We’re standing at a crossroads.
Donald Trump has the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton (almost) has the Democratic nomination. America is thus faced with a choice. But it goes far beyond Trump vs. Clinton or GOP vs. Dems. This is a choice that may well decide several things. First, it may decide what kind of country the United States truly is. Second, it may decide the fate of the US in general. Third, it may decide the fate of human civilization.
Let’s take that one at a time.
Remember this: the United States was built on racism. It was built on the racism of denying non-white people their land, their liberty, and their labor. Mexican-Americans in Texas and California are in the first category, African-Americans in the second and third, and Native Americans in all three. It was built further on a policy that US needs should and would override the needs of everyone else in the world. Thus democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Iran were all overthrown with US help or approval, in order to preserve profits, and thus Saddam Hussein was our friend while he fought Iran but our foe when he fought Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden was our friend (or at least our fellow-traveler) when he fought the Soviet Union and our foe afterward.
Racism is in our DNA: it taints the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it haunts us still in police violence, economic disparity, and political power imbalance, to name only the most obvious.
Just facing up to racism in this country took guts and grit and long, grinding, grueling effort. In 1965, while there were still “whites-only” water fountains in the south, most White Americans felt that the races were generally pretty equal. To face racism and make any changes, let alone enough, was a monumental task. Much of America did not wish to change, and saw no need to change, and eventually rejected substantive change.
It is worth mentioning here that Dr. Martin Luther King was quite unpopular in his day.
Opposing racism, at any point, has been a Herculean task, whereas not opposing it has always been fairly easy, uncontroversial, and straightforward. And Donald Trump is running a racist campaign. All that is required for Trump to triumph is for Americans to do nothing about his racism. (I say “Americans” and not “white Americans” because I think Trump is perfectly capable of setting minority groups at odds with each other.) And we have a long and inglorious history of doing nothing about racism, punctuated by a few truly glorious moments of doing something… when it became abundantly clear that doing nothing was no longer acceptable.
Since the US was built on racism, and since it is no exaggeration to say that the US was and is a racist country, the Trump campaign now provides us with a moment of decision: what kind of country will we be? Are we the kind of country that says “All men are created equal” [sic], but does not actually act that way? That contradiction is our historical pattern, remember. Lincoln, prior to the Civil War, once said that “We practically read it as “All men are created equal except Negroes.” Today we would have our choice of exceptions: immigrants, Muslims, and Blacks (still). Or are we going to resist again? Will this be one of our many moments of apathy and intolerance, or one of our few shining moments of heroism and effort?
Thus our first choice. Here’s the second:
This election is, in many ways, only a reflection of internal struggles within the United States, be they cultural, political, generational, ethnic, or economic. Many people feel the US is already utterly changed from the country they grew up in; in many ways they’re completely right. This excites some, but for others, it’s a fearful thing. Politically, people of opposing parties increasingly despise each other, with a level of partisan vitriol not seen since the 1800s—1861, for example. Shifts in everything from marriage to communication also divides the generations. That generational split will become more pronounced as time goes on, for the current generation will be poorer, browner, and more skeptical than the generations before it.
I could go on at length. The key issue for the country’s politics, however, is legitimacy. It has come to the point that many Americans believe the last two presidents (one from each party) to be actively treasonous, tyrannical, the worst ever, and—crucially—illegitimate. The Senate currently denies President Obama’s legitimacy by denying him the power to choose a Supreme Court justice. Before this, they’ve denied him many other things. This could easily escalate. Imagine a Trump presidency—Democrats would likely make an all-out effort to oppose everything he initiates, just as the GOP has opposed everything Pres. Obama has proposed, simply because he proposed it. Imagine Trump nominating a Supreme Court justice, and a Democratic majority in the Senate refusing to confirm his nominee until Trump, too, leaves office. This is a natural extension of the current senatorial obstruction.
This collapse of legitimacy, and the gridlock it has both fueled and been fueled by, could run the country right under. The US government has nearly defaulted—defaulted!—several times in the last few years. Under a President Trump I would have no trouble believing there will be defaults, further shutdowns, further unending filibusters, and quite likely an outright Constitutional crisis. The difference between Obama and Trump is that Obama, given flagrant GOP obstructionism in Congress over his Supreme Court pick, chides them but waits. Would Trump, confronted by an obstructionist Congress, do the same? Trump has zero understanding of the Constitution, and likely has near-zero respect for it, too. I doubt he has the patience for it. I imagine he would try to install his nominee regardless, and then where would we be? Would the Supreme Court accept its new member?
There’s another possibility: that President Trump would try to move into being President-for-Life Trump. He’s highly dismissive of most of the freedoms in the First Amendment. He has little understanding for how the government actually works, and even less patience for it. He’s running on a platform of marginalizing people. And he has considerable support for those positions! All it would take would be another terrorist attack, and he might try to grab the power to cut through deadlock, arrest the brown people his supporters fear, and override or ignore the Constitution when he wants to. With enough fear of the Other, or enough disgust at “politics as usual,” it’s entirely possible most Americans would let him do it, particularly as a stand on Constitutional principles could readily be labeled just “politics as usual” once again. If Congress prevents Trump from doing unconstitutional things that Trump’s supporters want, who do you think those supporters will blame?
