Oped: A vote to preserve American democracy

Jules Witcover
Tribune News Service

Almost 850 years ago, Henry II of England was said to have asked concerning Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury: "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" The common sense of this country poses the same question on Election Day regarding Donald Trump, but its answer will come not by the sword but by the ballot box.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in April.

In the course of perhaps the ugliest and most divisive presidential campaign in the nation's history, Trump has thoroughly defamed America's free election process and its traditions of mutual respect and civility. At stake now is much more than the identity of the next president.

Never before has a major party nominee stirred internal animosity, racial, ethnic and even gender divisions to such a fever pitch as Trump has. His raid on our normal politics is coupled with a clearly demonstrable unfitness for the office by nature of his ignorance, torrid temperament and disregard of the law and of common decency.

Capping an unprecedented hostility toward women, Trump ludicrously sent his third wife, the former fashion model Melania, out on the campaign runway at week's end, pleading for a civil discourse that her husband has repeatedly and egregiously abused.

In what could better have been conveyed to him at home in their Trump Tower dream apartment, she lectured that "our culture has gotten too mean and too rough," especially for young ears. "As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies," she said. "Children and teenagers can be fragile."

Regarding women voters particularly, she went on: "They hurt when they are made fun of or made to feel less in looks or intelligence. We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media ... to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other."

But Melania Trump's pitch avoided her husband's much more destructive assault on the American political system, which he has derided as "rigged," and on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, repeatedly calling her "corrupt Hillary" and leading his political rally crowds in chants of "Lock her up!"

Meanwhile, amid an election-ending flurry of television attack ads on both sides, Clinton has cast Trump as a classic rabble-rouser, saying at one Pennsylvania stop: "He has spent his entire campaign offering a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters. He retweets white supremacists and spreads racially tinged conspiracy theories."

Much more than Trump's tone on the stump, his observations on national security and foreign policy mark him as a most perilous choice for voters concerned about their nation's role in those realms. His open courtship of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he prefers over President Obama as a world leader, and his casual dismissal of the NATO alliance reflects Trump's dearth of knowledge in each critical field.

His dismal unfamiliarity with the American Constitution and his casual attention to its sanctions and limitations in such areas as the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press demonstrate the risk of putting this clever but egomaniacal know-nothing in the Oval Office.

Nor is the obvious coolness toward Clinton in the polls as not likeable or trustworthy enough as the only viable alternative to Trump sufficient grounds for voters to boycott the polling booth. If ever there was the imperative of casting this year's ballot for president, it is keeping the inflammatory and unpredictable Donald Trump away from the levers of national power and international influence.

Finally, in all this a heavy dose of responsibility falls on the now widely impotent and discredited Republican Party. The failure of its old establishment, as flimsily embodied in such tired old hands as Mitt Romney, John McCain and Paul Ryan, to offer a more effective and honorable alternative to Trump in the GOP primaries shares blame for the dilemma.

What will be left of the Grand Old Party after Election Day, regardless of the principal outcome? That is yet another major headache wrought by the destructive war on decent and functioning American politics by this woefully irresponsible and dangerous celebrity business wheeler-dealer on our national doorstep.

— Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books.