The 2016 Presidential Race

Last month was the 20th anniversary of the founding of my best-known and longest-running independent media project, the community newspaper Eat the State!. The sorely missed (in a few quarters) newspaper ceased publication a couple of years ago, but it spawned a whole bunch of other projects, including the weekly Saturday segment on KEXP’s Mind Over Matters that continues on. For all those years, across print, radio, and the web, the feature that generated the most interest has always been my twice-annually recommendations for the primary and general elections; and among those, the most heat is always, always generated by the presidential elections.

This year will be my sixth time around the presidential conundrum central to US politics: Anyone smart, capable, and principled enough to be a good president is almost by definition incapable of selling themselves often enough to be in a position to win the office. In four of the previous five times, I’ve recommended third party candidates. Generally, my thinking has been that ours is such a deep blue state that the Democratic nominee is all but assured of its electoral votes – and if it’s even in question it means that candidate is facing a national collapse, so in any scenario, Washingtonians are free to vote for what we actually want.

If, for instance, the Democratic nominee is, say, a proven or prospective war criminal (hint: they all are), and that bothers you, you can cast your vote for someone better, secure in the knowledge that your vote and those of other progressives carries no risk of putting an even worse Republican war criminal in office. On the flip side, if, say, a strong Green Party showing can help build that party as a more viable future alternative, that kind of tactical vote also carries no cost. We’re not Florida or Ohio or Virginia; Washingtonians have the luxury of voting our consciences, secure in the knowledge that enabling the greater evil, even if you worry about that sort of thing, isn’t an issue here.

The exception to my third party picks was equally instructive. It was 2004, when I urged a vote for John Kerry not because I liked him – I didn’t – but because George W. Bush’s crimes against humanity in only four years had been so extensive and odious that I reasoned only the biggest possible margin of popular vote repudiation could serve as an adequate deterrent for future would-be war criminal POTUSes. And that was before Dubya drowned New Orleans, crashed the global economy, and poured four more years of gasoline on the regional Middle Eastern conflagration that has killed over a million people, displaced at least five million more, and continues to plague Iraq, Syria, and their neighbors to this day.

So I take presidential elections, and the people who would ascend to the most powerful job in human history, pretty seriously. But in 20 years of doing this, I’ve never encountered a race like 2016. In assorted local races over the years, I’ve urged readers to skip the race – when someone is unopposed, or when the candidates are both or all so odious that only a protest write-in or no vote at all makes sense. But the presidential races are when the most people are paying attention, here and around the world, to American politics. The stakes are so high that even if the candidates themselves are less than ideal, usually at least one of our choices is worth voting for simply to make an ideological statement that has a chance to be heard. I’ve never urged people to skip voting on this most important of races.

Until this year. This year, there are four major candidates who, practically or ideologically, could make a difference: Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Donald Trump. There are three other fringe candidates on Washington’s ballot: two socialists and a troglodyte.

None of them, sadly, is worth voting for.

In reverse order of electoral probability:

The Fringe: The troglodyte is Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party, a far-right outfit, strongest in the South, whose most famous past presidential candidate never formally ran for the position: Judge Roy S. Moore, who has now been removed as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court three times for his assorted bigotries in defiance of federal law. Castle is cut from the same cloth, with U.N. hostility, return to the gold standard, and various other Bircherite orthodoxies as well. Uh, no.

The two socialists are the Socialist Workers Party’s Alyson Kennedy, and Gloria La Riva of the Socialism and Liberation Party, a relatively recent offshoot of the Workers World Party, which itself originally split from the Socialist Workers Party, a splinter from the People’s Front of Judea. La Riva is fulfilling her ambition to be the new Gus Hall, but little else: she’s run for president or vice-president under various banners in every presidential election since 1980. SWP and WWP are two of the flakier of the country’s endlessly fractious socialist and communist parties; combined, they will likely get less than 10,000 votes nationally for president. That doesn’t even make them effective ideological advocates.

So that leaves us with the four you know:

Jill Stein: What the hell has gone wrong with Jill Stein’s campaign? 2016 should be a perfect storm for her. Millions of disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters were hers for the taking. The Democratic Party nominee (spoiler alert!) is not only a corporate centrist, but is also the second most widely disliked presidential candidate since American polling firms started asking the question – and #3 isn’t even close. (Neither is #1, an unhinged loon who – spoiler alert! – is this year’s Republican nominee). Stein is personable, articulate, and she was also the Green Party candidate in 2012, so she’s had experience at the whole candidate thing without becoming a La Riva-style joke. Seattle should be littered with Jill Stein signs.