Yet in some ways, that’s still a more optimistic scenario than what I fear: that the election itself will lead to bloodshed.
Back in 1860, a whole section of the country was confronted with a president-elect that it had adamantly rejected, foisted on them entirely without their consent, a president they considered entirely illegitimate. They reacted by revolting. If Clinton wins, I would not be at all surprised if red states, or perhaps even more likely red counties, rose in revolt as well. Literally: guns, secession, the lot. We’ve already had political violence this year, with the Bundy takeover in Oregon. I’ve been thinking for a while that we’re in the Bleeding Kansas stage.
And if Trump wins and starts handing out illegal, unconstitutional decrees? If people start resisting? How long before he has someone shot for disobeying him?
We have to vote carefully in this election. It may be the last election we ever have.
Before moving on, it’s worth noting that many Trump supporters have real, genuine problems. This is too often overlooked. While they are not about to get shot by police for reaching for a wallet, and aren’t about to be kicked off a flight for saying something in Arabic, they are still suffering. Partially they are suffering the loss of what they used to have, without really examining it: dominance. Partially they are suffering from quite real economic forces that really were engineered by a shadowy cabal of elites. Pointing out their privilege when they feel decidedly stepped on only makes them angrier. Their privilege needs to be addressed, but that can’t be done by ignoring or exploiting their real issues.
Frankly, the United States is now so divided—liberal from conservative, rural from urban, white from color—that I’m no longer certain that common ground can be found. Can a democracy endure when its people disagree so fundamentally and so virulently? Are we truly on the verge of civil war? Maybe not; but unless we can deal with the political polarization we’re currently facing, someday there will be an organized, effective, and murderous right-wing terrorist campaign here in the US. And finding them may not be easy, if enough people agree with them. And with enough support, a terrorist campaign is indistinguishable from guerrilla war. Throw in deep suspicion of the federal government (remember the governor of Texas giving credence to that wild Federal-takeover rumor a while back?) and you have the ingredients for some real explosions. I have been waiting for the first shots to be fired for some time now, for I readily believe we are facing impending civil war.
But let’s say that the US does indeed hold together, one way or another. What then?
Well, remember climate change?
The next few years are utterly crucial for halting and reversing climate change. The effects of climate change are already being seen, particularly in the oceans. Restructuring an entire economy takes decades; we need to start making advances now, if we are going to see any results from them in the decades to come. If we do not, then there will be so much energy pouring into the system that the results will be catastrophic. Extreme drought. Extreme winters. Extreme fires. Extreme flooding.
The Far West will go up in flames. (If Cliven Bundy gets the land he wants, he won’t enjoy it long. The fires will take it from him.) We’ll lose Miami. We might lose New Orleans again, for good this time. We might even lose New York City. Southern California’s water situation is already incredibly tenuous. And that’s just the US; we’ll lose the Netherlands and Bangladesh and thousands of coastal cities, with millions of people living in them. We’ll lose the capacity to grow certain crops—such as corn, which is currently critical to America’s food supply. We may lose the capacity to feed ourselves at all, or even (if the ocean algae and rainforests are sufficiently disrupted) the simple capacity to breathe.
But Trump doesn’t believe in climate change. Even if he did, he does not strike me as a man who would stand on principle against opposition. As president, he would already have enough trouble keeping some Congressional Republicans in line, especially once he steps on their toes (which he will). And he’s a deal-maker. Unless I radically misjudge the man, I fully expect that climate-change legislation is the kind of thing he’d abandon in order to win support from the GOP in Congress… if it were even on the table. And he certainly won’t put it there himself.
Clinton is somewhat better on climate change, as at least she’s not an outright denier. While she’s too much of a wheeler and dealer to truly take a stand on the issue, she could at least be won around, as she was on Keystone XL, and she begins in a much more sympathetic position than Trump does.
If the country breaks up in civil war, of course, who knows what will happen. Will our emissions plunge with the collapse of economy? (The Great Recession actually did more to fight climate change than anything else the US has done in terms of policy.) Or will the coal-mining states break free of Federal control and sell their coal hither and yon, burning through our carbon budget (literally) and dooming us all?
So yes, we stand at a crossroads.
Yet despite this being a decidedly anti-Trump essay, it is not a pro-Clinton essay. Not inherently. Hillary Clinton needs to win this election. But the tricky part is that she need to win it in a certain way.
Here’s one way, maybe the only way, to save the US and quite possibly human civilization as a whole: defeat Trump overwhelmingly. It needs to be abundantly clear that the United States rejects his poison, utterly: Trump needs to be caught in a landslide. Clinton needs to win with a margin in the millions—maybe the tens of millions. There is precedent: Barry Goldwater went down to disastrous defeat against a corrupt career politician that nobody in particular loved, because Goldwater was too far out there. (Side note: Goldwater would now be considered a moderate. Maybe even a centrist. Scary, isn’t it?) That’s the kind of margin Clinton needs to win by. To do that, of course, she needs an enormous groundswell behind her.
