On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life. (Hurray for early voting!) Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.
True: In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying. On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.
But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims. Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.
With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world. Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen. As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.
And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.
In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense. To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.
Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?
Look: We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women. But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.
If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.
So why do we do it? Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes. Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true. Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.
Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do. Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?
Well, we know what it would say: That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked. And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life. By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.
With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce. At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.
Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal: What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?
By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people. From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:
- So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
- Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
- The basket of deplorables.
Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?
Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate. While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.
In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.
Again: Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values. And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.
Pot, meet kettle.
The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes. Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.