In several ways Donald Trump's unorthodox campaign has made a toxic political environment more so. He has exploited racial and religious prejudice by promoting false claims about President Barack Obama's birthplace and religion; and he has appealed to long-standing anti-immigrant nativism.
At the same time, however, Trump's anti-politician, populist ramblings have torn the mask off how money corrupts American politics.
When five of Trump's rivals went to a conference of rich donors organized by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, Trump called it a "beg-a-thon," and tweeted "Puppets?" In an interview he said of politicians, "they're controlled by lobbyists ... by donors ... by special interests."
In the August debate he described getting results from giving campaign cash: "I give to everybody," so then, "when I need something from them ... I call them. They are there for me. That's a broken system."
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About that time, The New York Times reported that since the Citizens United decision unleashed billionaire campaign giving, fewer than 400 families had contributed over half of all political donations.
Trump has now raised an even more forbidden topic.
In the September debate he enraged Jeb Bush by criticizing "your brother's Iraq War that gave us Barack Obama." Bush responded that his brother "kept us safe." A week later, Trump went further in an interview asserting that, "the World Trade Center came down on his (President George W. Bush's) watch."
The shocked interviewer responded, "Hold on, you can't blame George Bush for that." Trump answered in typical fashion, "Blame him or don't blame him, but he was president."
Anyone wanting the facts about the lead-up to 9/11 should read The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States. It shows the lack of coordination among our terrorist watchers and makes clear which elements of the government failed to heed warnings. It contains ample evidence of FBI and CIA failures to follow leads during 2001 and "gaps in information sharing" that might — might — have changed the outcome.
It describes the repeated attempts of Richard Clarke, a national security veteran of several administrations and President Bill Clinton's terrorism czar, to get the top Bush officials to focus on the threat from al-Qaida. Bush's national security advisor, Condolezza Rice, had actually demoted Clarke, who no longer met directly with the anti-terrorism principals whose attention he kept trying to get.
Clarke memorably testified to the 9/11 commission that he and others had been running around with their "hair on fire" about Bin Laden's intention to attack the U.S. directly. CIA director George Tenet told the commission "the system was blinking red." The commission also heard Rice testify that President Bush had been presented with a daily briefing memo on August 6 titled: "Bin Laden determined to strike inside the United States."
When the commission published its report in 2004 Americans saw that the memo also said, in the first brief paragraph, that Bin Laden's followers "would follow the example of the World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and 'bring the fighting to America.'" Bush later characterized the memo as "historical."
Richard Clarke also testified that senior policy makers in the Clinton administration took the terrorist threat seriously but should have continued bombing Afghanistan. "The Bush administration," in contrast, "saw terrorism policy as important but not urgent." The reason for that, of course, has been documented by others: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al. were already looking for excuses to attack Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
It was the Trump-Jeb exchange over the Iraq war that led Trump to bring up 9/11. Jeb Bush really should not want to talk about an unnecessary war based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, that led to sectarian civil war in Iraq, drew resources away from Afghanistan where we still must have troops, destabilized the region, and led to the rise of ISIS. The 4,000 Americans killed in Iraq and tens of thousands wounded were not kept safe. In polls large majorities of Republicans and Democrats say the war was not worth the costs.
Democrats and some journalists now wonder, why, if Hillary Clinton can be held responsible for four Americans who died at Benghazi while she was secretary of state, is it off limits to question Bush-Cheney responsibility for 9/11?
Thoughtful observers are also giving credit to the Democrats for not making 9/11 a partisan issue in the years after 2001.
That echoed a lost American political tradition that sadly has long been mislaid: that partisan politics stops at the water's edge.