It is extraordinary how, in the last stage of this dismal campaign, both candidates are revealed as the most exaggerated and grotesque form of their stereotype. The cartoon versions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are, in fact, photorealism.
Who can now deny that the inhabitants of Clinton world are so accustomed to corruption that they can’t even see it anymore? The State Department, the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton’s cronies and both Clintons’ personal finances were all one thing – an instrument of enrichment designed to maintain red-carpet social standing and political relevance. The lawyers who surround Clinton have ceased to care primarily about the law. They are enablers who could not recognize the risk of conducting public business on a private server, the problem with electronically shredding thousands of emails, or the impropriety of routine self-dealing and (at least) the appearance of influence peddling.
What does all this tell us about Clinton? It reveals a leader who seems to value loyalty above integrity; who surrounds herself with yes-persons; who responded to a lifetime of controversy by growing a thick shell of Nixonian paranoia; who seems to regard her own considerable public contributions as permission for profiteering.
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Who can now deny that residents of Trumpland – the candidate and his small inner circle – are every bit as radical and revolting as advertised? They seem intent on reducing turnout by making presidential politics so rancid, so rank, so radioactive, that only his cheering, frothing partisans will be motivated to vote. The Trump campaign has embraced a political strategy first outlined by agitated callers on conservative talk radio. Alex from Amarillo – such a big fan of your show – would invite Bill Clinton’s accusers to a presidential debate, or promise to put Hillary in jail, or hint at her complicity in murder.
What does all this tell us about Trump? He pulls people close to him who reinforce his anger, his prejudice, his megalomania, his conspiracy-mindedness. He is both impossibly ignorant and insanely confident in his own flawed judgment. He thinks he should be exempt from the normal rules of transparency – by refusing to supply his tax returns – while using a presidential campaign to pimp his brand. He is acting as a propaganda arm of the Putin administration, defying the judgment of American intelligence agencies, in a manner that raises serious questions about his true motives. He has tried to explain away the language of sexual assault as locker room talk and attacked the character and appearance of women who say they experienced his technique. Trump has dramatically lowered public standards of civility, of honesty, of tolerance, of decency and of ethics.
Those who deny the rough accuracy of either of these pictures – and there are plenty of Americans who would – are partisans. They not only hold a set of political opinions, they are determined to live in their own version of reality, from which inconvenient facts are banished by edict. They have already made up their minds; perhaps already voted.
But how about the rest of us? It does not help to point out that there has been a massive failure of the presidential nomination process in both parties; one candidate stale and tainted, the other vapid and vile.
In addition to bitter complaint, voters have several options. They can write in a name (let’s hear it for Paul Ryan or Condi Rice). They can support the well-intentioned but not particularly qualified Evan McMullin. Americans can justifiably refuse to vote in the presidential election. There is no democratic principle that forces someone to pull the lever for a politician who morally offends them.
Or they can reluctantly and strategically vote for Clinton, who lacks essential elements of integrity but not the qualifications for high office.
Only one option is precluded – to vote for Trump. And here are the postcard reasons: Trump is a man of dangerously erratic temperament who should not be allowed to control American foreign and military policy. Trump lacks a commitment to democratic ideals and institutions, demonstrated by his attempt to discredit any electoral outcome unfavorable to him. Trump operates by a materialistic, Nietzschean ethic – an ethic of dominance and revenge in which power and success are worshiped and the weak are treated with contempt and cruelty. And Trump is deeply and defiantly ignorant, with no basis or background to make informed choices on complex issues.
America has two bad choices, but not equally bad.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.