Bill Schneider, Opinion
News of another FBI review of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails may not change the outcome of the election. But it could poison a Clinton presidency.
At this stage of the campaign, most voters have made up their minds. More than 12 million early and absentee votes had already been cast when the new investigation was revealed.
Last-minute revelations do not typically have much impact because they are seen as political. That appears to have been the case in 2000, when the story broke a few days before the election that Republican nominee George W. Bush had once been arrested for drunk driving in Maine. At the end of a campaign, when passions are running high, everything is seen as political.
Democrats now are trying furiously to pin that charge on FBI Director James Comey. “It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election,” Clinton said. “In fact, it’s not just strange; it’s unprecedented and it is deeply troubling.”
The most likely impact might be on wavering Republican voters who are reluctant to support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and are considering voting for Clinton. The email stories remind them of everything they don’t like about the Clintons ― what Trump’s campaign manager called Clinton’s “never-ending scandalabra.”
If wavering Republicans come home to the GOP, the race could end up being closer than anticipated. And Democratic gains in Congress might be limited.
A close outcome is important because it will keep the Trump resistance movement alive. It could spoil any prospect of a Clinton “honeymoon.” It could harden Republican opposition to everything the new president tries to do.
Among Clinton’s enemies, a taint of illegitimacy would hang over her. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has already called on the director of national intelligence to suspend classified briefings for the Democratic nominee. “She was entrusted with some of our nation’s most important secrets,” Ryan said in a statement, “and she betrayed that trust by carelessly mishandling classified information.” Shouts of “Lock her up!” would continue long after the campaign is over.
The United States has never elected a presidential candidate who is facing a potential criminal investigation. If Clinton gets elected and then indicted, and the House of Representatives continues to have a Republican majority after next week’s election, Clinton could face moves to impeach her the day she takes office.
Trump is leading a resistance movement. Resistance movements never give up. Trump’s movement, strongest among working-class white men, is resisting changes in the American economy, culture and politics that threaten them ― globalization, immigration, political correctness.
The crucial moment will come on election night, when Trump delivers what is expected to be a concession speech. Will he concede defeat and congratulate President-elect Clinton? Probably not unless he is thoroughly crushed. He may instead rally his supporters to protest what he is already calling a “rigged election” and urge them to continue to resist an “illegitimate” president.
We’ve heard the charge of illegitimacy before. It drove the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the first president to embrace the liberal cultural changes of the 1960s ― changes the right never accepted. President Barack Obama faced challenges to his legitimacy from the day he took office. His opponents ― most notably, Trump ― challenged Obama’s birthplace, his religion and his Americanism.
Normally in political debate, you accuse your opponent of being wrong. Resistance implies something bigger. It implies that your opponent is not just wrong but illegitimate — a fraud, a cheat, a usurper, a criminal. Trump calls for Hillary Clinton to be sent to jail.
On Sunday, conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root, speaking at a Trump rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, described his fantasy of a movie about Clinton and her longtime aide Huma Abedin. “We all get our wish,” he declared. “The ending is like ‘Thelma and Louise.’” That was the 1991 film in which the two lead female characters kill themselves. The reference drew cheers from the audience.
If he loses, don’t expect Trump to fade away. There is talk of his starting Trump TV. That will give him a platform to keep the resistance alive and agitate opposition to everything Clinton wants.
On Sunday, Root told the crowd their mantra has to be “Attack, attack, attack! We will never accept defeat! We will never give up!”
Suppose Clinton wins. Democrats will have carried the popular in vote six out the last seven presidential elections (all since 1992, except for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004). After Republicans lost five elections in a row from 1932 through 1948, conservatives were in despair. They blamed their losses on an evil conspiracy aiming to betray the country.
The result, then too, took the form of a resistance movement ― McCarthyism.
(Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California ― Los Angeles.)