’s streets, including everything from anti-police protests to lone-wolf terrorism, offers voters in the presidential election a clear choice. Do they want the steady but unspectacular hand of Hillary Clinton or the tough take-no-prisoners style of Donald Trump?

The contrast seems certain to be played out in next Monday’s televised debate at Hofstra University. It will pit the coloring-between-the-lines Democrat against and the wild-swinging, disrespectful Republican with an anything-goes mentality.

The Obama administration, represented in the upcoming election by its former member Clinton, holds that our national security requires steady police work and intelligence, as well as respect for the rights of all citizens and immigrants regardless of race or religion.

Trump, on the other hand, eagerly and outspokenly champions extreme methods that impinge on American standards, even including torture. He has openly approved of waterboarding prisoners to extract information that could produce intelligence that saves the lives of Americans in combat or of those in peril in our own communities.

In response to the street clashes in American cities between local police officers, often white, and inner-city blacks over shootings of unarmed black citizens, both Clinton and Trump have defended the police while decrying the underlying problem. However, the political fallout has more conspicuously tilted in Trump’s favor, as he offers himself as a fearless doer (although, ironically, he has reached his current predominance as a promising talker, short on delivery so far).

In national security and foreign policy as well, Trump has stated his intentions to “bomb the s— out of” the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Obama and Clinton follow the steady and often unsatisfying course of rolling back the Islamic State in its Middle East redoubt.

It has been abundantly clear throughout this long 2016 presidential campaign that Donald Trump has been the candidate most persistently and effectively feeding the anger, fears and emotions of a large segment of the electorate, although he has offered little programmatic remedy.

Building a great wall to keep out undesirable foreigners and kicking out millions of illegal immigrants is hardly a formula for “making America great again.” But so far, along with stirring up racial hatred and bigotry, Trump has kept a remarkable body of American voters mesmerized.

Thus the approaching Trump-Clinton debate provides Hillary Clinton with the best vehicle yet to pivot the campaign conversation from the emotional roller-coaster the electorate has been riding for the past year to a serious and substantive discussion of the critical issues that have largely been lost in the clash of personalities.

Unfortunately for Clinton, more time has been devoted to her lack of trustworthiness, spotlighted by her email controversy, and her lack of likeability than to her impressive qualifications for the presidency, as revealed in her action agenda to bring greater income equality to the middle class.

The current spate of domestic violence, therefore, may well give a boost to Trump’s allegation that the country is going to hell in a hand basket. But it also is an opportunity for Clinton in the approaching debate to demonstrate her infinitely greater grasp of how government works.

What is really at stake on Nov. 8 is the threat of a hostile takeover by a man who does not respect government, the military that guards it or many of the basic principles of fair play and justice that are at its core.

The United States is not just another big corporation that can be run through the “art of the deal.” Nor is it a massive reality show that will prosper in the hands of a narcissistic blowhard. Accordingly, much will ride on Hillary Clinton’s ability to sell herself in the days remaining as a trained politician ready for the challenges ahead, compared to an ill-informed interloper dismally unprepared for the world’s biggest and toughest job.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.