Forgiveness and Reckoning: Preserving American Democracy in the 21st Century

On January 6, 2021, a mob of frenzied insurrectionists, fueled by the lies of Donald J. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Their aim, it has become clear, was to overturn the outcome of a free and open election by force of violence. 

Most of us are still processing what happened. It’s going to take a while—certainly months, quite possibly years. But the path forward, whatever shape it ultimately takes, must begin with a clear and honest accounting of what is actually happening in the United States. 

That reality is ugly. Among its many hideous facets: the fact that millions of Americans willing voted for a would-be autocrat, and that one of only two viable political parties in the United States—the Republican Party—has spent the last few decades displaying what can be most charitably described as an increasingly gleeful indifference to representative governance and the rule of law in the United States.

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If You’re Embarrassed About Your Vote, You’re Probably Voting Wrong

Here is a list of things it’s okay to lie about out of embarrassment:

  • That Voyager is your favorite version of Star Trek
  • Regularly listening to Steve Winwood
  • The real reason you’re visiting the proctologist
  • How frequently you masturbate
  • Being a Scientologist
  • Not knowing whether the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth
  • Being an adult fan of My Little Pony

Here is a list of things it’s not okay to lie about out of embarrassment:

  • Who you’re voting for in a presidential election (or any free, open, and fair election, for that matter)

The polls gravely underestimated Donald Trump’s support among the American electorate. Any number of explanations might account for this, few of them mutually exclusive. One particularly plausible candidate that’s been bandied about in the wake of Trump’s election is that people actively lied to pollsters, claiming to be either undecided or in support of Hillary Clinton when they were in fact all-in for the Tangerine Terror. Marketing expert Aradhna Krishna presents a good argument for this hypothesis in a recent piece for Scientific American.

Personally, I don’t doubt that there might be some veracity to this idea. Trump was a terrible candidate, who seemed to do everything in his power to make voting for him difficult to justify. But here’s the thing: If you can’t justify your vote in a presidential election, it’s a damn good bet that you’re not voting wisely. For our government to function even passably well, voters need to be able to rationalize their decisions within a coherent system of ethics and some kind of halfway plausible epistemology. If you can’t do this for your preferred candidate, you should really consider voting for someone else.

There are those who try to shift blame for this phenomenon to the liberals and moderates who consistently heaped scorn on Trump and those who voted for him (see the enraged limey below). Maybe, the thinking goes, people avoided voicing their support for Trump because they were afraid of facing the ridicule and open disdain of those who saw Trump for the degenerate huckster he is. Maybe, indeed. But this is really no excuse. Members of the anti-Trump coalition deserve absolutely no scorn for expressing their political opinions. That is their right – I dare say their duty – in an open, representative democracy. Rather, all blame in this regard rests among the folks who lacked either the moral fortitude or intellectual wherewithal to take a stand for what they believe in. If that happens to an erratic halfwit and sexual predator who built his race on open appeals to racism and xenophobia, so be it.

One of American democracy’s most dire ailments is a paralyzing drought of discourse. Both sides of the political spectrum are frighteningly eager to vilify one another. People carry out most of their political conversations in an ideological vacuum, stepping out only occasionally to demonize the other side. Partial resolution to this comes from efforts to stop seeing our political opponents in such stark terms. But that only gets us part way. The rest of that bridge is built from people willing to take up the task of showing the other side why there are not villains after all.

Brass tacks, people only feel embarrassed about things they can’t justify. Overeating. Drinking too much. Looking at twisted dungeon porn on the internet. Failing to wash their hands after pooping. Harming people. Cheating. Lying. Lying about lying. Dissembling about your vote would be a reasonable course to strike if we lived in country where anyone faced any threat of serious reprisals. Here, in the United States, you might have withered under scrutiny. You might have had your feelings hurt. If you had to lie about who you’re voting for this year, it’s not because liberals are such big bullies. It’s because you probably knew that, ethically and intellectually, justifying your vote would be an uphill battle. And that means you probably shouldn’t have voted at all.

In the Land of Infants: Partisan Divides in a World Without Discourse

That’s it. We’re through the looking glass. A reality TV star is now president-elect of the United States. The brutal reality of the situation has been difficult to absorb. Watching the electoral map turn red in favor of a deranged carnival barker was truly astonishing.  Feelings? Yeah, I got ‘em: A yawning chasm of disbelief, filled with a potent, bitter cocktail of dread and resentment and anger.

There’s really no point in offering any half-hearted, pusillanimous gesture of diplomacy. The people who voted for Trump made a decision variously stupid, unsavory, and horrid – by all counts difficult (if not impossible) to justify and worthy of strong repudiation. There is no Trump vote that is not rooted in ignorance, racism, self-serving political opportunism, or some combination thereof.

Despite the galling miasma of naivety and misinformation that forms the basis of their political views, I actually don’t hold the view that most Trump supporters are bad people. Some of them are – there’s no denying that part of his success stems from his open appeals to racism and cultural animosity, and, in the this regard, the sudden uptick in attacks on minorities and open white supremacy following immediately on the heels of Trump’s victory is sickeningly telling. But most, I think, aren’t actually bigots. Instead, they’re people who have a few false and unexamined beliefs – about the economic status of the United States, the dangers of a Clinton presidency, the perceived moral and social decay of the nation, the putative causes thereof, etc. – that led them into an extremely poor political choice. They exercised their electoral franchise, as is their right, but did so foolishly.

