Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Time to Make the Right Choice

Much has been written in this campaign season about how this year's major party presidential candidates are the most disliked candidates ever. Articles such as this one, or this one, or this one (just a tiny sample) have dissected this phenomenon in great detail.

I hear from friends and acquaintances on the left how they would never even conceive of voting for Trump, but they just can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton. They talk of voting for the Libertarian candidate Johnson, or the Green Party candidate Stein, or just not voting at all. The anguish among no small number of lifelong Republicans who can't stomach Trump, but can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton either, is also "a thing", as we say nowadays.

I can understand why a lot of people, even die-hard liberals, have their problems with Clinton. Bill and Hillary Clinton are perceived as the secretive power couple who play by their own rules and feel accountable to no one. While (in my opinion, anyway) much of that reputation has been manufactured by their political enemies, some of it is a product of their own actions. The matter of Hillary's private email server, however much she may seek to downplay it, is incredibly problematic, and symptomatic. The FBI investigation found no evidence of offences warranting prosecution, but in his statement to the press FBI Director Comey also made it clear that there was serious negligence involved. In talking about the matter, Clinton continually emphasizes the former while ignoring the latter, perpetuating the existing narrative that the Clintons are pathologically secretive and, when accused of wrongdoing, will defend themselves with legalistic arguments while appearing tone-deaf to the political and moral issues raised. To some extent I can empathize with the Clintons' intensive pursuit of privacy, given the long list of discredited conspiracy theories that have dogged them now for decades, but they just don't seem to get how their perceived lack of transparency fuels these very conspiracy theories.

But let's get serious here. Donald Trump is, as I previously wrote—good lord, was it really almost a year ago?—at best Berlusconi and at worst Mussolini, and my assessment leans more and more to the latter. He is a man with demonstrable fascist tendencies. He is, to quote the Washington Post, "a unique threat to American democracy". This man must under no circumstances become President of the United States. I am not the sort of person who is given to hyperbole, but I believe that the election of this man to the highest office in the nation could set in motion events that would make the disastrous end of the George W. Bush administration look trivial by comparison.

And after the inauguration, it's bunga bunga time!

While the rest of us are distracted by this current circus of a presidential campaign, the Trump team is making its transition plans. In a recent New Yorker article, Evan Osnos writes about those plans, not as a matter of speculation but as a product of good old-fashioned journalism. If you like what was achieved during eight years of Obama, too bad, because you can expect to see all that undone as quickly as possible if Trump wins. And you are not going to like where it goes from there. Read that article.

Consider also that regardless of who wins the presidency, the chances are good that we will still have a Republican majority in both houses of Congress post-election. Trump will need congressional support to put many parts of his program in place and congressional leaders will want something in return. So you can expect plenty of collateral damage not initiated by Trump himself, such as when he signs off on that infamous hypocrite Paul Ryan's pet project of destroying Social Security as it currently exists.

Come on, Paul, just kiss his ass one more time. It's for the good of the party.

Then, at a more visceral level, consider the man's performance in the first presidential debate against Clinton, which took place a couple of days ago as I write this. He was obnoxious and rude. He was petulant and childish. He showed no evidence of preparation beyond his few pet talking points. He demonstrated no knowledge of history and no grasp of how government actually works. He lied and he blustered. He complemented his third-grade vocabulary (and inability to form complete sentences) with the arrogant, bullying antics of an actual—extremely spoiled—third-grader. He was Trump at his trumpiest. The next day he blamed his erratic performance on his microphone, like that same third grader making lame excuses for not doing his homework. We have heard so much in this campaign about how he's going to negotiate or renegotiate all kinds of deals with NATO or Mexico or Russia or China or Iran or whomever. God help us if that's how he plans to do it.

Who's laughing now?

And so it is time to make a choice, and let's be clear about what that choice is. The choice is between Clinton and Trump, period. Forget Gary Johnson. Forget Jill Stein. Forget about writing someone in on your ballot. And don't even think about not voting.

Coming back to those people who don't want Trump, but don't want to vote for Clinton: disaffected, disappointed Republicans generally say they'll vote for Johnson instead; erstwhile Democratic voters tend toward Stein (or say maybe they'll write in Sanders). They think they are registering some kind of symbolic protest. I have empathy for their frustration with the candidates on offer, but as far as I'm concerned they are just registering their political immaturity.

Gary Johnson seems like a nice enough guy, but I've listened to a number of interviews with him over the last few months and he always sounds kind of incoherent to me, talking out of both sides of his mouth about how we should drastically roll back government regulation, but we should have a legal, regulated market for marijuana and we should strengthen the EPA, which, the last time I looked, was a regulatory agency that perpetually angers anti-regulation ideologues. I could cut him some slack for his "what's 'Aleppo'?" moment if he had then come back and said sorry, I'm tired and had a little memory lapse there, and then made a coherent policy statement, but instead we got some vague nonsense of an answer once he understood what the question was. I saw him and his running mate, Bill Weld, on Chris Matthews' show tonight and that topic came up; he owned up to his little brain freeze on Aleppo but then dismissed it by saying words to the effect that knowing every detail is not so important anyway. Then he and Weld went on to assert that we will only find a solution in Syria by cooperating with Russia, which may well be true, but then they talked about how completely untrustworthy Russia is. So where does that leave us? We look to a president to make the hard decisions, not just to tell us that the decision is hard.

I've also listened to some interviews with Jill Stein, and to me she comes across as well-meaning, idealistic, but just a little bit nutty. That impression notwithstanding, I will say that I actually find a huge amount of stuff in her party's platform that I personally could sign up to under other circumstances.

But here's the thing: Jill Stein is not going to win this election. Neither is Gary Johnson. Neither is Bernie Sanders, or Mickey Mouse, nor anyone else you might think of writing in. Sorry. Like it or not, it's just a fact that the solid core of committed Trump and Clinton voters is too large for any other candidate to have even a remote chance of winning. Your vote for any of the above is a vote that is not going to the only candidate who actually does have a legitimate chance to defeat Trump, and that is playing with fire for the sake of making some kind of statement that is going to change exactly nothing if it gives Trump the presidency. Presidential races are won in the states, not at the national level, and sometimes state races are won by very small margins. Remember Florida in 2000.

A variant on the "I'll protest by voting for Johnson/voting for Stein/writing someone in/not voting" approach I heard someone mention in an NPR interview today was "I'll register a protest vote if Clinton is clearly ahead, but I'll vote for Clinton if the polls say the race is tight." That's the wrong approach on two counts. First, all polls have a margin of error, many that the media like to report on are poorly designed and therefore not very accurate, and they tend to focus on the national mood overall rather than on the individual state races. Second, and more importantly, Trump needs to not just lose, he needs to lose big. The electoral vote in the individual states and the popular vote overall need to send a very clear message that the Trump program of "make America hate again" is rejected and repudiated by the vast majority of American voters. He needs to lose by such clear margins in every state that his almost certain charge that the voting was "rigged" will look ludicrous.

I myself will vote for Clinton, and I will do so gladly and not reluctantly. I am painfully aware of her flaws, but I am equally aware of her very genuine qualifications for the office. If you have to hold your nose to do the same, I understand, but do it. With a Trump presidency averted, by all means focus your attention on remaking the Democratic Party into something more to your liking, or on building up the Green Party, or on whatever other cause is near to your heart. There is a time for symbolism, and there is a time for pragmatism. Every one of us needs to be clear on which time we're currently in.

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