Over the last few days, amidst the near-universal condemnation of all things Donald Trump, two provocative and interrelated questions have stealthily crossed my desk.
First: Is there anything Hillary Clinton could say or do that would prevent us from voting for her for president?
And second: How would we react if the presidential election were a contest between Donald Trump and David Duke?
The latter was posed by Dr. Cornel West during last Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. I don’t recall where I came upon the former, although I’m guessing its author has a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker featured prominently on his or her vehicle.
While both queries were largely rhetorical—a means of confronting Hillary Clinton supporters for their perceived capitulation to the lesser-evil principle in American politics—I think it’s worth taking them seriously, if only to demonstrate how insufferably smug and vacuous they truly are.
What could Hillary do to lose my vote, you ask? I don’t know, maybe if she proposed banning all Muslims from the United States. Or suggested women should be jailed for having abortions. Or belittled a former prisoner of war. Or mocked a disabled journalist. Or casually implied that she desires sexual relations with her daughter and then touched said daughter in a particularly creepy fashion during the Democratic National Convention.
Yup, I imagine if the Democratic Party nominee for president did any of the above during the next three months, I would have serious reservations about supporting her for the highest office in the land, since they would cast grave doubts about her qualifications, her judgment and her very sanity for a job that requires copious amounts of all three.
However, I don’t anticipate that any of the above will occur, since the market for grotesquely unprofessional behavior has already been cornered by the very man that Clinton is running against.
Indeed, it’s hard to conceive a moment in which Hillary’s personal shortcomings have been less relevant to the national conversation—and less problematic in the broader scheme of things—than in her present cage match with Donald Trump. Like it or not, all elections are a choice between two howling imperfections, forcing you to temper your expectations and tweak your ideals to conform to the options immediately before you. If the outsized absurdity of Trump’s character and behavior has produced any lasting value, it has been to underline how mundane Clinton’s own faults are by comparison.
This is not to say that those faults are not troubling, or that we should simply ignore them and hope they magically go away. They are, we shouldn’t and they won’t.
But we also need to recognize the difference between patrolling a candidate’s failings and condemning her entire candidacy on the basis of those failings. We need to admit, say, that Hillary has a disturbingly long record of fudging the truth of a situation—often against her own interests—while also acknowledging that this tendency—so common among all politicians—does not pose an existential threat to the republic.
Arguably the key insight of the whole 2016 election is that Trump’s collected flaws do rise to the level of disqualifying him from high office, while Clinton’s manifestly do not. To quote Andrew Sullivan—a man who has detested Clinton as vehemently as any blogger has detested anyone: “[Clinton] is a mediocre politician in our liberal democratic system. Trump is a direct, grave and imminent threat to the very system itself. That’s the essential choice this year. It is the easiest choice in my lifetime.”
That brings us to Cornel West—a Bernie Sanders partisan now leaning toward Jill Stein—who tried to knock some sense into Clintonistas by theorizing a race between Trump and David Duke, the notorious former Klansman who announced a U.S. Senate run at the same time that he endorsed Trump for president.
By presenting this hypothetical match-up of one repugnant, race-baiting troll against another, West was perhaps trying to justify the reluctance of certain Sanders loyalists to get behind Clinton—a woman who, in their view, is simply too unappealing to support under any circumstances. In other words, West was suggesting that the imperative to back the “lesser of two evils” need not apply if you consider both options to be genuinely, wholly evil.
It’s a noble argument—a defense of retaining one’s humanity in the face of political inhumanity—but it’s also completely irrelevant to the election actually occurring in the real world—or, for that matter, any election that has occurred ever.
Hillary Clinton is not David Duke, nor has anyone—including Cornel West—suggested she is. She is paranoid, equivocating, disingenuous and compromised, but none of those traits rises (or falls) to the level of abject evil. They are irritating but not beyond the pale, and we need to accept the giant gulf that separates one from the other.
As for this absurd hypothetical—what if the Democrats managed to nominate a candidate as irredeemably awful as Trump?—the question for voters would remain the same: Which nominee is more likely to leave the country better off than when he or she found it?
Contrary to apparent popular belief, there is no such thing as two equally bad options. As Bill Maher has frequently quipped, one choice is always worse than the other, and it’s the duty of all responsible Americans to identify which is which. Hitler was worse than Stalin in 1941, and no amount of moral indignation could’ve negated the imperative of picking the least-worst side when there was no viable alternative. In that moment, the facts on the ground were more important than how we might’ve felt about them under ideal circumstances.
As such, there is something profoundly annoying—and ultimately cowardly—about this desire to find a trap door beneath any ethically difficult decision. To say, for instance, “This election is too unpleasant, so I’m just going to skip it.” Or—in the case of sudden converts to Jill Stein or Gary Johnson—to say, “I cannot handle the consequences of choosing between the two people who could actually win, so instead I’m going to hide behind someone who obviously can’t, then congratulate myself for not being part of the problem.”
Sorry, but in doing that, you are part of the problem. In our two-party electoral system—an arrangement that persists regardless of your opinion of it—opting for a third-party candidate is not a choice; it’s a way of avoiding a choice. If you truly subscribe to Green or Libertarian principles—as Dan Savage and others have argued—the time for coalition-building is the four-year period in between presidential elections, not the three-month window from now to November when you’ve suddenly realized that neither the Democrats nor Republicans are quite to your liking.
There’s more to life than getting everything you want and throwing a tantrum when you don’t. All of my demands are certainly not being met this election season, and neither are anyone else’s.
So what do you do? You get over it. You go to war with the candidates you have—not the candidates you wanted at the beginning of the primaries, nor the candidates you’d put forward if you were made master of the universe.
Democracy is always and forever a clash between bad and worse. In this election, in this year, it’s not a matter of one nominee being less evil than the other. It’s a matter of one being horrible and the other being good enough.