Ted Grimsrud—September 5, 2016
We are in the middle of what seems certain to be one of the worst presidential campaigns in United States’ history. We have the two candidates with the highest negativity ratings in the history of measuring that indicator.
Trump as disaster
And the thing is, the negative ratings for Donald Trump are not nearly as high as they should be. In this blog post, I take it for granted that Trump is a terrible person, remarkably unsuited to be president of the USA. He’s dishonest, narcissistic, mean-spirited, bigoted, ignorant, irreverent, thin-skinned, controlling, sexist, racist, and surrounded by yay-sayers. A disaster in every way; a world-class con-man in the words of Matt Taibbi.
Something else I take for granted in this post is that Hillary Clinton’s negative ratings are too high. She’s not nearly as bad as her public image would imply—at least in the sense that she has been for years and continues to be unfairly vilified, disrespected, slandered, and the like in large part due to her being a woman. At the least, she is vilified often for the wrong reasons.
So, Trump is a disaster who shouldn’t be the candidate of a major political party and as his party’s candidate should not be nearly as close to leading the race as he is. And Clinton is unfairly discriminated against because she is a woman.
And yet, the way the campaign seems to be unfolding is quite troubling for other reasons. As awful as Trump is, he is not the reincarnation of Hitler. There is debate among “experts” whether the invocation of Hitler in relation to Trump violates Godwin’s Law (the idea that internet debates, if they go on long enough, tend to end with references to one’s opponent being like Hitler—a move that in some settings leads to a declaration that in invoking Hitler, one loses the debate).
Regardless, one could argue that the Trump-is-like-Hitler references exaggerate both Trump’s power and his darkness. Trump actually differs from Hitler in crucial ways—maybe most significantly in having nothing even remotely like Hitler’s Nazi Party to implement his inhumane ideology, not to mention also having nothing even remotely like Hitler’s coherent, long-standing, and well-articulated ideology.
So, the evoking of Hitler seems mostly like a rhetorical move meant to demonize Trump as a person—and, by implication, to make Clinton look much better, more reasonable, even more progressive. So, along with the problem of exaggerating Trump’s coherence and power, these dynamics minimize the problems with Clinton. And this seems to be leading many progressives, the kinds of people necessary for a genuine transformation in the American political world toward true democracy and humane policies, to uncritical support for Clinton.
Trump is not the core problem
It could well be that the centering on Trump as the reason this election is so scary distracts from the character of the broader Republican Party. I think a case could be made that Trump is actually almost a gift to country in that he kept a more “legitimate” Republican from being the Party’s candidate—a candidate who would stand a much greater chance of being elected President while advancing policies in many ways worse than Trump’s.
It is telling that many Republican stalwarts have spoken against Trump, said they won’t be voting, or even suggested they would vote for Clinton. It is difficult to imagine that for many of such people, the reason to oppose Trump is because they support more humane policies than Trump—more, it is because Trump doesn’t seem like a “safe” right-winger and/or because they fear that Trump would not be effective enough in implementing a “conservative” agenda (e.g., with regard to obliterating Obamacare, privatizing Social Security, pushing free trade, and—probably most of all—pushing a militaristic foreign policy).
It seems quite possible that a Jeb Bush or a John Kasich or, even, a Ted Cruz, would be well ahead of Clinton if Trump had been successfully derailed in seeking the Republican nomination. These candidates might have presenting a more moderate face to the electorate, but chances are they would be pushing an even more right wing, pro-corporate agenda than Trump, with a greater likelihood of implementing it if elected.
To focus on Trump instead of on the reality that what scares progressives most about him is actually reflecting long-standing Republican hopes makes it more likely that what will be defeated (should Clinton win) would be Trump not the Republican vision for American society. In that case, should Clinton’s presidency be a failure (something not difficult to imagine), the next Republican candidate might well be much more contradictory to progressive political values than Trump—and much more likely to succeed.
Clinton’s complicity in social problems
Clinton’s campaign so far seems focused most of all on her not being Trump, on allowing Trump to defeat himself. This strategy has worked well insofar as Trump has shown a remarkable ability to self-destruct. However, such a campaign heightens my sense that Clinton has little intention of creating a groundswell of support for the progressive sounding elements of her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders and of the Democratic Party platform.
Many progressives have de facto accepted such a strategy, in part due to their extreme fear of a Trump presidency. Those fears, thus, contribute to passivity in face of a likely Clinton move to the right. The signals she has given recently in terms of possible key members of her prospective administration have reinforced the appearance of a neoliberal Clinton presidency along the lines of her husband Bill’s and along the lines of Barack Obama’s—with a big difference being that she already has a record of being more militaristic than either of them and shows no signs of softening that stance.
If we consider the most pressing issues of our society right now, it would seem that the following items should be near the top of any comprehensive list of our major social problems: (1) militarism/imperialism; (2) mass incarceration; (3) free trade; (4) climate change; (5) domination of big banks.
Clinton has been complicit in the emergence of just about every one of these—as an advocate for her husbands policies and in her role as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State (for example, Australian journalist John Pilger makes a strong case for how Clinton, just in the area of foreign policy, may well be worse than Trump). It seems difficult to imagine that these problems would not get worse with a Clinton presidency.
It’s a terrible dilemma because most of us would agree that a Trump presidency would be even worse. I think there can be little question about that. But many advocates of a lesser evil approach that means supporting Clinton, seem to be doing this in a way that minimizes or ignores the dangers of a Clinton presidency.
Back to core values
Here’s an alternative approach to uncritical support for Clinton following from a sense that Trump would be Hitler redux—an approach that is both overly alarmist about Trump and overly sanguine about Clinton. It could be that a vote for Clinton would be the best choice, though I will be watching the polls and if she seems to be safely ahead of Trump in Virginia I will likely vote for Jill Stein.
However, a vote for Clinton by progressive-types should be accompanied by sharp protest and clear calls for her to, at the least, follow the main ideals expressed in the Democratic platform (though, progressive-seeming as that platform may be, it still is very [disastrously] militaristic). The election is, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, an “accountability moment,” and the moment should be utilized—including sharp protests concerning Clinton’s current inaccessibility except to the 1%.
An election like this could be an opportunity to clarify one’s core political values. In a nutshell, let me list several that I believe are important—and think most people of faith and others of good will could largely agree with. Without justifying these items here, I believe that key political values that should shape a humane politics include, among others, these five convictions:
(1) Care for the most vulnerable in one’s society; (2) cultivating the desire and ability to resolve conflicts nonviolently and in ways that respect the human needs of all parties; (3) critique of domination; (4) harmony with nature; and (5) critique of wealth.
This set of values can provide a base point. We could expect that what matters most with candidates is how closely they adhere to this base point. Movement away from that set of values should be opposed. So, for example, Clinton ran in the primaries as a candidate who at least partially cared about these values. After securing the nomination, she has moved further away from them.
This “pivot toward the center” should be criticized and opposed. It is not a positive sign that a candidate would move further away from the base political framework reflected in these values. That is, humane politics, as I see it, have to do with seeking to embody a core set of commitments, not with finding the “center” point between artificial poles in a way that is divorced from core convictions.