Apparently, expressing this view is somehow an expression of hatred. That, in any case, is the sentiment I’ve seen echoed across social media in response to moderate and liberal voters who have dared to express any combination of consternation and disapproval at the success of Trump. But this is nonsense. Keep in mind, 59% of Trump supporters (or, more specifically, people with a favorable view of Trump) think President Obama was not born in the United States. 65% think Obama is a secret Muslim. Many Trump voters are also demonstrably racist, with 52% expressing sympathy for the opinion that black people are less evolved than whites. Certainly many of the people who ultimately wound up voting for Trump don’t share these views, but the fact that they cast their lot in with those who do is itself worthy of rebuke. Presumably, they fall into the segment of the Trump coalition who voted the way they did either to stop Hillary Clinton or stimulate change in Washington. Which is weird, because their vote is an implicit endorsement of the perspective that Hillary Clinton is so awful and the U.S. Federal Government so hopelessly corrupt that it is worth aligning themselves with vile, knuckle-dragging bigots to prevent their political opponent from winning.

To this day, I have yet to encounter an argument that justifies the latter position. And that’s not for lack of trying. Vehement, anti-Clinton partisans point, first and foremost, to the vacancy on the Supreme Court  – one that, were congress not polluted with the ideological fanatics and bought-out shitheels that comprise the modern Republican Party, would already have been filled, per constitutional mandate. They see the appointment of a moderate – never mind liberal – judge as a threat to their well-being on the fear that said judge will limit Second Amendment freedoms and hope that a conservative alternative will aid them in their quest to limit reproductive rights. Both opinions are rooted in their own peculiar breed of ignorance, the latter further skewed by the ever-poisonous influence religious zealotry. And tellingly, these concerns expose a fundamental inconsistency in political agenda of the pro-Trump coalition.

Insofar as anyone voted for Trump because they want to see fundamental change in Washington, appointing another conservative to the Supreme Court is a spectacular way to guarantee that never happens. It was the conservative Supreme Court who gave us the Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions. Given the lay of the modern political landscape, our only hope of ever seeing those decisions overturned is through the action of moderate to left-leaning Supreme Court. To the extent that anyone voted for Trump because they’ve lost faith in the legitimacy of U.S. political institutions, their vote will, in a steely twist of irony, have the effect of hastening our march into plutocracy. That is, they will have done their part in accelerating the capture of legislative and regulatory initiatives by wealthy special interests, thereby making government less responsive to the average voter and, as a result, less legitimate in most voter’s eyes.

The anti-Clinton/liberal Trump voter is also commonly a creature beholden to the discredited principles of free-market fundamentalism. They see in Trump the prospect for much-needed market liberalization and deregulation, in line with the view that an open, uninhibited market is the best recipe for economic and social prosperity. The more people are able to freely pursue their raw economic self-interest, unencumbered by rules and regulations, the better off everyone will be. This is a view perfectly consistent with the principles of neoclassical economics. Consequently, it’s considered convenient – even, perversely, morally laudable – to ignore the fact that many of the core assumptions underlying beliefs about market optimality and the infinite wisdom of the invisible hand – and therefore all policy prescriptions based therein – are false, repeatedly disproven in the lab and in the field. Markets are only sensitive to relatively short-term feedbacks, measured exclusively in profit. Any interest in mitigating harmful environmental or social side-effects of market behavior, particularly those that will be primarily felt by spatially or temporally distant populations – i.e., people living miles away from the polluting factors and generations in the future – can only be satisfied through regulation. Those old enough can remember the pollution and litter of a world before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creation of the EPA. Provided Trump and the ideological fanatics in congress get their way – and they manage to live another ten or fifteen years – they might be in for a rather unsettling bit of deja vu. Likewise, if you enjoy a forty-hour work week, anything resembling a living wage, and a work environment that is not completely indifferent to your physical well-being, you have government regulation to thank for it.

None of which is to say regulation can’t be ill-conceived and stifling. There is a strong argument to made that the reach of government regulation – the petty micromanaging of business behavior by bloated bureaucracies – hasn’t grown in some ways economically and socially debilitating. But the people Trump supporters elected to fix government overreach are ideological fanatics, many of them financially beholden to special interests that stand to benefit enormously from a wholesale gutting of the government’s regulatory capacity. That might free up some small business from the burden of onerous bureaucratic meddling, but in the long run, it’ll spell social and economic disaster. There’ll be a few short-run winners, profiting enormously from the work of the lunatics and mendacious sycophants they’ve bought in Washington. But in the end, almost everyone else stands to lose.

So yeah, I think the best we can say of the people who voted for Trump is that they made a dangerously ignorant decision. And I make no apologies about expressing that view. In the most optimistic, permissive reading, these men and women sided with racist jackals and gibbering far-right lunatics for the purpose making sure a Democrat didn’t take the White House. Their justifications for doing so are frail, rooted in misinformation and ideological zealotry, tottering on the razor-edge of outright inanity.

And there we have the deeper, darker truth running right through the heart of this sociopolitical clusterfuck. Almost half (47%) of the people who supported Trump in the days following the Republican National Convention said they did so to prevent Hillary Clinton from taking office. And the same numbers held for Clinton: half of her supporters were motivated by what political scientists call negative partisanship. Putting aside how justifiable either view is – I’d rather not waste any more time kicking that rotting horse carcass – this simple fact tells us something incredibly troubling about the state of American democracy.

Critically, it tells us that neither party is doing much of a good job satisfying the interests of their constituents. Instead of voting for candidates that offer exciting policy agendas, the American electorate is locked in a perpetual holding action against their political opponents. For all the reasons I outlined above, I detest the Republican Party. But I detest the Democratic Party only slightly less. They are both beholden to special interests and indifferent to the will of most voters. Indeed, much of the blame for Trump’s victory rests with the Democratic Party, who worked to undermine a popular movement in order to nominate an intensely flawed, deeply compromised candidate. Absent the looming monstrousness of Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats deserved to lose.

