You’ve seen it all over your timeline and feed: “The 2016 election is a choice between two awful decisions.” “Time to hold your nose and vote for the least bad option.” “The 2016 presidential election really scrapes the bottom of the barrel.” Whether your friends or people you follow are on the right or on the left, you’ve seen these posts.
On the one hand, these make sense; the two presumed candidates, former Senator Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump (sorry Bernie fans, it’s time to come to grips with math) are historically unpopular. Clinton has been embroiled in an ongoing email scandal and Trump … well. You know.
But on the other hand?
This election cycle has been filled with a lot of stupid notions, but the idea that Clinton and Trump are equally bad might just be the stupidest.
Sometimes, qualifications matter a lot.
Hillary Clinton has been a lawyer, activist, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and politically active First Lady for a two-term president. You might hate every policy Clinton has ever advocated for, but you can’t deny her experience or her qualifications. She’s been active in national politics since the 1980s, a three-decade long application to the presidency. You might not consider experience to be necessary for the presidency. You might wish we had a Washington outsider in the Oval Office. But let’s get rid of this idea that Clinton is unqualified for the Presidency. In any other job, experience is considered a benchmark of qualification.
The same cannot be said for Donald Trump. He’s a real estate mogul, reality TV star and political-money contributor whose longest paragraph for his official campaign bio trumpets how prestigious the addresses of his buildings are. He’s been active in national politics for approximately eight years (with a long track record of “thinking about” running for governor or President before that). Mostly, he built a lot of buildings and coined a catchphrase he’s not allowed to copyright.
This isn’t an election where qualifications are different. It’s not even comparing apples to oranges. Businessmen have run for President before, but it’s rare that a President has ever been elected with no elected experience, and unheard of that a President would be elected with no governmental or military experience. It’s like walking up to someone considering getting a tooth pulled and saying “Would you rather have a dentist who has a ton of training who might not be the best dentist in the world, or would you rather have the lady who yelled ‘you are the weakest link’ try to learn how to pull your tooth in the next two hours?”
Is Trump a Republican or a Democrat? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Experience aside, both Democratic and Republican voters do have plenty to dislike about both candidates. For Republicans, Clinton’s long-term progressive and liberal stances, her involvement in many perceived scandals of her husband, and her involvement in situations like Benghazi and the private email server all combine to make her an awful choice for President. And that’s fair — if a voter sincerely holds small-government, pro-life, pro-gun rights, pro-welfare reform and pro-free-market views, Clinton does represent the opposite of almost all of those stances.
Liberals, conversely, dislike Clinton for a series of other reasons: she voted to authorize the disastrous war in Iraq, she helped spearhead criminal justice reform that led to a significant rise in incarceration rates, she’s a little too cozy to the big banks that helped create the 2008 financial crisis and she isn’t as purely progressive as her primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. Again, these are issues worth considering, fair and important convictions that could justifiably lead liberal voters to choose another option than Clinton.
But for neither voter, conservative or liberal, should “another option” be Donald Trump. It’s difficult to overstate how easily Trump fails even the most basic tests for conviction-minded voters. For Republicans to vote for Trump, they would be choosing a candidate who has been on the record as supporting big government concepts like eminent domain, a candidate who is “very pro-choice,” someone who has criticized the Republican Party for being too close to the gun lobby, a candidate who has supported a single-payer healthcare system and an expansion of Medicaid powers and a “Republican” who opposes free trade.
Meanwhile, for the Sanders voters who say they’d rather vote for Trump than Clinton, what kind of candidate would they be choosing? Oh, just someone who said women who get abortions should be punished, a candidate who has advocated for throwing out all illegal immigrants — even if doing so would split up families, a candidate who would repeal President Obama’s healthcare law and a person who refers to the chosen candidate of the young liberal left as “Crazy Bernie Sanders.”
