On the 2016 presidential election: a question of character
Posted on November 7, 2016
Imagine for a moment that the candidates in the 2016 presidential election were flipped. Leave aside personal traits, and imagine this flip is entirely on public policy. In this reserve imagined world, Donald Trump is a liberal, and the Democratic candidate for president. Hillary Clinton is a conservative and the Republican candidate for president.
In this world, Trump supports the right to abortion and access to reproductive health care; accepts and seeks to combat climate change; believes in a progressive tax policy; wants to invest in public education; promotes investment in innovation and new jobs; wants to reform unjust and harmful criminal justice practices; backs comprehensive immigration reform; rejects religious stereotyping and defends fundamental constitutional rights; believes in diplomacy; and the list goes on.
In this world, Clinton believes that abortion should be outlawed, suggests women who get abortions should receive some form of punishment, and rejects the importance of access to reproductive health care; claims climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government; wants to cut taxes for the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country; wants to privatize public education; promises the return of a lost economy; rejects criminal justice reform; wants to focus immigration reform on building walls; wants to restrict immigration based on religion; suggests the First Amendment is too broad in its protection of free speech; rejects the value of diplomacy; and the list goes on.
In this world, I would not vote for Hillary Clinton. But, I would also not vote for Donald Trump.
To be clear, in this election I do support (the real) Clinton, and do not support (the real) Trump. Their policy positions are a significant reason. But what about factors beyond policy positions? Is this election really only about some differences of political opinions?
For me, the answer is clearly “no.”
Up through middle and even early high school, I was bullied. Despite the fact that I was physically larger than some of my bullies, they had a psychological edge. They would engage in endless personal attacks. They would pick on every little characteristic you had, and make you feel horrible about yourself for being the way you are.They would demean and dehumanize you. They would often threaten and encourage physical violence, and sometimes even carry through on their promises.
In hindsight, I know what these bullies sought: power, and perhaps respect (or fear?) from other bullies. They wanted to be king for the sake of being king, for the privileges that came with having power. They were willing to do anything to feel that power, including harming anyone who stood in their way. And they wielded their power recklessly, without mercy.
They had no interest in anything other than themselves and their own standing in the world.
I think back now and imagine that one of these school bullies has decided to run for president of the school government. He presents his fellow students with a lengthy list of policy positions. I read it over and find that I agree on most of his positions, and disagree with most of the positions of his opponent.
Yet, how could I possibly support this person? I agree with his policy positions, sure, but what about him as a person? And I find that the reason I couldn’t support him is the same reason I couldn’t support even a liberal Trump — my respect for basic human decency.
Now, back to the real world. Hillary Clinton has made mistakes. Anyone who has spent decades in public office and tried to pursue any worthwhile objective has made mistakes, or else they’ve not accomplished anything. And yes, her mistakes have caused real harm throughout the world. Yet, many of Clinton’s mistakes are seriously overblown by her critics (see: the email scandal). And, more importantly, Clinton has at least admitted to, and apologized for, many of these mistakes. At the most, she even has changed her ways.
Clinton also holds policy positions that I do not support, and has sought to enact policies I would reject. But then, while these policies matter, they are pieces of Clinton’s entire political career and personal character.
And, beyond these mistakes and differences, Clinton has many, many positive traits. Among them is a sense of basic human decency, which guides both her policy positions and her behavior as a public figure.
Consider: Clinton has never stereotyped an entire country’s population; never belittled a war hero because he was captured and tortured; never mocked a person with disabilities; never insulted her opponents’ spouses for their looks; never suggested a judge is unfit because of his family’s heritage; never suggested that because she is powerful, she can sexually assault others; never shared a stage with someone who suggested her political opponent should be hanged; never been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan; and the list goes on.
Some would argue that Clinton doesn’t have this sort of record because she is a calculating politician, and they are not entirely wrong. Clinton is a politician, and any politician makes calculations. But this flattens an entire landscape, suggesting that most politicians in some way mirror Trump; they don’t. And it dehumanizes Clinton entirely. It completely neglects to appreciate that she actually cares about other people. Not just enough to refrain from insulting them — but enough to engage with them and their arguments in an inclusive and respectful manner.
If Trump is the school bully who fellow students hate for subjecting them to fear and violence, then Clinton is the valedictorian who some fellow students may dislike over a few of her opinions or habits, but hate because she is a strong, driven, and successful woman. Such sentiments might be somewhat understandable in high school boys, but they are inexcusable amongst an adult populace in the year 2016.
The fact is, the 2016 election comes down to two candidates. No candidate outside of Trump and Clinton stands a chance of winning (although one of them could garner meaningful public support, which could make them worthy of support in non-swing states). That is a shame, but it is the world we currently occupy.
But then, voting is not about finding and supporting a perfect candidate. The perfect candidate has never existed and will never exist. Differences of opinion are a fact of life, even amongst those who belong to the same tribe. Voting for public officials is about weighing pros and cons, upsides and downsides, strengths and weaknesses, imagining what each candidate would do and how each candidate would carry themselves in office, and then pulling the lever for the person who most closely resembles the desired picture in your head and might help improve our society and our world, even if only in small nudges.
The idea of Trump as president horrifies me because I know the kinds of policies he would pursue. But the idea of Trump as president also horrifies me because I know the kind of person he is — the kind who does not deserve the power he seeks, and who will not hesitate to use it to destroy everything in his path for his own gain.