In December of 2015 I made the following quip:
Bush v. Clinton 2016: The best we can muster and no worse than we deserve.— Nathan D. Smith (@_ndsmith) December 16, 2015
The above applies all the more since we have Donald Trump instead of Jeb Bush!
Cynics like myself ought to admit that we experience a bit of glee when our expectations are fulfilled. And oh how they have been fulfilled! Trump v. Clinton is truly a ludicrous contest for choosing leadership for the United States of America. What's more, they are almost meant for each other, because neither would be competitive against a different opponent. A neo-Shakespeare in coming centuries is destined to dramatize this affair.
I will now provide my own account, dear reader, not with the subtle rhythm of a bard, but with my own meager faculties, because I feel the need to summarize my thoughts on this matter. And hopefully through summary comes serenity.
Prologue: Concerning Character
Much of my prior reflection on presidential politics has centered on the policies of candidates, and not on their character. I suppose this is a side-effect of the times in which I have come of age. After four terms of the Presidency being free from the blight of personal scandal, we Americans thought perhaps we had moved on from those historical messes. But alas, here we are, with "temperament" and "character" and "trustworthiness" taking a prominent place in the campaign.
I will not comment on the character of the candidates below, but will leave this observation: the hypocrisy of the partisan system with respect to sex scandals has been laid bare by scandalous videos and accusations against Trump. Everything the Republicans said to attack Bill Clinton the Democrats have charged against Trump. Every defense offered by Democrats has been issued by Republicans.
I do think character matters, but that's not the context of this reflection.
Trump as Tragedy
Donald J. Trump is something like a dream deferred for political reformists and radicals. He is a candidate from outside the political class who holds ideas which are genuinely contrary to the status quo. Trump even goes so far as to break with the bi-partisan consensus on global trade and foreign policy.
(I happen to agree with relatively little of Trump's proposals - prominent exceptions being his seeking to reform global trade and his criticism of the Iraq War. Nonetheless his ideas are important because they differ from bi-partisan consensus.)
This of course has drawn the ire of the elite (yes, there really are an "elite") who have targeted Trump this past year with an unprecedented barrage of Op-Eds and cross-party support. Yet in spite of his distinct lack of newspaper endorsements Trump's candidacy remains alive. Being criticized by the right people has done much to bolster his campaign.
Facing a genuine threat to established political order backed by a growing popular movement, one would expect the leaders of both parties and the media to make every effort to discredit and disqualify Trump before he has a chance to gain power. That they did, but the ammo was fully supplied by Trump himself, and in abounding quantities.
I will not rehearse the whole infamous list of his outrageous statements here, but suffice it to say that Trump is a wicked man who is running on a platform which appeals to the worst aspects of our political natures. It is fair to say in some cases that his words and actions have been unfairly portrayed by his opponents. But the preponderance of evidence is clear: he really is not the type of person whom you want leading our great republic.
Now imagine someone who espoused Trump's contrarian policy ideas but had a personality like John Kasich. I doubt that candidate would even make the "main" GOP primary debate stage, and instead be relegated to the "under-card" debate. In other words our political environment seems to only reward reformist policy with attention in exchange for Trump-like behavior. Not only does he want a radical halt to immigration, but he says that many immigrants are rapists. Not only does he say the Iraq war was a mistake, but he adds that the U.S. should plunder their natural resources. Not only does he argue for a constructive relationship with Russia in the middle east, but he praises the autocratic Vladimir Putin.
The establishment really received a boon. They were tasked with de-legitimizing the fringe candidate, but Trump mostly take care of the job himself. When it comes to protecting the insular status quo from new ideas, you could hardly script a better defense: "novel is crazy." However we may find that in 2016, the year of Brexit, voters do not care to listen to the intellectual wings of the political parties. In other words, Trump might win in spite of himself, or perhaps to spite the elites.
My primary concern with Trump is not the scandals but his avowed desire to be the strong-man. As he said in his nomination acceptance speech at the convention:
I alone can fix this.
This is obviously outside of the spirit of American republicanism. Let us contemplate for a moment how Republicans mocked the young Democrats who put near-salvific hope in Obama. Let the GOP recall that it is the party which had decried the expansion of the power of the Executive Branch to interfere in all areas of life. For there is no way for the leader to fix everything but by the erosion of local control.
Trump is casting himself as the autocrat and the hero. He is already making threats to use the power of the office of the President to settle personal scores and punish his rivals. He unashamedly calls for unspeakable conduct in war. He should not be our President.
Clinton as Farce
Hillary Clinton's nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency has been fore-ordained since her loss to Obama in 2008. She is the chosen one. As private correspondence (which was stolen and made public) has shown, she was the preferred choice of the Democratic National Committee, which it was assumed should be neutral until the nomination was complete. Clinton's lock was so secure that only a no-name and a radical even bothered challenging her in the primaries.
It should have been a fairly clear warning sign that the Democrats had decided on a damaged candidate when a self-described socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union gave her a run for her money in a long and close primary race. Were the party elites really so blind to her weaknesses as a candidate? Or did they have a fatalistic commitment that she had to be nominated no matter what?
Hillary Clinton was already one of the least liked and least trusted politicians in the country. She was a carpetbagger. She voted for the Iraq War. She favored bombing Libya. She was paid ludicrous sums of money to regale bankers with her lackluster public speaking skills - what only the most naive would deny was a bribe. She had the liability of donations to their family foundation from questionable sources. She had the private email server. It was shown via leaks that her campaign thought of the press as a wing of their campaign communications team. And so on, and so on.
Of all the Democratic politicians in this country, it had to be her? It's farcical.
I personally do not find any one of those scandals extraordinary per se. I would not be caught chanting "lock her up!" Still, Clinton has managed to accumulate a rather impressive stable of scandals. But the central issue I have with her candidacy is not about her scandals, but about her relationships:
It is not appropriate for the close relation of a President to subsequently become President.
Republicans are loathe to bring up this criticism for the obvious reason of their recent electoral victory of a President's son. This has happened in the past, and the United States has survived it. However I would venture that when we were looking at the possibility of choosing between either the wife of an ex-President, or the man looking to be the third president in his nuclear family, the danger is getting acute. This nation is a republic, and political power is not supposed to be preserved in a family as in a monarchy, nor shared among a few as in an oligarchy.
Hillary Clinton is well-qualified but damaged goods. Her identity rather than her strength as a candidate was the primary criterion in her nomination. It is best to avoid the consolidation of power in a few families, therefore Hillary Clinton should not be the President.
Our free and mostly-fair nominating processes produced two really bad candidates. How does that work out for your democratic ideology?
I left the U.S. President portion of my ballot blank. I felt like the best way to deal with that question was to not dignify it with a response. Others may prefer to vote third-party or vote for a registered write-in candidate. Those are all great options.
The point is: if you think this situation is ridiculous, make it known with your vote (or lack thereof). But don't settle for just voting. Discuss it with your friends and family too. We are going to have to get over some social discomfort if we want to escape this ridiculous partisan circumstance.
If I am being honest, I would prefer Hillary Clinton to win. The simple reason is this: Assuming the worst on both sides, I believe that our republic is better able to cope with a corrupt politician than with a nationalist autocrat.
We'll see what happens. I am not too worried. More than likely in either case the winner will not be as bad as opponents claimed. But even in a worst-case scenario, people do not have to lay down and let terrible things happen.