Back in September, 2016, I wrote an essay posted here explaining why I would not be voting for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for POTUS. At the time I stated that “I do not believe Trump has the temperament, nor do I feel Clinton has the integrity, while neither display the requisite political skills to lead this nation.” At the time I argued for a protest vote and explained why, but nobody really needed to listen.
One could probably argue that I was only half right, because Trump did win the election and we’re still here. Political competence is probably in the eye of the beholder.
So, four years later we’re back with a similar choice between Trump for re-election or former VP Joe Biden to succeed him and I am again faced with the same quandary. You’re probably thinking, who cares? But I will state here in writing my decision for several reasons, in brief so as to not needlessly bore you if you’re still reading.
First, I’m a political scientist and policy analyst, so I’m not uninformed when it comes to American politics as I have been observing, studying, and analyzing our party politics for the better part of four decades. Second, due to my professional interests I find myself frequently in these contentious debates over partisan and ideological politics where the accusations and projections fly, the result being that I find myself constantly having to restate my initial positions, which are now published here forever on the Internet. With this record, I can merely refer my discussant to review what I wrote, rather than waste time restating it and not being believed.
This has been useful because for the past four years I have tried to explain to Trump-haters (and they really do hate him) that Trump is not the cause, but the symptom of our political dysfunction. Now, if you’re a Trump-hater, and I’m not, you’ll have none of it and so I have often been accused of being a Trump supporter, and I’m not. I just want to live in a rational world and there’s nothing rational about our current politics.
Let me give a quick overview of the situation as I see it. I don’t see a knight in shining armor here, either in the person of the President or his challenger. On one side I see a bull in a china shop, being deliberately poked and breaking things as his ego, self-aggrandizement, and political survival require. I do believe his one desire, for better or worse, is to be judged by history as a successful president. I imagine every president’s ultimate aspiration is to be judged in the same company as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
On the other side, I see a historically weak candidate with 47 unremarkable years in Washington politics, paired with an ambitious dark horse running mate that failed miserably among her own voters; both being propped up by a shadow party eager to return to power. Given Biden’s obvious cognitive decline and the excessive demands of the presidency, I really have no idea who would be commanding a Biden administration or what agenda they would put forth once they no longer have an opposition to demonize. The candidate seems unable to articulate this.
Not a great choice, but this is where we are.
For me this election is not just about judging personalities and character, both of which I find wanting (the first debate confirmed this). What I see beyond the media-driven smoke and mirrors is a deep power struggle between two contending visions of American society and between two elite political camps who both want to secure that power. But these visions seem to be a means to an end rather than the defense of constitutional first principles. It also appears that either side will do anything, say anything, in order to prevail in the coming election, even fanning the flames of social conflict.
I don’t see American politics as a battle between Athens and Sparta, or Rome and Carthage, where the loser will be erased from history. Rather I see a pendulum swing that has always marked our national politics. In my own experience I have seen Nixon as a reaction to Johnson, Carter as a reaction to Nixon, Reagan as a reaction to Carter, Clinton as a reaction to Reagan/Bush, Bush as a reaction to Clinton, Obama as a reaction to Bush, and finally Trump as a reaction to Obama. Will Biden be a reaction to Trump, or will we need to wait for 2024?
At the same time, I have lived through a cultural evolution that has seen the decline of national identity that has diminished our sense of shared community. As a matter of fact, supported by data, this is most defined by a rural — suburban — urban divide, which has been blurred by our obsessions with multiculturalism and identity politics. We are also divided by class, with growing inequality between the asset-rich and asset-poor. These changes have accelerated with technology and globalization. The resulting tension is over the pace of change, between gradual managed traditionalism vs. proactive progressivism. This is a significant point, because opposing positions on the pace of change can be reconciled.
Unfortunately, I see us turning national politics into the ultimate prize conferring power over the present and future, and now even the past. I think this is largely a political conceit. The pendulum still swings, but in the short-term power means wealth and control and that seems to be what motivates our politics today, from the top down. Prudently managing change and stable continuity seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.
If you love or hate Trump, nothing I write here is going to change your mind — that’s pretty much a given. But consider the endless parade of scandals for and against the Trump administration and how that reflects on our democratic governance. Look at the failures of the media — both for and against Trump — to inform us objectively. Look at the attacks on our institutions — again from both sides. Look at the decline in trust across our society. One can merely reference a long laundry list of inter-party sabotage: from Russian collusion investigations and counter-investigations; to impeachment proceedings that were cynically pursued even though everyone knew it was a purely partisan gambit; to the politicization of a global virus pandemic; to racial unrest that has degenerated into violence and disorder; to a democratic national election that establishment elites threaten to dismiss as illegitimate. As I write this, we can now expect to enjoin another fierce battle that further politicizes our Supreme Court and judiciary. And I thought justice was supposed to be blind.
