Most of the Tuesday-morning quarterbacks for last night’s debate have declared Hillary Clinton the “winner” because, you know, she spoke in complete sentences that seemed to flow logically from one to the next, and she outlined her actual (as opposed to imaginary) plans and ideas for improving the country, beating back ISIS, and preventing homegrown anarchists from looking up “how to make a bomb” on the internet.
And, except for right-wing media outlets like Breitbart, which charged moderator Lester Holt with bias for saying the word “birther” but not “Benghazi,” Trump has been dutifully savaged by the pundit-industrial complex for being a foreign-policy idiot, lying about everything, talking gibberish about everything else, interrupting, pouting, sniffling, and generally behaving like a sixth-grade boy bullshitting his way through an interrogation by his parents.
Many folks left of Vlad the Impaler think anyone who votes for Donald Trump is, by definition, an idiot. What very few people give Donald Trump credit for is that he is right about a number of crucial things about America and American life (there’s a reason he’s up there), and he is dangerously close to tapping into a volcanic undercurrent of despair and resentment that could blow this whole democracy thing sky high.
What Donald Trump understands and gets absolutely right is that millions of people in America are so angry they can’t think straight. Furthermore they don’t want to, because thinking “straight”—that is, playing by the rules they were taught, that working hard and being a good person is all you need to do to have a decent life in this country—is what landed them in their current mess in the first place. They don’t care that Donald Trump doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, they prefer his brand of blatant ignorance to the pretense, by Hillary and her ilk, that they do have an answer for everything. If you’re so smart, they wonder, why is my life swirling down the shitter? If your answers are so great, why does life outside my window look so goddamn miserable?
Trump understands that, for millions of people, Hillary Clinton does indeed represent the status quo—that nefarious force that has disenfranchised millions and can be blamed for pretty much everything, because it doesn’t really mean anything. The “status quo” is simply what is and has been, and criticizing it for not being “better” is the easiest thing in the world. It’s also Hillary’s biggest weakness. Because while she can argue that things could be a lot worse under a Trump presidency, and might have been worse if she weren’t part of the power structure, she cannot argue that things are better than they are to people who wake up in the morning wondering how things could get much worse.
If you lost your job because it got outsourced to Singapore, and your kids need clothes and food but you have no money, you are not an idiot for wanting to blame someone, somewhere for your troubles. You are not an idiot for thinking that you don’t have time to “re-train” yourself for another career. And you are not an idiot for recognizing that what you really, truly need is another job—now—because, you know, rent is due at the first of every month.
Trump also is correct when he says that America is a nation in decline in many areas. Our airports and infrastructure are, in some cases, worse than those in third-world countries. More than a dozen African countries have faster average internet speeds than those in the U.S., as do most other industrialized countries. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. Our mass transit is laughable compared to many European countries. Our infant mortality rate is higher than 27 other industrialized nations, including Cuba, despite our having the highest healthcare costs in the world. Raising children in America is an exercise in anxiety and exhaustion. The cost of going to college has reached the point of insanity. It is now almost impossible for most Americans to save enough money to retire. Rates of depression and suicide have never been higher. We are no longer the most educated country in the world, and, for good or ill, we no longer lead the world the way we used to. One huge reason: Our national politics is, in Trump's favorite word, a "disaster."
So there is a lot wrong with the American picture. And to many, Trump’s promises to “fix it,” however hollow, sound better than Hillary Clinton’s assurances that she won’t fix it very fast or very dramatically.
Hillary is arguing for gradual change in a complex world. But many Americans don’t feel like they can wait for that kind of change, and plenty can’t stand the “new normal” of the 21st-century economy. They are against Hillary precisely because she represents calm, cautious, reasonable progress—not the sort of decisive, “let’s fix this” attitude of Donald Trump, which, though it is little more than an empty posture, is a sentiment that aligns perfectly with the emotional frustration of millions in America who feel powerless to change anything themselves, and who suspect they are being held hostage by a dark cadre of do-nothing bureaucrats, politicians, and plutocrats who have rigged the system in their favor. This also happens to be the truth (none other than Jimmy Carter has stated that we no longer live in a democracy, we live in a plutocracy), and no amount of reasonable, stay-the-course progressivism will satisfy those who feel as if they’re good-faith efforts to achieve the American Dream have left them completely and utterly screwed.
The problem with Donald Trump is he gets so much so wrong that it’s impossible to take him seriously. Besides, he is such an improbable spokesman for the frustrations of the common man that the message tends to gets lost somewhere between his narcissistic gibberish and his claim that he started out in business with a “small” $14 million loan from his father. On the left, Bernie Sanders appealed to precisely the same emotions—frustration, powerlessness, betrayal—and was much more articulate, but running as a socialist curmudgeon in America has never been a winning strategy. So what are we left with this year?
Trump vs. Clinton: The Battle to the Bottom
Many people are afraid of what might happen if Donald Trump is elected. But Trump is not the problem. The problem is what and who Trump represents. What America’s ruling class should be afraid of is the rising tide of distrust and growing hatred for America’s government and institutions, which are the foundation of any functioning democracy. They should also be afraid of what might happen if, after four or eight years of stasis with Hillary Clinton as president, a smarter, smoother, savvier demagogue comes along with a much more precise and accurate critique of America’s leadership, who promises the same sort of emotionally satisfying upheaval of the “system” advocated by Donald Trump—but who can speak in complete sentences, is a likeable person, can hold his own in a debate, and seems like a reasonable alternative to the status quo, but isn’t. Not by a long shot. Think of a Marco Rubio who can tell a joke, or (though it’s admittedly hard to imagine) Ted Cruz in a sheep’s clothing of folksy rural charm and good-natured optimism, a man who feels the people’s pain so deeply he can summon tears on command. Someone like, say, Frank Underwood in House of Cards—a psychopath who pretends to mean well but is driven by one thing and one thing only: power, by any means necessary.
America is ripe for this kind of takeover, and the fact that Donald Trump (!!!) is as close to the presidency as he is should be ample and terrifying proof that such a thing is possible. Many Americans currently seek solace in the idea that when they actually reach the voting booth, democracy will eventually triumph and eradicate the noxious weed that is Trump. Surely, in the end, people will come to their senses and choose Hillary, even if they have to hold their nose to do so. . Choosing between the lesser of two evils is what most elections are about anyway, they think, and Hillary is the clear choice here. Obviously.
Unless of course you believe that the true evil is establishment politicians, governmental incompetence and corruption, corporate robber barons, Wall Street insiders, a weak military, job-stealing immigrants, lousy trade deals, and anyone who reads the New York Times more than once a week—in which case the choice is equally obvious.
And it isn’t Hillary.