Confronted with the choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States, many Americans see themselves as being caught between Scylla and Charybdis – two monsters with no good option for salvation.
While no doubt there are some voters who can look dispassionately at Clinton and Trump and acknowledge the shortcomings of both, most of us tend to think about candidates for office the way we think about most things in life – from the perspective of an already confirmed bias. In other words, we interpret all the evidence in a manner that confirms our preset convictions.
Given that all-too-human tendency, those who cannot see themselves voting for Hillary Clinton view her as a scandalous liar, someone who can never be trusted and who just might end up in jail.
Those who are against Donald Trump, meanwhile, view him as a blowhard with racist tendencies and no diplomatic panache; someone who is deeply antagonistic to the democratic realities of a country like ours.
These are simplistic notions and belie the underlying problems of how we got to this place and where we go from here.
It is easy to dismiss, as some politicians and pundits have, this presidential election cycle as a mere four-year diversion. The next election will offer a better choice, they say. We just have to get through the next four years and all will be well.
I could not disagree more. It is clear the U.S., if not the world, has become increasingly bifurcated, divided as never before along political lines. The right blames the left for fostering societal unrest and racial animosity with policies favoring certain groups over others, and the left blames the right for intransigence and insensitivity in ignoring the needs of large swaths of the population.
All this blame leads to rigidity and an inability to negotiate compromise, much less accommodation. There is no reason to believe this will change after four years
It is in this climate that we are stuck with such poor choices: A master media manipulator with seemingly little regard for facts versus someone whose record as secretary of state was far from stellar and who ranks at least as low on the trustworthiness scale as her opponent.
Bernie Sanders, who might have been the only other option, strikes many as a playground bully who asserted himself only in order to change the rules of the game. Having served in Congress for decades without accomplishing much of anything, Sanders suddenly gained a large and vocal following. Where was he hiding all those years and why did he never turn on the charisma in the past?
Too far to the left as a candidate, he has made it clear he has no interest in the art of compromise and enjoys the kerfuffle just a little too much.
And so we are left with Hillary and “The Donald.”
An argument can be made that it takes a swollen ego, a large measure of narcissism, and quite a dollop of chutzpah to run for political office, especially the presidency of the United States. There is no question these two candidates have these traits in excess. There is also no question they absolutely want to be president. But who is best?
The perception that Hillary has a longstanding tendency to cover up potential liabilities – her speeches for Goldman Sachs, her private e-mail server, etc. – are problematic for someone who aspires to lead a country where transparency is valued.
As a woman with the very real possibility of becoming the first female president of the U.S., she has a feminist chip she can cash in. Nevertheless, she still has a great deal of work to do to convince the electorate she can be believed.
Trump has a different and, to my mind, a more serious problem. While he has attracted many alienated voters and portrayed himself as a voice for the “everyman,” his extremism marks him as a threat to unity and more. His style is to create a bogeyman and then double down with anger and controversy.
His comments about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel – a man born in the U.S. with a long and distinguished record – being a “Mexican,” and therefore not fit to adjudicate a case in which Trump is a central figure, sound to me a little too much like the Hitlerian claim that Jews in prewar Germany could not be trusted because of their background.
Franklin Roosevelt said that “The real safeguard of democracy…is education.” If we have candidates who are too egocentric to be educated, we will, as the actor Kevin Spacey recently remarked when asked about this year’s presidential campaign, “get what we deserve.”
Abraham Lincoln probably said it best. “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”