But here’s the rub: when I say I detest the Republican Party, I mean just that: the private organization that works to pave the way for corporate feudalism in service to rabid greed and unhinged ideological fanaticism. I’m frequently disappointed and frustrated by the people who vote them into office, keeping that vile organization afloat election cycle after election cycle, and I make no bones about expressing that view. But when I say a decision to vote for Trump could be permissibly described as ignorant, that is not a whole-cloth dismissal of individual voters, much less an expression of hatred. That people think otherwise is, ironically, an expression of ignorance over what it means to be ignorant. Most people are ignorant about most things, because nobody has the time to develop expertise – or even rounded familiarity – in more than a few subjects. That means they will be knowledge about a few things and ignorant about most others. True of me just as much as a Trump voter.

Social media has been filled with venom and rancor these past few days, diluted by callow calls for love and unity. This misses the point entirely. Now is the time for vociferous criticism and debate. Our widespread unwillingness or inability to engage in these things is surely partial cause to the ideological insularity that fosters such deep partisan antipathy. When someone says your view on a subject reeks of ignorance, don’t respond with some tepid plea that they stop attacking your view or, worse still, the milquetoast inanity that “everyone’s entitled to their own opinions”. Answer them back. Explain how and why your view or choice was well-informed. Do so sternly and directly, but avoid personal attacks and name-calling. Until the citizens of the United States learn how to not only tolerate, but actively celebrate, difficult, uncomfortable conversations about cherished beliefs and political opinions, we can only expect our partisan divides to worsen.

When I write these blogs, it’s always in the ultimately vain, pitifully naive hope that they will encourage a serious conversation with someone who disagrees with me. Yet I post them on social, media, and this is the response I get:

childrenIs it really a surprise that I eventually begin to nurture a bit of antipathy towards these people. I read books and thoughtful analyses from reputable sources while working to eschew overtly partisan outlets. I fact-check and source and verify, then I synthesize all of that information into a political opinion. The people who disagree with me typically respond in a way that could generously described as extremely childish. I imagine the same is true of conservatives who post thoughtful essays – greeted by vitriol and insults and a barrage of vapid political memes. (By the way, if your political commentary consists primarily of shared-memes, your political commentary is, at best, worthless – more likely, it’s outright damaging, serving only to reinforce and exacerbate partisan divides.)

Of course, I am capable of reasoning beyond my emotional responses. As embarrassing and counterproductive as these people’s political discourse is, I don’t for a second believe I can extrapolate from it to a complete picture of who they are as individuals. Some of them probably help strangers stranded on the side of road, or lend their neighbors a hand during tough times. All of them probably think their family is important, value loyalty among friends, prize hard work and self-reliance, and really only want what’s best for themselves, their family, and their country. The same is true of almost everyone in the United States, regardless of political persuasion.

The trick we’ve all got to master is this: remembering how much most of us share – regardless of heritage, sexual preference, religion, or political affiliation – while taking the bold plunge into a world filled with hard conversations. It is critical that we all learn to talk with one another and recognize that sometimes unpleasant political discourse is part of the price for living in a free and open society under the rule of a representative government. Debate and persuasion are at the core of the democratic experiment. It will, without doubt, fail if we reduce our friends and neighbors and political opponents to tribal abstractions, vilifying those who disagree with us from within the cloistered halls of an ideological echo chamber. Match your hopes for America with a willingness to do something difficult. That means weaning yourself off insipid appeals to unity and instead talking with someone you disagree with. If you can do this without raising your voice or calling the other person a name, you’ll have achieved a real victory – both for yourself and for American democracy.

The Republican Party is Now an Open Threat to American Democracy

Let’s dispense with all this sour nonsense about equal corruption among America’s primary political parties. That little piece of banality has been rotting on the shelf for far too long, and it’s time we tossed it out. Not only is it trite, it’s also untrue. Sure, the Democratic Party exists as little else than an instrument of self-perpetuation, seeking today only to make sure there are Democrats tomorrow. It’s ranks are rife with corruption and short-sighted self-interest. But it hardly holds a candle to the festering political abomination that is the Republican Party.

It’s time we face the facts of the modern political landscape, raw and unburnished. The Republican Party has, in no uncertain terms, become an unbridled threat to American democracy, the perpetuation of constitutional order, and the rule of law. On the national stage, there are vanishingly few Republicans who haven’t either bought wholesale into an outrageous breed of ideological fanaticism or who haven’t been bought – wholesale – by the agents of plutocratic corruption.

Consider, momentarily, the program of recalcitrant obstructionism the Republican Party has undertaken throughout the Obama presidency. They have resisted bipartisan compromise at every turn, undermining the traditions of representative governance in slavish devotion to puritanical ideological proscriptions and wealthy special interests. Unable to overturn the Affordable Care Act via electoral mandate or the legislative protocols outlined in the U.S. Constitution, they have resorted to holding the entire Federal Government – and the people it represents – hostage. Far from a form of patriotic dissent, this is an expression of a deeply rooted and tremendously troubling authoritarian impulse. Beneath the inane rhetoric lies a simple, hideous imperative: govern according to our whims or don’t govern at all.

The ideological fervor and rank perfidy of the Republican Party began to reach its zenith in early 2016, when the death of Antonin Scalia left the Supreme Court one seat short of its full complement. Rather than fulfill their constitutional obligation to review President Obama’s appointee – moderate Merrick Garland – the Republicans in the Senate refused to take action, repeatedly arguing that the American people should have a voice in the appointment (forgetting, conveniently, that the American people had already expressed their voice in the election of Obama). Now, they’ve doubled-down on their original anti-democratic impulse. Senate Republicans like John McCain, Ted Cruz, and Richard Burr have advocated indefinite inaction on the matter of Supreme Court appointments – but only if Hillary Clinton wins.

