A George Carlin video is making the rounds on Facebook. It’s worth watching because it’s funny in Carlin’s outrageously cynical way.
It’s also disturbing. Carlin turns on its head the old saying that “If you don’t vote you can’t complain,” arguing instead that if you vote you can’t complain because you’re responsible for putting the idiots in office. “Politicians suck!” he says. Why? “Selfish, ignorant citizens” elect them. So “who really sucks?” he asks. “Maybe it’s the public.” Voting is meaningless, he says, because it doesn’t really matter. “Don’t vote for ’em,” he says, “fuck ’em!”
A Facebook friend of mine commented, “Cynical, but true.” My friend argues against political posts on the social media site since it’s all meaningless anyway.
Somebody who doesn’t know George Carlin died more than 8 years ago could be forgiven for thinking Carlin was commenting on the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. There’s a daily refrain saying that the similarities between the candidates of the two major parties are more important than their differences.
It is said they are the two least-trusted, least-liked presidential candidates in our history. Both are liars, we are told. One covers up or minimizes inappropriate use of a private server to send and receive emails about official business, other missteps or malfeasance in high office, her health problems and even (it is whispered) lesbian relationships. The other lies to obfuscate highly controversial opinions about African-Americans, women, the disabled, and people of Mexican or Middle Eastern descent; to deny the way he has treated vendors; to mislead voters about his business success, his charitable giving, and perhaps his wealth.
There are other similarities. She says “half his followers” – around a quarter of the electorate – are deplorable racists, misogynists, homo-haters, and xenophobes. He classifies anyone who disagrees with or defies him a “loser,” or worse. His business ties with despotic governments and admiration of leaders like Vladimir Putin raise serious questions about the possible conflation of his business interests with the foreign policy of the United States. She is accused by his followers of granting special favors while in the office of the Secretary of State to Clinton Foundation donors.
Of course, some “sins” are worse than others. Some reveal personality flaws that are common among humans. Some suggest deeply disturbing truths that would disqualify. It is not my purpose here to litigate which is which.
It is, however, my purpose to assert that even if the flaws of the two candidates were more or less morally equivalent (an assessment I reject), the choice between the two of them – and those who think like them down the ballot – that choice is hardly meaningless. Both want America to be “great.” But there is a chasm between the two camps about the meaning of greatness and the routes to further achieve it.
In his column “Letter from Washington” (The New Yorker, September 26) Evan Osnos suggests that Mr. Trump has “three core principles:” that the United States should do less to “solve the world’s problems;” that trade agreements are big problems for this country; and that immigrants are “detrimental.” Taken together, these principles comprise a vision of the nation that is nearly a polar opposite of the vision that has driven many of the nation’s policies over the last seven or eight decades at least.
Be that as it may, none of these principles can really be considered radical. Though many would say the views are discredited by the history of the United States, isolationism in its various forms has been a commonplace idea, usually but not always associated with conservatives. Nor can anyone accuse Mr. Trump of pure isolationism, given his expressed willingness to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, which he seems to have offered to one-up primary opponent Ted Cruz, who pledged to “bomb ISIS back to the stone age,” pirating the late Gen. Curtis Lemay’s elegant turn of phrase. Some will remember that LeMay was George Wallace’s running mate in the 1968 presidential election.
Deep as these differences between Clinton and Trump may be, they are nevertheless questions the nation has debated before. They are not the kind of thing that makes people say this election campaign in different than any previous contest.
The deeper differences between the two are not found in things like the difference between the work of the Clinton Foundation and that of the Trump Foundation. They don’t reside in the lines of the candidates’ respective form 1040s or the texts of their speeches to business and banking groups. The fault lines lie in the attitudes each expresses about the role of government and about those who are governed.
- Start with Trump’s blatant disdain for people of color, the disabled, and the poor whether displayed in offhand comments from the campaign stage or his comment to columnist Maureen Dowd about those (including politicians) whose family history includes generations of poverty when he said “How smart can they be? They’re morons.”
- This is a man who tells audiences of white voters that blacks “have nothing to lose” by voting for him, who mocks a disabled person, and who declines to support increases in the minimum wage so that the poor will be inspired to “go out and work really hard” to get rich like he is. Can we expect any advocacy from him as president for members of these disadvantaged groups?
- Trump callously proposes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with legislation that independent analysts say will raise the number of Americans without health care coverage to 21 million or more while costing an additional $300+ million even if you include the benefits of additional economic growth it allegedly would produce. Even this estimate ignores the human costs of going without needed care, the costs of lost productivity due to increased incidence of ill health, the penalty of bankruptcy or loss of a home by those trying to pay for a family member’s care.
- If Trump becomes president, what should we expect from him with respect to those who may demonstrate dissent from his policies? Can we seriously expect he would react differently than he did to protestors attending campaign events? He asked one audience “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this?” He said “They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks. It’s true … I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.” At another event where people were protesting, he said “People are there doing harm. You have to use equal force.”
- And what about the American principle of equal justice under the law? The candidate calls for the abrogation of the Constitution with respect to American citizens accused of terroristic crimes on American soil. This isn’t a recent practice: as far back as 1989, he called for the death of five black teenagers who were coerced into confessing guilt for a crime they did not commit. When they were proven innocent, he shrugged his shoulders and opposed a settlement by the City of New York for the police misconduct. He criticized the Latino heritage of a judge who rules against him. He encourages ethnic profiling as an anti-terrorism tactic “because we have no choice.” His silence on the questionable police shootings of African-Americans is deafening, while he calls for an investigation of the Black Lives Matter movement. He decries the Supreme Court decision concerning marriage equality. He calls for racial profiling, saying “we’d better get smart.”
Like Trump, Ms. Clinton appears to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership in its present form. She originally supported NAFTA but later acknowledged that it “was a mistake.” Like Trump, she has voiced significant reservations about other trade agreements, although for different reasons. Trump is sure he could get a “better deal.” Ms. Clinton expresses sympathy for the concerns of organized labor.
Otherwise, looking at the policies and programs Clinton supports the differences are stark. Although she is criticized by many for her close ties to banking behemoths and for her past support for mass incarceration, she supports an increase in the minimum wage and has a long history of specific actions to pursue racial justice, which in her mind necessitates attention to economic inequality. She supports expanding and improving Obamacare, not gutting it. Like President Obama, she says she has “evolved” on marriage equality.
Clinton voted for the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform plan supported by President Bush which, combined increased enforcement with a path to legalization and eventually citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and has talked about a similar policy in this campaign. Mr. Trump is prepared to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants in the country as quickly as possible while excluding even legal visits from certain countries in the name of preventing terrorism.
And let’s not forget the current and upcoming vacancies on the Supreme Court. Mr. Trump has pledged to his supporters that he will appoint someone like the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia was a self-styled “originalist,” meaning that the Constitution should be interpreted according to what the words would have meant to those who wrote and ratified the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Intentionally or otherwise this approach would lead to the overturn many of the key decisions of the Warren and Burger courts of the 1960’s and 70’s.
In contrast, Ms. Clinton has called for the Senate to confirm President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland while reserving the right to choose her own person if he is not confirmed before her inauguration as president (assuming she is elected). In 2010, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (referring to his potential nomination to replace Justice John Paul Stevens) called Garland a “consensus nominee” and predicted he would be confirmed with bipartisan support.
Tell me you favor Trump because he’s a strong leader who eschews “political correctness.” Or tell me you favor Clinton because you share her values and prefer a more nearly progressive approach to governing. But puhleeze don’t tell me the differences are meaningless.