Nationalism never quite made sense to me. Strong devotion to a country per se doesn’t really exist, to my mind – what people term patriotism or nationalistic fervor is actually devotion to a particular culture and/or set of people, or, at its most abstract, an array of ideals associated with a particular place and/or people. So when I say that I’ve always been proud to be an American, it’s not that I think the US is the greatest country in the world, as I don’t really think one can rank countries so crudely. Instead, what I’ve always loved about the US are the best of the its ideals: the freedom to self-govern, the separation of church and state, the dedication to equal opportunities for every person, the recognition of inalienable personal rights, etc.
The depth of my love for or pride in America isn’t particularly impressive. But as this election cycle has revealed, it definitely ran deeper than I suspected. The 2016 US presidential election has been uniquely infuriating to me. It’s easy to summarize my frustration with “Both candidates are unacceptable” as many of my fellow Americans already have or still do, but it’s worthwhile to explain in greater detail precisely why that is so.
Let’s take the easy case first: Hillary Clinton. It’s not so much that her level of competence is actually not as high as many suppose – as exemplified by an absence of any significant achievements in foreign policy during her tenure as Secretary of State, poor regard for security measures, and more – but that she will pursue policies that will, at best, maintain the status quo. Particularly on matters regarding abortion, that is unacceptable to me. Furthermore, the status quo has treated those like me – college-educated, working in an industry that wasn’t hit that hard by the recession, significant safety nets – pretty well, so I can understand a decent margin of support. But by and large, the status quo is only deepening inequality and exacerbating current handling of issues ranging from long-term sluggish growth to a critical lack of investment in infrastructure to climate change. Frankly, neither major political party in the US is addressing or will address the necessary array of issues in tandem, rather choosing to cherry-pick certain topical matters that will result in plenty of pork to dish around, or, at best, simply bringing more and more functions under the aegis of the federal government, whether they are best suited for that purview or not.
As president, Clinton could, perhaps, address some matters, perhaps by introducing a carbon tax. But it’s unlikely that she will accompany such a carbon tax with the necessary actions to make it less restrictive to economic growth, such as lowering the corporate tax rate. (Shocking, I know, but there’s a reason why so many US companies park their money abroad.) That’s just one example, and again, perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think so. At her worst, Clinton could be semi-competent and semi-corrupt in terms of just governing more in terms of dispensing favors than anything else. I should point out that I am not naive – that is precisely how many presidents have served their terms, to varying degrees. So again, she wouldn’t be that much of a change from prior presidents. In all likelihood (as she will probably be the next president), she will end up being an intriguing blend of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush, failing to grapple with the realities of intractable conflicts in the Middle East, climate change, an aging population saddling the US healthcare system with nigh-insurmountable burdens, bloated federal government programs, and more.
All in all, that’s unacceptable to me, which is why I can’t vote for her. But now I get to her opponent, and if you polled my friends and family and asked them what has infuriated me the most over the past year and a half, the answer would be clear: the political presence of Donald Trump.
The man himself wouldn’t be more than a fly on the windscreen of my life had he not, through some bizarre confluence of a ratings-hungry media, negligent Republican officials, shrewd showmanship, an angry portion of the American electorate that has been underserved or ignored for years and, frankly, some of the darker impulses that run through the human psyche, ended up where he is now. But somehow, in a manifestation of precisely the same phenomenon that Madison and Hamilton warned of in The Federalist Papers, wherein democratic processes are hijacked by an angry minority that choose to disbelieve whatever sources may indicate in order to prioritize what they view as their best interests, we now have GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.
And, less than a month out from the general election, he is now embroiled in yet another scandal, this involving vulgar comments more akin to those made by a rich, power-hungry, narcissist with sexually predatory appetites than anything else. Those comments were just the latest in a long litany of vulgarities, obscenities, inept, pandering, idiotic trash he has been spewing for months and months now.
