A couple weeks ago, a little after the breaking of the news about Donald Trump’s frank discussion on strategies for pursuing women, I was having dinner with my housemates Erica and Carrie. Erica mentioned, along the way to a different point, that the news had devastated Trump in the polls, and that he was basically out at this point. Carrie, who hadn’t been following the story very closely, picked up that Trump was a dead prospect, and couldn’t contain herself: her face lit up, and she got up from the table and ran several laps around the room, screaming, “WOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOO!!”
There’s something about this election. Carrie’s not the first or the only person I’ve noticed who’s clearly hanging a lot on its result. I haven’t been around for all that many elections, but I’ve talked to enough people that I feel pretty confident saying that this level of anxiety and panic isn’t normal. It’s a visceral fear: it’s graduated from the usual sense that “That politician is going to do some bad things that a politician ought not do,” and into something more like the fear of ghosts.
Here in blue Minnesota, for instance, people are flat-out terrified of Donald Trump. I’ve been around some discussions of voting for a third-party candidate, and it seems that people are in favor of the idea in an abstract way, but almost unanimously feel that it’s unconscionable to do it this election. Because if you don’t help Hillary Clinton get into the White House, you’re helping Donald Trump, and that’s basically the same as helping Satan himself. If Trump gets in, he’ll waste no time bringing about one of various apocalypse scenarios, like Soviet-style pogroms of all immigrants, or the complete defunding of the education system. It’s also subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, assumed that he’ll preside over the normalization of sexual assault, the transformation of the US into a place where no woman is safe. Not to mention the re-institutionalization of racism.
I visited red Wisconsin last weekend and I was assured that pro-Trump people have parallel fears about Hillary Clinton: for example, that she’ll finally give the order to consolidate all citizens into the concentration camps that the government has been building. Or that she’ll finally make good on the old Democrat threat of taking away everyone’s guns. Or, more prosaically, that she’ll keep on passing tax laws that bleed more and more vitality out of the country and help the rich get ever richer. That one, at least, is easy to imagine for people outside the city, because it’s just an extrapolation from the present—the country already has double the suicide rate of the cities in this nation. I can’t tell you much about the other fears that surround the idea of her getting elected, since I haven’t had my ear to the ground in that particular direction. (It’s too far away geographically.) But they’re there, and they’re real.
And to be fair, this election probably is a bit more of a turning point than most of the ones we’ve had lately. That’s because, unlike the rest, there’s actually an important issue that looks like it might get decided on. If we look at them honestly, all the last several elections have fairly well been immaterial. In each one, the candidates made themselves appear as different as possible while saying things that were at least 80% the same: America is a great nation, I want everyone to have a chance at a good life, we should do that by encouraging progress and innovation along the prescribed blueprint that we’ve been working from for the last few presidencies. Obama has ordered more drone strikes than George W. Bush, and while he got the presidency based on a lot of people who assumed he cares about the environment, he’s dragged his heels on, for example, disapproving pipelines about as much as any Republican could be expected to.
This year, though, we have what amounts to a sloppy referendum on whether we should keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them. The way we’ve been doing things, to make it explicit, is by throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into global trade, with the result that corporations from big to small offshore their jobs and shutter their factories, and all the material objects of our lives are made not by a craftsman in a nearby town, or even by a factory in Toledo, but by the lowest-bidding factory worldwide, out of the cheapest grade of plastic possible. Donald Trump represents the position of “Let’s do things differently”, and Hillary Clinton the position of “No, let’s do more of the same”. It’s very sloppy, I have to stress, because while Clinton can be counted on to do exactly what she implicitly promises—more of the same—it’s not clear at all that Trump will do any different from her if he finds himself clear of the electoral race with the presidency in hand and no further need to make promises to the little people.
But even so, I wanted to put a voice out there to say: I really don’t think either candidate should strike that much more fear in your heart than the other. No matter who gets elected… things will be substantially the same. Yes, certainly some things will be different depending on who wins. But most things will be more the same than you might think.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have any fear about anything at all. The shockingly poor quality of both candidates, for example, is plenty good reason to be distraught. And even more so, the material future of the United States, which is in a pretty fragile state, with no one willing or able to spearhead an earnest effort to buckle down and work on making the future less painful. The difference in our future based on our response to these things—and many other big issues that we’re so far trying to ignore—is a big difference. Responding skillfully means a future where people have enough to eat. Responding unskillfully means social disintegration, lots of hard times, and a jeopardized future of the union itself. The difference between those two scenarios just dwarfs the difference between a future that starts with Clinton and one that starts with Trump. That difference is comparatively very small potatoes. Really.
You might be skeptical on that point. Trump and Clinton seem very different. But I really believe that with either one, we’ll still have approximately the same balance of bad and good things. On the bad side, we’ll still have bad things happening apace to the environment, a widening income inequality, increasing fragility as a culture and a nation, and increasing illegitimacy as a world power. Trump might increase the illegitimacy a little faster—but then again so might Clinton, who for all her years of experience in diplomacy seems awfully keen on provoking Russia (while Trump actually seems to want to make buddies).