The fact that it’s Hillary Clinton as the nominee and not Bernie Sanders makes that much more difficult. But in another way, it makes it much better, too.
Simply put, Clinton cannot defeat Trump. The American People must defeat Trump. Clinton can’t even be the leader of the people. It must be obvious who’s in charge: us. Not Trump. Not Clinton. Us. If Sanders were running, it might be too much about him. With Clinton, perhaps we stand a chance of getting that message across. Let me repeat the point one more time: if this is about Trump vs. Clinton, we might lose even if she wins; it needs to be framed as Trump vs. America. Trump vs. the World.
I bitterly regret that the first woman to receive the nomination for the presidency must be reduced to such a role. It is not how I wanted the first woman to be elected. We must play the hand we are dealt, however. I yearn to see a woman win the presidency on her own merits, but first we must see to it that there are more elections in which women can run. After all, this may be the last election we ever have.
Note, however, that this assumes an “us” and a “we” and an “American people” and even an “America.”
Which brings me to my last key point: if this election isn’t about compassion, we’re screwed.
If we meet the hate that Trump is riding with more hate, it will explode on us—maybe not in 2016, maybe not even in ten years, but the section of America that looks to Trump will not take kindly to being overpowered by sheer force or sheer numbers. The next thing they look to may be their guns. Remember, we are dealing with a brewing civil war. So we must build that “we” I keep talking about by reaching out, hearing people out, listening to their fears, and offering real solutions.
This can’t mean just staking a “moderate” position, however, or being willing to sacrifice some Americans to “the greater good”—we can’t throw people of color under the bus just to keep the US going. That’s been done too many times; once we called it “Jim Crow.” Therefore the anti-Trump campaign must be about having compassion for Trump’s fans and Trump’s targets, ideally bringing them together to the same table. To pick a specific example: time and time again I hear Trump supporters complaining that “political correctness” has ruined America. As I see it, we need to start standing up and saying that a more accurate term for “political correctness” is “loving your neighbor”, and that without it, a country can’t survive. We can start by reminding ourselves that Trump supporters are our neighbors, and are often neighbors with genuine fears. Making them more afraid by shouting at them will not help. Making people of color more afraid by not opposing Trump’s shouting also will not help.
Obviously we face two great stumbling blocks in this. One is that many people, Hillary Clinton most prominent of all, will probably campaign aggressively, not compassionately. This is not helpful, but it is her instinct, and after generations of being mocked, belittled, and stonewalled by Republicans, I have to say I understand the tendency, even as I see the potential for disaster within it. Blacks and Latin@s and women and queer folks all have excellent reason to be angry. And who am I to tell them to stop shouting?
The second stumbling block is that nothing like this has ever been done in America, much less in the age of the internet. It is not entirely without precedent: in Chile, in the referendum against the brutal dictator Pinochet, the country was moved to a “No” vote in large part by a positive and upbeat campaign. But in America? Never. Not even Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign came close, since he was willing to sacrifice some Americans (specifically Blacks).
So we are in totally uncharted waters. The internet, with its tendency to go straight for the kill, might not help us much. There is nothing in US history to indicate that we will succeed. People who are marginalized have excellent reason to be angry at a time when anger could spark all-out war. My proposal is, in short, an idea almost entirely doomed from the beginning.
In fact, it is so doomed—and for such numerous excellent reasons—that it makes you wonder if it’s even worth trying. Trump supporters have reason to be angry. People of color have even greater reasons to be angry. I generally side with the latter, yet I can still acknowledge the anger and its causes on both sides. And again, racism is baked into the United States. Perhaps it would be better to tear the country down. Perhaps it would be better to let the anger run its course.
Except that anger does not run its course. Anger feeds anger in response—no matter who was in the right. And I again must remind everyone of the existential threat looming in the air and in the oceans. If I could guarantee a peaceable collapse of the US that actually made fighting climate chaos easier, I’d do it. (Again, tanking the US economy might buy us some time, though it would just be trading misery for misery.) But there is no such guarantee. We are a country with a long history of violence. And war is both a cause and effect of climate change.
Yet despite these objections, my doubt remains. Patriot that I am, I am no longer certain the US deserves to exist. Still, I love my country, unconditionally, fully aware of its horrendous faults, and I will make one more try.
I propose a campaign of love, not in favor of Hillary Clinton but in favor of a compassionate America. It will be one of the most difficult political movements ever begun, for it requires love and patience while being yelled at, mocked, physically attacked, and constantly questioned (including by our own selves). I am not certain it is the right course. I am not even certain we should even try.
We are at a crossroads. What I am proposing is nothing less than leaving the roads entirely, by sprouting wings to fly.
Who’s with me?