Forty years ago, as an idealistic college kid in Des Moines, Iowa, I cast my first vote for president. I voted Republican, and I’ve done the same in dozens of elections since.
Along the way, I worked in the White House for President Ronald Reagan and as an adviser for countless politicians here in California – all of them Republican. The GOP has always been my happy home.
But this year is different. This year party loyalty must take a backseat to what’s best for America. This year I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, and given the alarming alternative crowned by millions of my fellow Republicans, it’s an easy call.
What’s not so easy is making sense of the hostile reaction to my choice. We live in a democracy, a nation built with the blood of brave souls who defied a mighty monarchy to guarantee future generations the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a free country. And we are free to cast our ballots for whomever we choose.
But apparently some Americans – including some Republicans I call friends – equate political independence with unthinkable heresy. They’d rather cling to the party line and hand the Oval Office to a petulant, dangerously unbalanced reality TV star than support a Democrat.
That’s disturbing, and the lockstep partisanship it reflects makes me concerned for our country.
I’ve weathered a strong dose of that partisanship in recent days. When news of my decision to support Clinton over Donald Trump aired in late May on CNN, the reaction was strong and swift. My interview with the network was trending on Twitter for a full day, and I was flooded with emails, voice mails, texts and Facebook notes from friends and strangers.
Most of the comments were encouraging, with many folks supportive of #Republicans4Hillary. A lifelong Republican from New Jersey applauded my “courage” and said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” that his beloved party had adopted a “my way or the highway” stance supporting Trump.
A conservative former GOP speechwriter echoed those thoughts and offered to do anything to “stop this monster from getting anywhere near the White House.” He, too, will vote for Hillary.
One of the most compelling emails came from a German woman, Ursula Vogel of Bonn. “More than 80 years ago,” she wrote, “our nation made a big mistake in giving power to a very dangerous man ... The United States and the entire world will face a horrible future with a President Donald Trump.”
Along with the supportive messages, however, came many that were downright hateful. I knew I’d get some flak, but I expected mostly good-natured jabs and honest disagreements. There was some of that. But there was also a current of viciousness that surprised even someone with thick skin like me.
One writer said he wanted me to watch my family endure violence at the hands of illegal immigrants. Other diehard Trumpians called me a “moron” with an unprintable modifier and other things not allowed in newspapers, and said they hoped I’d die before their candidate took the oath of office.
Some might dismiss these venomous comments as the work of a few wackos, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s a matter of monkey see, monkey do. Trump is nasty, disrespectful, hotheaded and prone to bizarre outbursts featuring all manner of slurs. He is hateful, so it’s no surprise that his amped-up troops are spewing hate, too.
Trump also fuels this behavior with his full-throated portrayal of our country as a Balkanized place of us vs. them, a place where somebody somewhere – probably someone with brown skin or an unusual surname – must be to blame for our troubles, large and small. His answers – Build a wall! Deport 11 million illegals! Make America great again! Bomb the s--- out of ISIS! – are so appealingly (and appallingly) simple, it’s no wonder so many people are gulping down the Kool-Aid.
But the world is a complicated place. The world is a place of nuances, a place in which diplomacy, reason and wisdom are what we need to steer a safe, prosperous course forward, both domestically and globally. Putting a rash, narcissistic bully like Trump in charge of our nation – including its armies and nuclear launch codes – would be nothing short of disastrous.
And so yes, this year I will vote for a Democrat for the first time ever, for Hillary Clinton because I believe that four years of Clinton as president is better than one day of Trump. While she holds many policy positions that differ from my own, her qualifications for the presidency cannot be disputed. And while she is flawed, she has the temperament and experience needed to lead our nation with a steady hand.
Trump does not even come close, and his policies, conduct and belief system don’t represent the Republican Party I’ve known and loved. Rather, he’s the ultimate charlatan, a masterful magician who has managed to hoodwink gullible Americans into believing he is fit to lead.
Trump has built his sickening brand on a foundation of xenophobia, tapping into people’s fears and struggles to hoist himself as some sort of divine, orange-haired superhero – the long-awaited chosen one who can deliver us from our woes.
On Tuesday night, as she became the first American woman within striking distance of the White House, Clinton took note of this: “He’s not just trying to build a wall between America and Mexico,” she said. “He’s trying to wall off Americans from each other.”
Indeed he is. That’s not what the United States is all about. That’s not “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
I’m predicting that sanity will ultimately prevail and this nightmare will end Nov. 8, and I’ll be staying up late to cheer.
Doug Elmets worked in the Reagan White House and owns a public affairs firm in Sacramento. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.