In the last couple of years, I’ve become friends with a Muslim-American college student, who had seen me on MSNBC. (Out of respect for his privacy, I’m not going to share his name.) A week or so ago, he said, “Well, you finally got to me; I’m no longer a Democrat.” I said, “Wow. Seriously? What brought that on?”
“Yes, for one, I am deeply disturbed by the inability to have a conversation with Democrats over a disagreement I have about Hillary’s points without feeling like I’m being seen as a traitor.
“More significantly, it’s inexcusable to reference Muslims solely in the context of national security. Promote the message of Khizr Khan [at the convention] but in two debates our role in America is to be ‘part of our eyes and ears on our front lines’ on the war against terrorism? It’s all hypocritical.”
It’s funny. I had heard Hillary Clinton make the “eyes and ears” line several times during this campaign, but it never occurred to me how a community might see it as insulting that their relationship to society must be seen as utilitarian. I wondered how African-Americans might feel if they were only mentioned in the context of, “Well, we need you good black people to help us keep an eye on the bad ones over there.”
At that moment I realized how much collateral damage that political rhetoric can have in a presidential campaign.
Of course, I had to ask the obvious followup, “I assume Trump hasn’t quite earned your vote yet?”
“To be honest, he’s done the opposite, there’s no way he could swing me at this point. Yes, I’ll still vote for her, but I’ve switched from Democrat to Independent because I believe real political discussions can only be had when both sides are open to listening to each other’s arguments.”
This conversation reinforced something that I’ve always realized. The vote for president is the most personal one that an individual can make. Because those offices are close to home, a voter can have a sense of what sort of decisions have to be made. The presidency is a whole different ball game.
That’s the vote where ideology, values and, yes, identity all come into play and ultimately force a gut decision to entrust the nation to one person’s care and judgment for the next four years.
That’s how I’ve approached my exercise of the franchise in 25-plus years as a Republican. I confess I’m hardly a typical one. I haven’t given the party blind loyalty, even as I’ve promoted its viewpoint either explicitly on staff or implicitly as an opinion journalist. As a black conservative with a libertarian streak, my relationship with the erstwhile Party of Lincoln is “complicated” as the kids say. At the local and state level, my GOP voting record is in the 95 percent area. For the big office, it’s all over, having voted Republican, Libertarian and Democrat.
It’s no secret that Donald Trump won’t be getting my vote this year. The brief against him is exhaustive and can be recounted here. Everyone has their own favorite “reason” for not voting for him. The freakout against Judge Gonzalo Curiel was the one that stood out for me as it encapsulated nearly everything wrong with the man: He turned the private lawsuit surrounding the Trump Foundation into a petulant fight against the presiding judge. He declared that the judge couldn’t be fair because of his Mexican-American heritage. And, finally, when the inevitable controversy exploded, Trump refused to let it go — indeed he lashed out at staffers who wanted to move on from a needless fight that was taking them away from the issues of the campaign. This is a pattern that would repeat (see: the Khans, Miss Universe, etc.).
Speaker Paul Ryan could overlook what he himself called a “textbook definition of racist comment,” but I can’t. That’s a luxury I can’t afford. If you’re black and Republican and even mildly involved in politics, you end up becoming a “spokesman,” and a lonely one at that. Living as a black person in America (standing for your dignity and humanity) and as Republican in the black community (standing for your principles and individuality), you end up a double minority. But if you can’t stand and call out your party when it’s going down an actual bigoted path (rather than a Democrat’s assertion of racism), why bother?
In that context, Trump’s game-playing with black Americans is a deal-breaker. Forget the “What do you (blacks) have to lose?” in voting for him — said mainly in front of white audiences. Forget the “black neighborhoods are in the worst shape — ever, ever, ever.” At least pretend you have some knowledge of the African-American experience.
Which, of course, he doesn’t. Instead, he’d rather just take a cynical approach to engage the black community — adopt critiques of the black Left about Hillary Clinton, just to depress black turnout (the campaign admitted as much to Bloomberg News). And so, we are witness to the absurdity on social media of Trumpists calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist group” one minute — and then parroting BLM’s line that Hillary was attacking blacks with her “super-predator” language in the ’90s (she was talking about gangs).
Worse, Trump surrogates echo the black Left that the reason rock cocaine and powder cocaine carry different sentencing guidelines solely because of racism. In truth, for those who remember 2200 murders in New York City in the 1990s, there is a very good reason why the sentences were made different. Rock cocaine was turned into crack which fueled a drug industry and devastated inner cities across the country (that was when it was really bad, Mr. Trump). The powder stuff, of course, is what the cool kids were snorting up their nose — with nowhere near the ancillary effects. For any black conservative with memory of these ’90s debates to have to hear representatives of the Republican nominee spreading such bullshit, it’s a slap in the face and a dealbreaker. (For my GOP friends who feel the pull of party to vote for Trump or because they can’t countenance Hillary, I understand and respect that choice. It’s just not the one I can make.)
So, where are we?
Well, let me make myself perfectly clear: I have no illusions when it comes to Hillary Clinton. As I’ve written previously, her penchant for secrecy is of a Nixonian level — with all that implies. A Clinton administration means a bitterly divided Washington, D.C., congressional investigations aplenty and ongoing drama. To paraphrase the GEICO commercial, “It’s the Clintons, it’s what you do.” But a Republican Congress, at least, will be motivated to restrain a President Clinton II in a way that few Republicans have shown much indication that they’re willing to stand up to the mercurial Donald Trump (the many derelictions of duty that have left the GOP morally adrift).
For most of this year, when asked about my presidential vote, I’ve said, “Gary Johnson, most likely.” And why not, I’ve voted Libertarian for President before (see above). Besides, I live in solidly blue New York; whatever my vote is, it won’t really matter in the big picture, right. Well, as my Muslim friend helped me remember, one’s individual vote may not count, but an individual voice certainly does.
My individual voice — like that of most voters — is made of many elements: black, Republican, Catholic, gay, West Indian immigrant, to name a few. They make up one person who has loved his country from the moment his single-mom nurse first brought us to these shores many decades ago. He worries that the country is moving toward one of its crisis periods. This past campaign is not the culmination of tense times, but the precursor to them. Donald Trump is singularly, dangerously incapable of preparing the country for what comes next.
That forces us to make difficult choices, ones we might not do in other circumstances. But here we are. And here I am.
And I’m with her.