And on the other hand, let’s not forget, no matter who gets elected, we’ll still have: the same holidays with our families, the same moments of joy with our friends, and about the same number of nice places to take a walk.
I want to draw your attention to this, in case you’ve lost sight of it. Politicians really affect very little of what matters most to us in life. Suppose that, starting on January twentieth next year, you were to start keeping a log of all your personal highs and lows. Then, much later, when you’re old and gray (or, if you already are, older and grayer), look back at that log. Find which things in it you remember best, the ones that affected you for years deep down, for good or for bad. Now total up how many of them were directly attributable to which president got elected in the most recent election. How does Hillary Clinton’s tax hike compare with, say, when your old friend died, or even with when you had to get your dented car door repaired?
I think this is true. You still might not. It may seem to you that one of the candidates this election will lead the country down the path to ruin, while the other has the power to save it. It’s easy to believe that, given the cataclysmic rhetoric that people from all corners of the political scene have been using to describe whichever candidate they take to be the devil. Surely the right choice of president is the only thing standing between the present moment and the descent of the US into total chaos. But I don’t buy it. Step back a moment and forget completely about both candidates, and then look at the question again: What would lead this country into ruin, and what would save it?
Things that could ignite ruin: More unpopular wars, especially if the US loses. A worsening crisis of legitimacy. Widespread famine, arriving with or without the help of global warming, terrorists, or drought. On all these matters, there is no sizeable difference between Clinton and Trump.
Things that could help keep the country whole: Encouragement of a rapid growth in the number of farmers to offset the ageing population of the rural US—through, for example, free land and cancellation of student loan debts for anyone who starts a farm. A moratorium on offshoring and automating jobs away. A strategic withdrawal from most of the US’s worldwide imperial outposts, so we can start keeping what wealth we still have in the country instead of spending it on a massive military that polices the world. None of these are on the table in this election; even if any of them were mentioned, they’d be considered non-starters for a variety of reasons ranging from bad to very bad.
Which is to say, whatever track we’re on, this election doesn’t look like it’s going to change it.
I don’t want to say that there’s no difference whatsoever between the candidates. Certainly one will cause different bad things to happen to different people than the other. Donald Trump may make a lot of immigrants miserable; Hillary Clinton may make a lot of Iraqis, Syrians, or Russians miserable. Both of them may even make some people happy, and, if we’re really lucky, some of them may be people with a net worth under $1,000,000.
You may find that the goods or bads of one outweigh the other, and that’s a good reason to vote for the person who seems to add up to something better. But for goodness’ sake, don’t get yourself sick to your stomach thinking about what horrible things will happen if the wrong one wins. It’s not going to be as bad as you think—not on account of this election, anyway.
I realize that, for a blog post that’s meant to encourage you not to feel so worried, I’ve put a lot in here to worry about. Famine and the decline of the US and a grab bag full of other bad things that could happen. But despite it all, I still really don’t think you should feel anxious. For one thing, I could be wrong about all those bad things. But more importantly, we can do something besides sit back and passively accept it all.
That is to say: if the country is heading to ruin, what can you do to stop it? If your answer is “vote for the candidate who’ll stop it”, it’s time to stop what you’re doing, take a walk, and convince yourself to stop relying on hope.
Hope is what you do if you can’t change something. When you hope, you’re abdicating your power to the whims of fate. Hoping is what you do when you’ve decided you can’t do anything else. But there’s almost never a time when there’s really nothing you can do. If you vote, you’re doing something, but it’s just the barest of somethings—the sum total of your effort to improve the world consists of an hour once every year, or even just once every four years, followed by relinquishing the rest of the burden and power to the goodness of the politicians you’ve chosen.
Take some power. Are you voting for Clinton because she’ll do better things for the environment? Then go ahead and vote, but then don’t stop. Dust off your bicycle, invest in a good series of winter layers, and start biking to places you drive to. Grow some vegetables. Go to a farmers’ market. Are you voting for Trump because he’ll make it easier for small businesses to get a foothold? Then go ahead and vote, but don’t stop—boycott all the large chain stores you buy from and start buying from all the small businesses you know of, even if it is more expensive. (And by the way, if either of those is your actual reason for supporting your chosen candidate, well, you’ve swallowed a huge lie.) Afraid of racism taking over? Go make friends with some people of different colors. Afraid of the collapse of morality because of the decline of religion? Go to church more often and share it with people you know and don’t know, in a way they can hear.
I think that’s all I really that’s all I really want to say. This election isn’t the end of the world. If the wrong candidate gets elected, don’t have a nervous breakdown. Don’t start wondering whether you have to be constantly looking over your shoulder.
Take a deep breath. Stay safe out there this Tuesday.
Also, further reading:
- “How Half of America Lost its F**king Mind: 6 Reasons for Trump’s Rise that No One Talks About” — an astute analysis of why people are voting for Trump, disguised as a profanity-laden humor article. This article also doubles as a very revealing virtual trip to the huge swaths of the US where, with barely anyone to tell about it, millions have been getting poorer and poorer for decades and can’t see any good way out.