Of course, they and their far-right apologists will be eager to attribute their behavior to bold patriotism – a heroic defense of Second Amendment rights against the pinko activist Clinton is, in their view, sure to appoint. This is bullshit. There is no sense in which patriotic devotion to the founding principles of the United States can be taken to motivate or justify this breed of my-way-or-the-highway governance. What Senate Republicans are essentially saying is that electoral results should validate their will or be blatantly disregarded.

In this line, Republicans are also openly advocating impeaching Hillary Clinton – in advance of any criminal conviction or breach of presidential authority. To anyone who thinks representative governance was ever, maybe, perhaps, kind of a good idea, this rhetoric should be both sickening and alarming. These people are unabashedly asserting that their governmental aims and political ideals should be put ahead of the will of the people. Somewhere, lingering not far over the horizon, are open appeals to fascism.  

Still not convinced? Consider the mounting evidence that an ideologically motivated, overtly politicized wing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Inspired by the book Clinton Cash – by Government Accountability Institute president and Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweizer – they are actively trying to put the worst presidential candidate in history – a man who represents a clear threat to democratic order – in office.

Pressing further down the political hierarchy, it’s clear that many state-level Republicans aren’t big fans of democracy either. They’ve been busy redrawing congressional districts, resulting in voting blocks where the only competition is between hardcore conservatives and far-right extremists. The ideological fanaticism that permeates the Republican House is largely attributable to their incessant gerrymandering. At the same time, they’ve been working hard to suppress voter turnout among ethnic minorities and other traditionally left-leaning demographics. Ostensibly, this is about voter-fraud. But since in person voter-fraud is virtually non-existent, Republicans are on record touting the partisan merits of their actions, and have made demonstrable efforts to exclude left-leaning ethnic minorities from the electoral process, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument that their restrictive ballot initiatives are about anything other than stealing elections.

Unsurprisingly, these authoritarian urges have clearly trickled down into the Republican electorate, evinced in razor-edge relief by the broad support currently enjoyed by Donald J. Trump – a candidate who has repeatedly promised to disregard the U.S. Constitution, undermine the rule of law, use the power of his office to persecute political enemies, encouraged violent recourse against his political opposition, and sewn doubt in the very mechanism responsible for the peaceful transition of power that lies at the core of democracy. Clearly, there is a wide consensus among the rubes and fanatics in the Republican base – lead into a clamor of dark derangement by the pied pipers in the right wing media echo chamber – that the American government should conform to their ahistorical, racially charged vision or cease to exist.

Doubtful? Consider the right-wing militants who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, who, armed and under threat of force, demanded the U.S. government cede public lands to private interests. Or the former senator who suggested a Clinton victory would be cause for brandishing muskets – a clear allusion to violent revolution. This sentiment has been echoed down the ranks of the babbling, politically incoherent mobs of ignorant swine clamoring for the election of Donald Trump. These are people who harbor the dangerous, intrinsically despotic view that democratic governance is only valid when it ratifies their will, advocating remediation through violence when it does otherwise.

On a pragmatic level – measured only in terms of votes cast and the political consequences thereof – voting Republican and entertaining a suite of values consistent with the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are becoming increasingly contradictory domains. It is only through tortured intellectual gymnastics or abject, willful ignorance that these two things can ever coincide in the same mind. More and more, voting Republican is becoming, at the very least, an expression of a bizarre breed of facultative fascism – a willingness to opportunistically dispense with democracy in order to see your ideological preferences satisfied. Reconciling support for Republicans and belief in the principles of representative government is an uphill battle, and the grade is only getting steeper.

Usually, this is the place where conservatives still clinging to some modicum of sensibility retort, “but the Democrats are just as bad!” But this is hogwash – slimmy, pathetic apologetics under a veneer of bipartisan objectivity. Democrats are not openly expressing such vicious disdain for constitutional order and the rule of law. They are not instituting voter suppression initiatives. They did not give us the disastrous Citizens United vs FEC or McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions, nor do they currently openly support them with the vigor of sentate Republicans like Ted Cruz of Mitch McConnell. They do not openly applaud the Federal Government’s precipitous slide into the gaping maw of plutocracy. That anyone thinks otherwise is glaring testimony to the efficacy of Republican propaganda machine and the cesspit of vitriol and misinformation that is the conservative media echo chamber. Only on a political landscape so thoroughly decoupled from the realm of verifiable fact, where a balkanized media presents a populace largely devoid of the tools necessary to critically evaluate information a smorgasbord of “facts” precisely tailored to their extant ideological biases, could something as monstrous as the modern Republican Party emerge and persist.

Conservative apologists might wish to point to the putative Fabian socialism of Barack Obama as justification for their decision to endorse politicians who, in broad daylight, work to erode the foundations of representative government in America. But this is a facade, erected in belligerent indifference to the fact that the little legislation Obama has gotten through congress has been consistently struck in the neoclassical mold of neoliberal economics. Yet even if it were true that Obama was the pinko operative Conservatives fear, this fact alone would hardly justify an assault on the very fabric of American democracy.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument against small-c conservatism. It’s nothing of the sort. If you think government should be smaller and interfere with the affairs of business as little as possible, fine. But in the modern Republican Party, those values have morphed into a form of fundamentalist religion: small government and market deregulation at all costs. This is a platform entirely divorced from reality, rooted instead in ideological zealotry and crude venality. It can only be maintained when people assiduously avoid learning about how the world actually works: that sometimes government is bad and sometimes it is good, that unfettered market behavior can be both incredibly lucrative and enormously destructive.  