Long before any of those comments, I was already angered by how seriously many seemed to be taking the clownish Trump, given his clear incompetence as a businessman, ineptitude as a leader capable of inspiring respect, and inability to negotiate any deal without buffoonish braggadocio (yep, had to say it). Since, the still-considerable media coverage and the tone of its narrative (only now shifting to overtly negative), but, primarily, the array of spineless politicians who endorsed him are what have enraged me. His sexism, racism and ignorance are all easy targets – in fact, he may not actually be any more racist than any other lucky, well-off, elderly man from his era who is accustomed to living in a bubble, but rather is playing to the nativist elements he knows he has been quite successful in attracting.
What is saddening since is that, given his nomination by a cowardly GOP, many people I know have been struggling to reconcile their championship of certain conservative values with the outright hypocrisy and contradictions he embodies or proposes. Some are worried about the appointment of Supreme Court justices who will loosen restrictions on abortion; some are convinced Clinton will enact further growth-dampening policies; and some are frankly pinching their nose and gazing solely at Mike Pence, hoping that his selection signifies how Trump simply won’t do anything as president but rather hand over all governing to associates. (Of course, he’d appoint other cronies or toadies, much like, well, Clinton probably will.)
Seeing good people try to contort lifelong beliefs to this shocking new reality has been rather disheartening. Many may read this and find it hard to believe that you could even accept Trump at all, but let me point out that JFK and LBJ were likely just as sexist as Trump, only shrewder about it and probably less overtly captivated by the prospect of power in both the bedroom and the boardroom. (That, by the way, speaks volumes about Trump’s overall psychology.) Furthermore, it’s not that anyone is enthusiastic about Trump, but rather struggling against the loss of hope at all. Should they be that despondent? Does Clinton really represent something that bad? To them, perhaps. After all, most of the people I have spoken to who support Trump do so either in vain hope of perhaps maintaining some ground on their religious values being promulgated more publicly, or because they belong to the many segments of the American people that have been neglected by politicians for years and years.
(Quick aside: the opioid epidemic is very, tragically real. Economic depression and government neglect of rural areas are equally tangible, pressing issues for many that those of us in urban, coastal environments working in high-tech industries simply cannot really relate to. It’s not that anyone is that enthusiastically FOR Trump, it’s that he’s provided an outlet for anger or at the least a way to blame others, through tapping into the nastiest of human elements – fear of the alien, the outsider, whether they be minorities or immigrants. Read this excellent tweetstorm by Chris Arnade for clarity.)
Regardless, supporting Trump is ultimately indefensible to my mind. Clinton is marginally more palatable, I suppose; she is more in the normal historical range of candidates (toward the lower end) when all is said and done, whereas Trump is an outlier of inadequacy. And, to cap off this half-rant, half-musing, I will state that I don’t believe writing in a candidate is handing the election to either candidate. Some compromises can be made – but this election poses one that is impossible to reconcile with my principles and, frankly, the best of American ideals. Clinton represents the ongoing mutation of the US into some unhealthy hybrid of an ever-encroaching federal government and stultifying, navel-gazing cultural impulses that will result in greater inequality and an increasingly stagnant society. Trump, however, represents the absolute worst of both political parties, where inherited, unearned wealth generates a bubble wherein boorishness goes unpunished, ruthless behavior is rewarded, tax loopholes are created to curry favor, narcissism runs amok, and hypocrisy is a way of life.
I can’t accept either realities. Neither represent the best of the US, and could only hope to capture some semblance of what makes the US great.
P.S. Trump’s behavior has been so erratic this whole election cycle that I still stand by a prediction I made to my colleagues months ago – he will drop out before the general election as he never wished to govern in the first place and instead was either trying to augment his few, fading business alternatives or was frankly paid off to run. Alternatively, I’ve misread his psychology and he actually thinks he can win or, at some point, wished to win, and now doesn’t really wish to do either, but is trapped into his self-constructed image of never being a loser.