Trump is not “doing” this to us, and I’ve already used his name too many times in this essay considering he’s merely a symptom. My evaluation of his presidency is mixed, but one would think it to be an unmitigated disaster according to much of the news media. I can understand the dismay because the current administration has largely reversed the direction of the previous administration across most of the policy landscape. But that’s free democracy, which, despite protests to the contrary, we have not abandoned as we contest competing visions through the electoral process. But obsessing over the person of the presidency is driving us to the brink of insanity. Thank goodness for the Federal Reserve and Treasury, which keeps pumping money into our pockets (please note the sarcasm).
These last four years of political clashes underline the deeper societal dysfunction that has plagued us for almost two generations through divisive identity politics and a multiculturalism that deemphasizes our shared national culture. This is what I find far more disturbing than an elected official I didn’t vote for. What happened to winning elections through persuasion and common interests?
So, in brief, in November I will be casting a vote for the re-election of Donald Trump for three main reasons:
1. A Russian collusion/impeachment effort that has consumed 4 years of national governance for naught, promoted by a disingenuous political opposition and a complacent or duplicitous Fourth Estate;
2. A pandemic policy that has ignored rational risk trade-offs in a further attempt to politicize a health crisis that affects us all, especially those who can’t vote;
3. The promotion of racial animus and division through identity politics and public shaming in order to advance narrow political ambitions.
To be sure, racial minorities do have legitimate and pressing grievances. But these societal failures are not being addressed by cancel culture and the Black Lives Matter movement. Minorities, especially urban minorities, have been victims of poor housing policy, failures of public education that impede life opportunities, welfare policies that weaken family structures, failed drug and criminal justice policies, and class-based tax and financial policies that disfavor the asset-poor, driving inequality. I don’t see so-called woke activists addressing any of these challenges, but rather scapegoating the police who have been tasked to manage these aforementioned failures. With the exception of financial policy, these are primarily municipal and state failures and the only national demand on the POTUS will be to restore law and order.
In my reading of American politics, all the misguided efforts have been primarily driven by the singular desire to destroy a presidency by extraordinary, undemocratic means. And yes, he punches back with little concern for decorum. But this has only served to delegitimize and damage our trust in American democratic politics and institutions. In historical context this is truly a self-inflicted tragedy and one that our foreign adversaries certainly appreciate.
Perhaps the cultural rot goes much deeper and for that we have only ourselves to blame. Several recent books have traced this decline from the mid-60s to the present. Today one observes a certain psychological hysteria consuming much of the population over politics. Just yesterday I read another typical quote in the media on the upcoming SCOTUS nomination: “The Republican Party is preparing…to send the U.S. spiraling into an abyss of illegitimacy.” Really? This has been going on for four years and we wonder why so many voters have tuned out. In reality, I suspect some of these alarmists are staring into the abyss of political irrelevance.
I cannot see where this election takes us but I can’t condone political sabotage, no matter who’s holding office. And I’m not interested in childishness claims of, “He started it!” Four years ago, I registered a protest vote, but events have degenerated to the point I will cast my lot. What I seek above all in American democracy is the support and defense of liberty and justice for all, in the historical tradition of classical liberalism and a free society. A further descent into chaos and anarchy certainly doesn’t promote that objective. As I have tried to explain: Trump did not convince me to vote for him, the Democratic Party did.
I imagine many who read this will vehemently disagree with my interpretations and conclusion, claiming Trump is the threat to democracy. I’m unconvinced. Trump is a one-man force of nature opposed by the entire Washington establishment and mainstream press. He’s not an ideologue and can hardly lead an authoritarian coup — he has no army of Brownshirts and the other two branches of government have not collapsed. We can survive one man for four more years, but the collapse of democratic government will be far more costly. Trump’s election was a warning shot across the bow of both parties, so I would prefer to see the political establishments and media promote successful governance rather than trying to tear down a sitting POTUS. Trump’s instincts have been good, though he tests the waters with tweets meant to provoke. That’s his strategy to read public support.
Dissent is to be expected and tolerated in the messy process of democracy. However, there is a growing tendency to dismiss those who disagree with us as not acting in good faith. I find that tendency to run counter to the ideals of a free society. I would merely encourage each and every single voter to examine their own conscience, vote, and then accept the results with sober resolve.
Then we can get back to the more important task of living in peace.