By all means, be a conservative, if that is where your inclinations take you. In doing so, however, it is absolutely critical that you avoid doctrinaire attitudes and eschew certitude. Responsible governance can be built in an electorate composed of competing value systems, but only when the people who harbor those values are responsive to evidence and open to the possibility that they are wrong about some things. Uncertainty is the lifeblood of rationality.

There is no political utopia: the manifestation of the perfect liberal vision would necessarily entail misery and oppression for conservatives, and vice versa. Politics isn’t about achieving perfection, it’s about doing the best we can with the resources we have available. Which is a matter of diligently seeking out and correcting the errors that are bound to crop up in any form of political order. If government gets too big and restrictive, respond accordingly. If a market produces harmful downstream consequences, regulate it. If the regulations prove overly restrictive, tweak them. Representative government demands constant effort.

The modern Republican Party exists in defiance of this point. Like religious fanatics, some of them are so convinced that they’ve got the world figured out that they are willing to resort to fascism to see their will through. Others, like bought-out sycophants, are willing to abandon all principle to enrich themselves by selling legislation to the highest bidders. In both cases, the results are the same: an outright assault on the rule of law and the foundations of representative government.

The Stubborn 40%: or, What the Fuck is Wrong With the People Who Still Support Donald Trump

This is probably the first presidential election in living memory – and certainly the first election within my lifetime – where there is a clear, unambiguously wrong answer on the ballot. There is enough flexibility in the principles of representative governance and liberal democracy – enough space for interpretation in the values spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution – that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were defensible choices for president. The same is true of Obama and McCain, Kerry and Bush, Bush and Gore, and so on, going back decades. For years, thoughtful voters have consistently been able to punch the ticket for either major party candidate, anchored by a believable defense that their decision was consistent with both a sensible reading of traditional American ideals and a rational interest in peace and international stability.

Not true, in 2016. This year, the American electorate has been presented with the starkest choice imaginable, a decision cast into sharp relief by the fact that one candidate is professionally, temperamentally and intellectually unqualified for the office under contest. Donald Trump represents a threat, not only to the American Experiment, but to the economic and political stability of the entire world. An egomaniacal gasbag and lecherous charlatan, dispositionally insensitive to constructive criticism and new information, Trump has sown distrust in the legitimacy of the very system meant to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, corroding faith in the central mechanism of democratic governance. To boot, he has fueled his campaign on racism, tribalism, xenophobia, and virulent nationalism, all while promising to blatantly disregard the Bill of Rights and the governmental strictures outlined in the larger body of the U.S. Constitution. He has boasted about sexual assault and pedophilia, openly toyed with the idea of using the power of the presidency to persecute his political opponents, and – in a blazing display of contempt for long-standing international relationships, peace, and human life – advocated nuclear proliferation and preemptive nuclear strikes. His ignorance about science, economics, the structure of the U.S. government, the function of executive branch, and international affairs is staggering, dwarfed only by his need to satisfy his own ego at virtually any cost.

There is no case to be made that the values outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the U.S. Constitution are laudable aims and useful guideposts for measuring the efficacy and legitimacy of Federal authority and that Donald Trump should be president. The two claims stand in mutual contradiction. Either Constitutional order is desirable or Donald Trump should be president. Either international peace and stability are worthwhile or  Donald Trump should be president. Either all human lives are inherently valuable or Donald Trump should be president. Either active racism, sexism, and xenophobia should be stripped from humanity’s collective consciousness or Donald Trump should be president. There are simply no reasonable arguments behind the proposition that the office of president comes with a mandate to help ensure peace, prosperity, equality, and liberty and that Donald Trump is even a good (never mind the best) choice for said office.

Thanks to Donald Trump, our decision about who to vote for runs far deeper than the issues that normally divide the electorate. It’s not about whether or not climate change is real and caused by human activity. It’s not about whether it makes sense to impose a fundamentalist interpretation of one religious tradition’s definition of marriage on an entire country. It’s not about whether the federal government has grown too large, or what kind of tax system works best. Nor does it have much to do with immigration, deficits, terrorism, or privatization. Sure, all of those issues matter, and all of them will be influenced in some way or another by the outcome of the election. But on a more fundamental level, this election is about who we are as a nation. It’s about whether we’re a country of principled, thoughtful voters, willing to make tough choices to uphold cherished values, or a country of degenerate ideologues, racists, and dupes willing to follow an authoritarian huckster to the edge of chaos – and over. This is the election that will validate or discount the Founding Fathers’ concerns that mob rule could pave the way for despotism.

Yet none of this seems sufficient to convince some 40% of the electorate not to let their blind partisan loyalties and ideological intransigence ride our country off a cliff. Very likely, Donald Trump will lose the election. But the fact that he will lose by anything less than a crushing electoral landslide is deeply troubling. Though Hillary Clinton is an inarguably flawed, deeply problematic candidate, there is no justifiable sense in which her presidency poses a threat to the perpetuation of democratic order. Not so with Trump, whose strongest affinity to world leaders rests among petty, megalomaniacal African despots.

The fact of the matter is, anyone who finds the prospect of a Clinton presidency thoroughly unpalatable need not vote for Hillary Clinton. They can sate their political conscience by voting for Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin or Jill Stein. Barring that, they can display their stalwart defiance against the prevailing political order by writing in a name, voting for a fictional character or their imaginary friend. The existence of third party candidates is hardly a secret, yet a distressingly large swath of the electorate is still considering a vote for the most poisonous candidate since Barry Goldwater. Informed citizens making thoughtful choices are the lifeblood of representative governance. If those criteria obtained in this election season, the Trump campaign would look up to Jill Stein’s polling numbers with envy. Clearly, there’s a cog somewhere in the machine.