In short, Donald Trump is not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s not a conservative or a liberal. He’s not a valid choice for any voter who actually cares about political issues, either domestic or abroad. Trump is something else. He’s something that threatens the nature of the American democratic experiment.
Yes, you should be scared.
This May, Austria elected a new President. Though a left-leaning politician endorsed by the Green Party eventually won the presidency, he won only by the slimmest of margins — the man he defeated, Norbert Hofer, is a member of the Freedom Party of Austria, an anti-immigration party that traces its history back to Nazi founders.
This wasn’t Austria’s first brush with the far-right politics of the Freedom Party. In 1999, parliamentary elections gave them the most seats in parliament. The man slated to become chancellor (until a coalition deal avoided it) was Freedom Party head Jörg Haider. Haider rode a wave of anti-immigration sentiment to election victory, channeling populist anger against the ruling parties into political success, even while the world decried his positive comments about Nazi economic policy and the SS. The city of Vienna weathered days of riots, as protests and riots rocked the capital after Haider’s party came to power.
I was an American living in Vienna at the time. I was in high school and didn’t know much about global politics, outside of “Nazis are bad.” But I was told that what was happening in Austria could never happen in the U.S. After all, Austria was a parliamentary system, which meant that bonkers extremist parties would always be able to sneak in, and maybe steal an election. It was the same reason the National Front could gain power in France, or the British National Party could hope to influence British and European politics or that Italy had a fascist party. These were the issues of Europe, I was told, and America’s two-party system ensured an extremist could never gain power. The American system depended on a bedrock of centrist stability.
And then: Trump.
Trump has ridden a cult of personality (aided by the extremist conservative media that has quietly shifted the Republican base ever more to the right) and grabbed hold of people’s fear about civil and economic issues to become the unthinkable. He’s become the extremist candidate we never believed we’d see. He is cynicism in politics come to life. Donald Trump is what happens when the whispers of nationalism, the insane conspiracy theories, the hints of white supremacy, the touches of sexism and the undertones of racism that have been a part of the conservative moment of the last 10-15 years are brought out of the shadows into the light.
So, what do we do?
Well, the first step is to acknowledge that we do not have two equally bad choices in front of us. We have a “traditionally bad” candidate in the form of Hillary Clinton, who represents compromise, pragmatism and centrist political clout — in other words, an American presidential candidate.
And then we have a candidate who would represent, without hyperbole, an unprecedented break in the democratic tradition. He is an authoritarian; the very thing the United States was founded in order to avoid. You might be tempted to think that wouldn’t be so bad. After all, the American democratic system has been guilty of a great many sins over its history. But even this belief can not justify at least four years of deportations, of potential wars, of a President who values self over politics and of rampant racism and xenophobia. Trump is not the lesser of two evils. He is not even a candidate.
Then, we must make a decision among the remaining choices: Vote for Clinton, vote for a third-party candidate or don’t vote at all.
If you choose the last option, your silence is a valuable statement, but please head to the polls anyway and vote in your local and state elections. There is also no shame in voting for a third-party candidate who won’t win. There is no more obvious way to announce your dissatisfaction with the political status quo.
Additionally, Clinton remains the most qualified presidential candidate in recent history. She will certainly make mistakes (like, say, using a private email server and opening herself to security vulnerabilities) and decisions that will anger voters, but she is far less likely to permanently damage the state of our democracy or intentionally put human rights at risk.
Politicians often say that the upcoming election is the “most important one in history.” Usually, this is nonsense. But in 2016, it just might be true. Will conservatives “hold their nose” and vote for Trump, a man who has taken their party into overtly racist and sexist positions? Will leftist Bernie Sanders voters channel their anger at Sanders’ loss into a foolhardy vote for a man who shares none of their principles?
Or will Americans of all political stripes have the courage to cast a vote against cynicism and hate, and deny Trump yet another seal of approval? Elections always matter, but in 2016, your vote matters to the future of the country — and to how your country treats its citizens, neighbors, and enemies.