I haven’t seen one. And nationally, she’s not even doing as well in the polls this year as she did in 2012.

The two biggest factors, I suspect, are Stein and her party. When she’s attracted attention at all this year, it’s mostly been for saying dumb things. Her vaccination comments, for example, were overblown but unfortunate coming from a licensed doctor, doubly unfortunate from a two-time presidential candidate who should know what kind of weight her words can carry, and became instant justification for the sorts of science-fearing lefties that made a measles epidemic in our state a reality a couple of years ago. The nicest thing you can say is that she should have known better. And compared to four years ago, a number of Stein’s stances seem either poorly thought-out, designed solely to make ideological points, or are wholly impractical. I don’t get it.

The Green Party itself is the other issue. Locally, the GP these days is two decades removed from its biggest local success (the 1997 Seattle City Council elections), and these days exists almost entirely for presidential campaigns, eschewing most local elections. (Washington’s top-two primary system, which keeps most third-party candidates out of November elections, is a major problem.) In much of the rest of the country it’s even weaker.

I endorsed Stein four years ago, and given the nomination of Clinton, as recently as this summer I expected I’d wind up doing the same this year. But I just can’t. It pains me to write this – particularly because I have good, long-term friends who’ve poured their hearts and souls into trying to make the Green Party relevant. But even as an ideological place-holder, I’m not comfortable recommending Stein this year. When longshot candidates like Bernie Sanders and Kshama Sawant have demonstrated how rich the possibilities are, progressive politics in 2016 deserve a better standard-bearer than Jill Stein.

Gary Johnson:
Thirty years ago, the Libertarian Party was about evenly divided between cultural libertarians and free marketeers. Then, Reagan happened, and a generation of admirers of bad science fiction inexplicably decided that Ayn Rand was serious.

The Randian fanboys, aka Glibertarians, have long taken over the LP, and Gary Johnson is the result. His running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, would actually be a better president, but no matter; Weld essentially gave up on this campaign a couple of weeks ago when, after another in an endless series of demonstrations of his profound ignorance of global affairs, Johnson admitted that he really couldn’t be bothered with that boring stuff. Which was fine when he was governor of New Mexico; he didn’t need to know what a leppo was. When he wants the job of running the biggest economy and most powerful military in the history of the world? Not so much.

Johnson, alas, is not just a gaffe machine; he’s also truly terrible on the issues he does care about. I wrote a whole article last month detailing why anyone flirting with supporting Johnson – because they like weed or guns or whatever – should think again. Some years, we get lucky, and the Libertarian Party spits up a viable protest vote. Not this year.

Donald Trump: Can we get off the ideological purity bandwagon long enough to acknowledge that sometimes the Greater Evil is, like, Really Fucking Evil?

Donald Trump, despite it all, still has a puncher’s chance of being elected President of the United States. (Think something catastrophic happening on November 2.) He’s also claimed the election will be rigged and refused to say whether he’ll honor the results should he lose. As such, he’s set himself up to lead a movement of uncompromising obstruction (best case) or violent insurrection (worst case) if Clinton wins. He’s been more forthcoming about his plans, if elected, for Clinton. He wants to jail her.

That’s nuclear-grade evil by itself, but it’s not isolated. There’s also the credible allegations from over a dozen different women and children of sexual assault or rape. And the long trail of people, most recently including the New York state attorney general, claiming fraud in Trump’s business and charitable dealings. And his uncountable campaign lies and dark conspiracies. And the alleged mob connections, East Coast, Vegas, and Russian. Abd the attacks on the powerless, the misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and bigotries of all kinds that have animated his campaign. And then there’s his policy preferences, which have ranged from opaque to ludicrous to disastrously ill-conceived.

There has literally never in US history been a major party presidential nominee less appropriate for the job.

In the end, though, Donald Trump isn’t the problem; it’s that despite all of the above, tens of millions of Americans support him anyway. We’ll see how many of them are willing to grudgingly accept a Hillary Clinton presidency, but given that John McCain and Mitt Romney were light years more respectful toward Barack Obama, it’s not likely to be a majority of the Republican Party. Even if he loses in a landslide, the damage Trump has done culturally – normalizing hatred of the Other as a socially acceptable “problem,” and violence as a legitimate remedy for it – will last a generation. Ditto for his damage to the legitimacy, tattered as it is, of American democracy.