The explanation for this is, I think, twofold. First – and most simply – there is the raw fact that some of Trump’s base really do fit into that basket of deplorables. They are racist, sexist, xenophobic nationalists with a paltry understanding of the way the world actually works – if we dare be so permissive as to grant that it even exists. Their feelings of disillusionment, disconnection, and disenfranchisement come from a very real and understandable place: the fact that there is no place for them in the society more intelligent and ethical people are trying to build. Their primitive worldview belongs in the dustbin of history and the rest of us should be doing our best to place it there.

Second, and perhaps more distressingly, there is the wider problem of increasing partisan acrimony and ideological insularity. People on both the left and the right are both unwilling to seriously entertain opposing views and frighteningly eager to disparage contrasting perspectives. This is a problem that exists on both ends of the political spectrum, but in the candidacy of Donald Trump we have what amounts to a natural experiment definitively proving that it has driven the political right completely – and, perhaps, irreparably – off the rails. The conservative media echo chamber has done such a good job of vilifying the political left and spreading a baseless, parasitic white-Christian victimhood narrative that some Americans are willing to fall in step behind an obvious political disaster in order to best their political and ideological opponents. We’ll only know if this is true of the political left when the Democrats nominate someone like Flavor Flav or Kim Kardashian to run against someone like Bobby Jindal or Mike Huckabee – that is, someone abjectly unqualified against someone deeply problematic.

This means that after a few million American heroes do the mature, responsible business of electing Hillary Clinton in order to defeat Donald Trump, there will still be plenty of work to be done. In 1972 George McGovern’s presidential ambitions were obliterated, losing the election with only 37.5% of the popular vote and 17 electoral college votes. McGovern was a reasonable candidate running against an incumbent Richard Nixon (who would be impeached and ultimately resign just two years later). Jimmy Carter lost his second term to Ronald Reagan, winning only six states, despite being a perfectly ethical, intelligent, sane human being. Donald Trump – a puerile, impulsive, pathological liar and conspiracy theorist with virtually no foresight and a repeatedly self-expressed disregard for the rule of law – stands to win something like 40% of the popular vote and at least 35% of the electoral college. This fact alone stands in glaring testament to the fact that our political system is in need of serious repairs.

There’s nothing to be done about the plebeian rabble who actually think Trump makes sense. Anyone who listens to what Trump has to say and actively cheers his candidacy is, for all intents and purposes, a lost cause. Our only hope is that their children and grandchildren turn out slightly less ignorant and intolerant than they are, allowing the slow march of progress to move another few inches forward.

Going forward, there needs to be an urgent program of national soul-searching, the focus of which must be on discovering and eradicating vectors of tribalism and ideological intransigence. We need to find out how we got to a place where people who aren’t racists, xenophobes, or struggling to find their way in a complex world with the cognitive faculties of a sea cucumber are willing to vote for a signally unqualified maniac in order to prevent a flawed – but capable – candidate from winning. They’re willing to trade a potentially bad president for what could very well be our last president. And that, no doubt, is a disturbing symptom of some kind of national lunacy. We’ve had bad presidents before. Hopefully it’ll be a long while before we have our last one.

At root, some of this flows directly from a fallacy at the core of democracy’s central contention: that people can rationally discern what is best for them and will reliably act accordingly. A large and growing body of psychological, anthropological, economic, and political evidence demonstrates that this is simply not the case. Even hyper-intelligent people with rigorous, specialized training in things like game theory and formal logic can be pulled off course by emotional impulses and ideological biases. For a recent field case, look no further than the remarkable success of Trump. It’s tempting to think of his base as entirely comprised of gibbering idiots, but that’s really not the case. A large proportion of the pro-Trump electorate is dangerously ignorant, but there are also very intelligent people seriously considering him as a viable option. The best explanation for this otherwise perplexing phenomenon boils down to deep psychological biases that lend themselves to reactionism and groupishness.

It is these biases that are inflamed and exaggerated by the conservative media echo chamber. Working on extant emotional preferences, outlets like Fox News and right-wing talk radio take people who might be inclined to vote conservative for a variety of thoughtful, principled reasons and turn them into ideological fanatics, possessed of such an unbridled distrust of the political opposition and passionate partisan loyalty that they would rather vote for one of the worst candidates in history than vote for a troubled candidate or third party alternative. The modern media landscape excels at taking the very likely evolved emotional preferences that limit our rationality in everyday decision-making and exploding them into unbridgeable barriers.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see what can be done about this. All of the most likely solutions seem to fall somewhere between paternalism and authoritarianism. The only recourse that seems in line with our desired aims – mitigating partisan intransigence and ideological fanaticism – and our guiding principles – freedom of speech and expression, for instance – is discourse and persuasion. Sadly, this seems the method that has proven least effective on the modern political landscape. Whatever progress it yields will be glacial. But personally, I think it’s worth a try.

Which sets an agenda going forward. Those of us who recognize the existential threat Donald Trump poses to our political system and are willing to act accordingly should make efforts to convince redeemable Trump supporters (i.e. those outside of the basket of deplorables) to see the light. That doesn’t mean convincing them to adopt a liberal worldview – I don’t see how that’s possible or even, necessarily, desirable. Rather, it means encouraging them to divorce themselves from the information vectors that are poisoning their thinking – turning off Fox News and conservative talk radio, avoiding sites like Breitbart and the Drudge Report, and leaving books written by right-wing pundits on the shelves. In the spirit of detente, we might propose a trade, turning our attention from blatantly liberal news sources. This is not because they are in anyway equivalent to Sean Hannity or Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh, but because we can all (regardless of political inclination) afford to spend less time watching or reading material that only serves to confirm or reinforce our existing worldview.

