Against Trump, But Not All Those He Has Inspired
For the third time since 1857, The Atlantic Magazine has endorsed a candidate for President of the United States.
“Today, our position is similar to the one in which The Atlantic’s editors found themselves in 1964. We are impressed by many of the qualities of the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, even as we are exasperated by others, but we are mainly concerned with the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, who might be the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate in the 227-year history of the American presidency.
These concerns compel us, for the third time since the magazine’s founding, to endorse a candidate for president. Hillary Rodham Clinton has more than earned, through her service to the country as first lady, as a senator from New York, and as secretary of state, the right to be taken seriously as a White House contender. She has flaws (some legitimately troubling, some exaggerated by her opponents), but she is among the most prepared candidates ever to seek the presidency. We are confident that she understands the role of the United States in the world; we have no doubt that she will apply herself assiduously to the problems confronting this country; and she has demonstrated an aptitude for analysis and hard work.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”
The Hannah Arendt Center is not only bi-partisan. It seeks to be beyond partisanship. The very premise of Arendtian thinking is the embrace of plurality. Plurality means that human beings are born unique and different. It is a good that people live in their own way, worship different gods, pursue different ideals, and associate with different people. Amidst such plurality, politics is the search for commonality amidst difference and without enforcing homogeneity. Politics is a discussion amongst a plurality with different opinions, not a search for a single truth.
On November 2nd, the Hannah Arendt Center will be hosting and sponsoring a public conversation featuring two supporters of Donald Trump and two supporters of Hillary Clinton. This is not a debate, but an attempt to publicly talk about the very real differences that divide parts of our citizenship who rarely speak to each other in private, let alone in public. Both Trump and Clinton are deeply unpopular with historic unpopularity ratings. The political discourse has produced intense vitriol from the candidates, their campaigns, their proxies and their partisans greatly amplified by the media. The result is a deepening of our partisan divide, one that may be unbridgeable with grave consequences for the nation. No longer are those who disagree seen as political rivals; they are increasingly seen as bad people, dangerous to the future of the country. Is that true? Or are there those on both sides of the debate who are good people with strong convictions about what is needed to improve and preserve the American experiment in constitutional, representative democratic, governance?
It is imperative that in forcefully stating that Donald Trump should not be president we don’t forget that many of Trumps’ supporters have good reasons for backing Trump. The best reason one can find for supporting Trump is the fear and conviction that our political system is broken. That it serves only a small elite. That it has largely ignored wide portions of the American people. That it is so large and bureaucratic and stuck in its ways that meaningful change seems impossible. These observations are true. One reason Trump’s support is strong is that so many have simply given up on the establishment and are willing to take a risk on someone shaking it up, to see what happens. Trump supporters do not trust the press. They do not trust the government. And in truth they have good reason for much of this mistrust. The problem is that while Trump has become a demagogic mouthpiece for popular opinions that need to be taken seriously, he himself shows no evidence that he takes these opinions seriously or that he has an ability to address these real concerns.
In endorsing Hillary Clinton over Trump, The Atlantic makes this important distinction between Trump and those who support him:
“Our endorsement of Clinton, and rejection of Trump, is not a blanket dismissal of the many Trump supporters who are motivated by legitimate anxieties about their future and their place in the American economy. But Trump has seized on these anxieties and inflamed and racialized them, without proposing realistic policies to address them.”
A commitment to plurality requires that we make every effort to see from the perspective of those with whom we fundamentally disagree. We should listen and work to understand. We should do so in private and in public. But at some point we also have to make judgments. It has been clear for months that whatever qualities Trump may possess, decency, deliberation, and judgment are not among them. Whatever small possibility might exist that Trump may be able to break through gridlock and reform the system, it is vastly overwhelmed by the danger that he would be a President singularly unfit for the tasks of governing and uniting a pluralistic people.
It is my hope that many of the Americans Trump has excited and brought into the political system will find a reason to stay there. We need to listen to them, not shun them. That is a condition of plurality. It is also a practical requirement of a democracy. For if we reject them out of hand, they will retreat into an alternate reality.
Yes, many on the alternative right and the alternative left have created alternate realities already. We confront a citizenry divided not just by differences of opinions, but by different factual worlds. This is the great danger confronting the country. For no country can exist if there is not some common world and common sense that people share in spite of their many differences.
If Hillary Clinton becomes President, she will have a choice. Will she reach out to those of Trump’s supporters who are legitimately angry and anxious about their exclusion from the American dream. In a similar way, Clinton will have to decide whether to reach out to those supporters of Bernie Sanders who are also angry and anxious about their exclusion from the idea and the prosperity of America. One can hope. But we also can ask that she do so.
Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College