Despite the myth of exceptionalism the US tells itself, there is nothing unique about the US that insulates it from the appeals of fascism or totalitarianism. Beyond any issues or questions of temperament, that’s what Trump represents, and the next Trump – because so long as his voters are alive, someone will follow the path he has built – will be savvy enough to avoid some of Trump’s more obvious baggage and pitfalls. Politically speaking, this shit has to be killed with fire, and the time is now.

Hillary Clinton: What does this mean? It means that Hillary Clinton could have a forked tail and horns growing from her temples, and if I lived in a state where Trump had a shot at its Electoral College votes, I’d put on a hazmat suit and vote for Clinton. My differences with Clinton are because of her policies; my differences with Trump are because he has no place in the political life of this or any other country. My policy differences with Clinton are enormous, but we have a bigger problem.

That said, Washington state, as noted above, isn’t about to support Trump. Should increasing the size of Clinton’s otherwise meaningless popular vote victory in our state, or other non-competitive states like California, take priority over her policy shortcomings?

Well, first of all, let’s be fair. Most progressives loathe Clinton, but both her campaign as nominee and Democratic Party platform this year are the most progressive in many decades. Some of this is due to the influence of Bernie Sanders’ improbable primary challenge – it doesn’t seem likely that she’d be talking about student loan reform, for example, without his influence. And she’s also taking some cues from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as with her announced intent last month to vastly expand the Department of Justice’s anti-trust enforcement division. Clinton is reliably socially liberal, meaning that culture war issues like women’s health care are starkly better under her watch than Trump’s, but she is also venturing into progressive economic waters that are new for her. And that’s good.

But these are campaign promises. Clinton’s actual record, in private life and as senator from New York and running two major presidential bids, is that she has been a complete creature of Wall Street. The only real revelation of interest so far from this month’s WikiLeaks release of transcripts of Clinton speeches to bankers is that she showed a lot more personality in them than in her usually cautious public demeanor. She’s comfortable in rooms full of millionaires. They’re her people.

There’s zero evidence that Donald Trump knows or cares how a global economy is managed, but his criticisms of Clinton’s zeal for multilateral trade agreements aren’t wrong. And those rooms full of millionaires are the primary – make that the only – beneficiaries. Similarly, climate change has been a non-issue between Trump and Clinton precisely because Trump’s circles think it’s a nefarious conspiracy, and Clinton’s circles are still trying to figure out how best to monetize it.

In general, the people closest to Hillary Clinton are the same types of people who surrounded her husband 20 years ago: corporate centrists, happy to throw ordinary people under the bus for a buck or for more power. Who she appoints to her Cabinet and all the other leadership positions a president controls is a big deal. Trump is unthinkable on that score. Clinton is business as usual, which ought to be unthinkable.

The real deal-breaker for Clinton, however, is the area over which the White House has near-total control: foreign policy. Clinton would likely have won the presidency in 2008 if not for her entirely predictable vote to invade Iraq – predictable because on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where her nickname was “Madame Yes,” there was never a weapons system or foreign adventure she didn’t support. And even with the huge cost of her Iraq vote, as Secretary of State she showed that she had learned nothing, pushing for armed US intervention in both Syria and Libya. Obama wisely rejected her recommendation for Syria, a decision she will likely be able to reverse soon; enjoy the proxy war with Russia that drops us in. And Libya? That only turned into an ungovernable, failed state thanks to her bigzeal for dislodging Col. Moammar Qaddafi. She hasn’t learned from that, either.

Are all of these shortcomings outweighed by the need for a popular vote repudiation of Trump? No. The biggest battleground this year is Congress, and the Republicans in Congress will continue to be obstructionist assholes regardless of the size of Clinton’s mandate, because they fear a primary challenge from their right more than losing in a general election. A half-century of whipping up the politics of hate has created this Republican frankenstein, and Trump big won’t dislodge it or even give it much pause. They’ll start working to disempower Hillary Clinton – as well as any Republicans showing insufficient zeal for the task – on November 9.

Clinton’s propensity for expanding on her war crime resume is the single biggest reason I can’t bring myself to vote for her. If I lived in, say, North Carolina, I’d feel differently. The electoral votes matter. But because the popular vote margin doesn’t, I can vote my conscience here. And I can’t support any of these candidates. Nor is Sanders an option: Washington state law bars counting votes cast for someone who lost in a party primary or nominating process.

I’m leaning hard toward writing in my late, deceased dog. Or something. And focusing on the rest of the ballot, where the choices are much, much better. Then, it’ll be time to start working toward better choices in 2020.

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