If this is a route to progress, it’ll be both tedious and frustrating. But simply convincing friends and family to avoid sources that seed dangerous and demonstrably false narratives into the national consciousness could go a long way toward moving the United States toward a place where productive discourse and bipartisan compromise are once again feasible. Importantly, it might get us to a place where a candidate like Donald Trump will be drummed out of the primaries well before we get to a place where the fabric of democracy looks precipitously close to unraveling.

So who am I voting for? I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

And, because it is both funny and considerably more intelligent than anything Trump has actually said, enjoy:

There will be two types of Trump voter In November – ignorant rabble and traitors


There are two types of people who will vote for Donald Trump in November. Roughly speaking, they can be divided into either the deeply stupid or the deeply cynical.

In the former case, a severe deficit in critical thinking and an aversion to verifiable information seems to foster the kind of fear, distrust, and cultural animus upon which Trump has so successfully preyed. This is the plebeian rabble that has supported him from the beginning. Ignorant, hate-filled, and fear-drenched, these are men and women who listen to the oft-inconsistent fusillade of inflammatory rhetoric Trump issues and think he might be onto something. On the other hand, there are the negative partisans and party loyalists, people who find Hillary Clinton so grossly unpalatable — or imbue allegiance to the Republican Party with such exaggerated significance — that they will vote for Donald Trump in spite of his obvious and myriad insufficiencies as a candidate for the U.S. presidency.

The unfortunate reality is that there’s nothing to be done about the rabble. All anyone can do is wait for them to die and hope the next generation is incrementally better. Though in many respects reprehensible, there is also a valid sense in which they are blameless. Their life on the lunatic fringe is a product of bad genes and worse circumstances, trained to value all the wrong things and think all the wrong thoughts by parents, peers, and family members who do likewise — and have done for generations as a matter of reflexive tradition. Intensely tribal and insular, they are products of the endlessly self-perpetuating cycle of stubborn ignorance bred at the poisonous confluence of poverty, tradition, and poorly delivered and/or undervalued education.

It may be a rosy-eyed and naive long-shot to think something can be done about the negative partisans and Republican fanatics. But unlike the moral and intellectual degenerates who are enthusiastically all-in for Trump, there is some hope that these men and women have some reason to which we can offer an appeal. Or, at the very least, a sense of decency and patriotic loyalty that we can wield as a cudgel, beating into them enough shame and personal resentment for ever having considered Trump as a viable option that they will shrink from actually casting a ballot in his name in November.

It’s not so much that Clinton is a perfect alternative. Far from it. But the revulsion towards Hillary Clinton that would motivate a vote for Trump is the pinnacle of partisan irrationality. It is an impulse born of naked political dogmatism, clearly concocted in the miasma of fact-averse vitriol, paranoia, and victimization that fills the conservative media echo chamber. To vote for Trump simply to spite Clinton is to offer an obsequious votive to the Republican Party, a private organization with a clear mandate to pursue the general interests of the United States as a constitutional republic but no unambiguous evidence of having significantly done so for at least the past thirty years.

The raw reality is that there is no line of reasoning that justifies placing a bloviating, megalomaniacal, chronically deceitful authoritarian into the nation’s highest office over and above an admittedly focus-group manufactured, self-serving political opportunist. The former is an ugly populist, deploying racism, xenophobia, and bloodthirsty chauvinism to great effect among the dregs of the American electorate — completely absent any coherent or realistic policy initiatives. The latter  is a clear perpetuation of the status quo, who nonetheless offers a thoughtful and substantive policy agenda. Clinton is, if nothing else, a career politician. That’s something most of us are tired of, but it’s also something stable and predictable. Though there are many respects in which another Clinton presidency seems substantially less than ideal, the fact nonetheless remains that she is a safe bet. For instance, she has not advocated nuclear proliferation or the murder of noncombatants.

Take another example. Clinton’s record with nonpartisan fact-checking outlet reveals a record almost precisely opposite of Trumps: whereas 77% of reviewed statements rate mostly false or worse for Trump, 71% rate half true or better for Clinton. That’s not exactly the record of anyone who could be strictly described as a paragon of honesty, but it is nonetheless exponentially more reassuring than Trump’s. In Trump, we see either a man with a vast disconnect from established and verifiable facts or such monumental disdain for the crowd he’s playing for that he doesn’t feel any need to trouble himself with the truth. To put this in perspective, the previous two Republican nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, enjoy half true or better ratings of 59% and 57%, respectively. A candidate with Trump’s level of disregard for the truth probably isn’t entirely unprecedented. But one who has made it so far almost certainly is.

The whole affair serves to highlight and underline the by turns pathetic and frightening corner into which rigid identity politics have driven the American electorate. Hillary Clinton is a pro-business foreign policy hawk, a modern incarnation of Reagan-era Republicanism. Her presidency promises to be a continuation of an economic agenda driven by supply-side neoliberalism and a foreign policy built around military interventionism — broadly motivated by the parochial interests of economic elites. In a climate devoid of such harmful extremes of polarization, where rigid political allegiances are blindly dictated by voting records and continuously reinforced by self-selected cocoons of ideological reinforcement on social media, traditional conservatives would look at Hillary Clinton and see a reflection of many of their core principles. The only clear distinctions rest in the array of social wedge issues Republican campaign strategists have so deftly wielded to turn a large segment of the electorate into political marionettes. Conversely, liberals and progressives would look at Clinton and see something altogether distasteful.

