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Potpourri: Trump, troubled waters and Mr. Potter

This election has brought some ugly forces into the daylight. Here’s one interpretation: As long as a white guy won the White House, everyone pretty much went along with the outcome. The people’s choice (or the Supreme Court’s choice) deserved respect. But when the first black man was elected eight years ago, a loud minority continually raised questions about his fitness to serve. They disrespected him, but also the majority of Americans who voted for him, twice.

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Now that a woman is within sight of possibly winning the White House, the same forces sow seeds of doubt, throwing around loose talk, such as “The system is rigged.” By “rigged,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump means a fair contest in which he could lose.

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Rigged? If anything, the system has been rigged in the past, so that, for centuries, a woman or nonwhite need not apply for the nation’s top job. As Americans continue to live up to their ideals, this is what a more open, less-rigged system looks like.

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It would be nice if petulant talk from the Republican nominee indicated only a spoiled, rich narcissist putting himself on public display, risking no one else. But Donald Trump plays with fire. The American system works because individual Americans participate and respect the outcome, even when they don’t agree with it. If too many Americans stop respecting the will of their neighbors as expressed in elections, as Trump encourages, the system ceases to function.

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Maybe paranoia is catching, but sometimes we wonder if Team Trump not so secretly would like to see civil unrest, the kind that leads to destruction of property, looting, blight and for sale signs. After all, one person’s misfortune can be another’s opportunity. Damaged homes, shops and towns sell cheap.

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It wouldn’t be the first time. In his 2010 book, “American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900,” author H.W. Brands cites stock market titan Daniel Drew who was among those to profit from the Civil War:

“Along with ordinary happenings, we fellows in Wall Street had the fortunes of war to speculate about, and that always makes great doings on a stock exchange. It’s good fishing in troubled waters.”

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“Good fishing in troubled waters” sounds like Mr. Potter in the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Potter precipitated a crisis at the Building and Loan, then maneuvered to profit from it. Remember the scene where the people of Bedford Falls were skittish, worried about losing their savings and ready to take Potter’s offer of 50 cents for every dollar they had saved. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, hopped over the counter, blocked the door and begged them not to:

“Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains.”

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Or maybe, as Washington Post writer Greg Sargent mused a couple weeks ago, Donald Trump’s goal all along is to emerge from this contest as the head of a white nationalist media empire.

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Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently reminded readers that 20 years ago, journalist and former U.S. diplomat Carl T. Rowan issued a warning in his book “The Coming Race War in America: A Wake Up Call.” Rowan’s indicators in the 1990s included the growth of white militia groups and corrupt police.

He warned that extremist groups could provoke a race war by attacking black people and leaders.

Given the more widely acknowledged frequency of police shootings of black Americans, the offensive rhetoric legitimized by Donald Trump during this election and the attack on the church in South Carolina, Rowan seems prescient.

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And then there is historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970). In a reprint of a November 1964 Harper’s Magazine article , “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Hofstadter says this is a recurring characteristic, if that makes you feel any better.

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote. “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

“The paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote. “Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”

He cites targets of past political campaigns -- Joseph McCarthy and the Communists in 1951, international bankers in 1895, Catholics in 1855, as well as at various times, Masons, Mormons, munitions makers and Black Muslims, to name a few.

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From the Washington Monthly’s “Tilting at Windmills” column by Walter Shapiro:

“The modern primary system was created from the tear-gassed wreckage of the 1968 Democratic convention, which was so undemocratic that 25 percent of the delegates were selected in 1967, long before Eugene McCarthy challenged LBJ. But few party reformers ever envisioned that the primaries would someday prove to be a vehicle for a hostile takeover of a political party by a demagogue bristling with contempt for democratic norms and any coherent ideology.”

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And Issac Bailey, a columnist at the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, wrote in Politico magazine:

“Trump’s most enduring legacy, and it is an oddly beneficent one, is that he taught America how bigoted it still is, and that many among us who are not intentionally bigoted are willing to tolerate racism anyway, given the right circumstances and stakes.”

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