This post was originally published on October 13. It has been revised to reflect the current status of the race.
As Americans head to the polls this morning, Hillary Clinton has a lead in most projections and appears likely to be our next President. Even though I’m hopeful about the result, I’m disgusted by the journey. The more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I’ve become that the health of our political system depends on extinguishing the dumpster fire that Trump started. The only way to snuff it out is through overwhelming defeat.
American democracy is a beautiful thing but like many beautiful things it is fragile. A two-hundred-plus year history has built up our trust in political institutions and the norms that accompany them. We think these things give stability and security to our system. Yet, they are empty artifices if they are ignored by the people and the leaders they empower. The truth is our democracy is only as secure as the people who support it.
I’m frightened by how easily it was to convince a large swath of the country to support a man who has neither knowledge of policy nor respect for the rule of law. What makes this all the more shocking and disturbing is that this reach for an unqualified authoritarian was not predicated by some calamity. While the recent past saw the tragedy of 9/11 and the hardship of the Great Recession, the country has steadily made progress over the last eight years. Indeed, by most objective measures, the country has demonstrably improved during the Obama years. The entire case for Trump is built on a lie that America is in decline.
Trump sold the myth of decline while blaming “others.” He legitimized the cadence of hatred and made it part of the national dialogue. The impact of this is being felt in our schools where teachers report greater anxiety among children of immigrants, on the internet where racist harassment is on the rise, and in our politics where a white nationalist movement that would have normally existed on the fringes is now within reach of the halls of power. We are all worse off in ways we cannot yet measure.
It scares me that Trump made it this far because he is not even good at this. Trump is ignorant of details, undisciplined, and appears to be an abjectly horrible person. Yet, he has still gotten by peddling racism, xenophobia, and tax cuts. While Trump is scary, a more polished and subtle version of him is the real nightmare. And that is why this election is important. It is important not just to defeat Trump but also to defeat the next Trump. If the victory is close, Trump will blame his loss on lack of party support or a rigged election and he or his fellow travelers will control the GOP for years to come.
A dramatic defeat will send a message to Trump and those who would be his ideological successors that America is better than them. It will help responsible conservatives take back their party and help it become a useful and necessary voice once again. Most importantly, it would help the country reclaim the aspirational resolve that was once integral to its identity. This country is great because its story is that of people imperfectly, but constantly, trying to improve. The Trump campaign is a threat to that arc of progress.
Complacency is tempting as the outcome becomes more certain. Yet, if I can make one argument against apathy, I would caution that, while this is an election, it can also be a statement about America’s identity and its future. It is a statement worth showing up to make.
Photo credit: Gerry Dincher from Hope Mills, NC – It’s Good!Uploaded by GrapedApe, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28857409