Instead, people define themselves by steely political binaries, declaring themselves as either Republican or Democrat and falling into party line without any serious reflection on the underlying issues. In a better world, people would abandon partisan affiliation, repudiate both parties for the self-serving, parasitic monstrosities they are, and renegotiate their votes each election cycle according to a piecemeal engagement with the issues.

That, sadly, seems to be a fantasy world. Instead we have to look forward to an election where a dangerous megalomaniac with a puerile and punitive disposition stands a decent chance of becoming president. A significant segment of the conservative-leaning electorate are already beginning to align themselves with the gibbering imbeciles and racists who willfully support Trump and more are likely to follow. Teasing out their final motivations for doing so is difficult, but most of it seems attributable to the pied piper’s on conservative talk radio and Fox News success in convincing them that Clinton is a vicious dragon-lady, a political succubus greedily clutching at their purportedly god-given Rights. This is a hideously shameful state of affairs. All those votes would come with a complimentary cloud of embarrassment and regret, if only their originators had the presence of mind to set aside past partisan boundaries and carefully assess the incredibly fraught political landscape we all tread.

It’s very hard to overstate the potential threat a Trump presidency poses to the United States. Yes, it’s true that no one knows for certain how things will shake out if he were to win in November. But there has been very little – and by very little, I do mean absolutely no – indication that he will perform admirably. Donald Trump is a con artist, his history as a businessman a litany of failures. In terms of disposition, his greatest affinity with world leaders can be found among despots – he has all the thin-skinned narcissism and retributive instincts of Robert Mugabe or the late Muammar Gaddafi. A simple-minded huckster with no interest outside the nourishment of his own ego, a Trump presidency stands almost no chance of turning out better than a Clinton one.

Given all this, it’s quite easy to justify the radical claim made in the title of this piece: that those who vote for Trump for any reason other than their own pitiable idiocy are traitors to the Union. Broadly speaking, we can define the governing principles of the United States as the perpetuation of constitutional order for the purpose of preserving a pluralistic society amenable to the happiness and success of the greatest possible proportion of Her citizenry. There is no valid sense in which Donald Trump is the best choice for fulfilling this mandate. Disturbingly, there are a number of clear indications that a Trump presidency will in fact be directly inimical to these goals. To be fair, there is a narrow sense in which this has been true of the Republican Party since at least 2010, when conservative Supreme Court Justices gave us Citizens United vs. FEC. Since then, Republican congressmen have been intractable opponents to the principles of one-person, one-vote representative democracy, supporting Citizens United and subsequent corrosive decisions while opposing measures to increase the transparency of campaign finance. So for at least the past six years, a vote for a Republican on the national stage has been a vote for plutocracy and against proportionally representative republican governance.

When it comes to the Supreme Court, Trump seems to double-down on these positions, suggesting someone like the judicially reprehensible partisan ideologue Antonin Scalia should fill the vacancy left in the wake of said Justice’s passing. Not only is this in line with the Party establishment’s position on the continued erosion of representative democracy, he has also threatened to actively work to erode the First Amendment, a position perfectly consistent with his frail and punitive character. He has advocated an economic agenda that will directly threaten the stability and prosperity of the United States. He has floated the idea of completely abandoning historically important alliances, moves that would put the United States and the larger world as increased risk of violent, devastating conflict. He has courted and refused to repudiate neo-Nazi and white supremacist supporters. He gives indiscriminate voice to hare-brained conspiracy theories. A vote for Trump is a declaration of allegiance to something other than the welfare of the United States.

None of this is an inflation of available facts, yet already increasing numbers of prominent Republican politicians are lining up to pledge their fealty to interests outside those of the United States and recent polls indicate the Republican electorate is doing likewise. This isn’t just disappointing – it’s disgusting. Certainly they’re not selling military secrets to North Korea or defecting to ISIS, but they are offering succor to a candidate whose values and beliefs are far-too-often thoroughly antithetical to those outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Boil everything down to its bitter essence and it becomes strikingly clear that everyone who votes for Trump is, in a perverse but unmistakable way, voting against democracy. Through a combination of ignorance and belligerence, they will have made themselves enemies of the core principles of republican governance. Few outside the cloistered ranks of Democratic Party insiders are likely happy about a perpetuation of the status quo. It’s a sad choice, but at least those voters who take it can rest with the reassurance that they are not willfully selling our country out to a stew of party loyalty and partisan resentment.

Ultimately, the poisonous status of a Trump vote is granted not by the fact that he is, by an exceptionally permissive interpretation of American values and constitutional propriety, the worst option in November — or any previous November in living memory. Rather, it comes from the fact that no one’s vote needs to be decided along a strict partisan binary. Anyone who finds Clinton thoroughly unacceptable does not have to register their disdain for her by voting for someone who poses a clear, existential threat to the economic and social welfare of the United States. They can research candidates outside the major parties and register their votes there. Or they can simply write in a name, voicing their protest through a vote for Grover Norquist, their favorite talk radio blowhard, the restless spirits of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, or the Ghost of Ronald Reagan. They don’t have to vote for ego incarnate — a vulgar demagogue with no respect for civil liberties, no coherent or sensible policy ideas, a faithless political disposition, and pseudo-fascist tendencies. That choice will benefit few outside of Trump’s sycophantic inner-circle and very likely hurt everyone else.

To vote for Trump is to betray the United States of America— to risk the preservation and perpetuation of constitutional and representative governance on the bet that maybe (and maybe really is the best anyone can say) Donald Trump, despite all indications to the contrary, will make a good president. That’s a dangerous and irresponsible bet to make, but it does suggest a third category of Trump supporter: maybe some of them are just people who want to watch the world burn. If that’s your agenda, Trump is probably the safest bet American’s have ever had.