Betting on Pennsylvania

As the race for the White House continues apace, our man on the road - Jonn Elledge - reports on the

Anyone going to their mailbox in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, the other day was in for a nasty shock: a flyer featuring a picture of a foetus with a rope around its neck. Beneath it was the caption: 'Obama won't stop this.'

No prizes for guessing who that came from.

The diner waitress who told me this story was horrified, but probably not for the reasons the Republicans would like. 'What if someone who'd been through that saw it?' she asked. What if some kids did, someone added.

This isn't the only nasty ad to pop up in the state this week. A (now unemployed) Republican staffer sent an email to some of the state's Jewish community warning them against 'making the wrong decision.' 'Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake,' it said. 'Let's not make a similar one this year!'

Godwin's law, alas, doesn't apply in elections. Nonetheless, such tactics suggest a certain panic on the Republicans' part.

John McCain is betting everything on Pennsylvania. It looks like a long shot - it hasn't gone Republican in 20 years, and polls show him 10 points behind. But it would allow him to add 21 electoral votes to his column, while focusing on a single part of the country. And it would slash the swing he needs everywhere else to get him to victory. This, one suspects, explains the decision to throw everything he's got at the state.

Despite the polls, it might just work. The state has been Democratic largely because of the areas around Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. But there's a big rural chunk in between that's far more friendly to Republicans.

And there are also questions over how comfortable the state is with the idea of a black president. Last week Congressman John Murtha got in trouble for announcing that his constituents were racists. The Obama campaign in Erie, in the north west of the state, have twice had to remove roadside signs reading "Vote right, vote white"; more than one voter has told them straight out that they won't vote for a black candidate. And the Obama supporting waitresses in Dunmore speak of a mysterious man known only as "pork chop guy", who told a diner full of people that no one who isn't an old white man would ever get his vote.

There are some signs that such prejudice is a luxury people can no longer afford - this anecdote is a nice, if unrepeatable, example - but the Dems aren't taking any chances. Cathi Zelazny, who's running the campaign in Erie, is planning to flood the polling stations with lawyers to ensure no one is denied their vote on a technicality. And if she has to, she says, she'll physically drag people to the polls. "If Obama loses because we lost Pennsylvania," she adds, "I'll have to leave to state."

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.