On November 8th, barring some astonishment, the people of the United States will, after two hundred and forty years, send a woman to the White House. The election of Hillary Clinton is an event that we will welcome for its immense historical importance, and greet with indescribable relief. It will be especially gratifying to have a woman as commander-in-chief after such a sickeningly sexist and racist campaign, one that exposed so starkly how far our society has to go. The vileness of her opponent’s rhetoric and his record has been so widely aired that we can only hope she will be able to use her office and her impressive resolve to battle prejudice wherever it may be found.
On every issue of consequence, including economic policy, the environment, and foreign affairs, Hillary Clinton is a distinctly capable candidate: experienced, serious, schooled, resilient. When the race began, Clinton, who has always been a better office-holder than a campaigner, might have anticipated a clash of ideas and personalities on the conventional scale, against, say, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Instead, the Democratic nominee has ended up playing a sometimes secondary role in a squalid American epic. If she is elected, she will have weathered a prolonged battle against a trash-talking, burn-it-to-the-ground demagogue. Unfortunately, the drama is not likely to end soon. The aftereffects of this campaign may befoul our civic life for some time to come.
If the prospect of a female President represents a departure in the history of American politics, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, the real-estate mogul and Republican nominee, does, too—a chilling one. He is manifestly unqualified and unfit for office. Trained in the arts of real-estate promotion and reality television, he exhibits scant interest in or familiarity with policy. He favors conspiracy theory and fantasy, deriving his knowledge from the darker recesses of the Internet and “the shows.” He has never held office or otherwise served his country, never acceded to the authority of competing visions and democratic resolutions.
Worse still, he does not accept the authority of constitutional republicanism—its norms, its faiths and practices, its explicit rules and implicit understandings. That much is clear from his statements about targeting press freedoms, infringing on an independent judiciary, banning Muslim immigration, deporting undocumented immigrants without a fair hearing, reviving the practice of torture, and, in the third and final debate, his refusal to say that he will accept the outcome of the election. Trump has even threatened to prosecute and imprison his opponent. The American demagogues from the past century who most closely resemble him—Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy among them—were dangers to the republic, but they never captured the Presidential nomination of a major political party. Father Coughlin commanded a radio show and its audience. President Trump would command the armed forces of the United States, control its nuclear codes, appoint judges, propose legislation, and conduct foreign policy. It is a convention of our quadrennial pieties to insist that this election is singularly important. But Trump really does represent something singular. The prospect of such a President—erratic, empty, cruel, intolerant, and corrupt—represents a form of national emergency.
At a time of alarming and paralyzing partisanship, this is an issue that reasonable voices in both parties can agree upon. At last count, more than a hundred and sixty Republican leaders had declared their refusal to support Trump. Fifty national-security officials who served in Republican Administrations have done the same. The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Arizona Republic, the Dallas Morning News, and the Columbus Dispatch—all conservative newspapers, which have endorsed only Republicans for between seventy-six and a hundred and twenty-six years—have endorsed Clinton. USA Today, which has never endorsed a candidate, has declared Trump “unfit for the presidency.”*
Trump is an old American story and a very new one—a familiar variety of charlatan blooming again in the age of social media. It wasn’t so long ago that he was a fixture of the local tabloids (“Best Sex I’ve Ever Had”), with a sideline as a cartoon tyrant on “The Apprentice.” Then, beginning in 2011, came the bigotry of his attempt to delegitimize the Obama Presidency through voluble support of the “birther” theory. Yet his propensities have long been apparent. More than forty years ago, the Justice Department filed a civil-rights case against Trump and his father for discriminatory housing practices; the Trumps hired Roy Cohn, a former aide to Joseph McCarthy, to defend them. In 1989, Trump took out a full-page ad in the News implicitly calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, four African-Americans and a Latino who were then fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old, and stood accused of rape and assault. They were convicted and imprisoned, and when, years later, they were exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence, Trump continued to insist on their guilt, as he did just a couple of weeks ago. That statement might have garnered more attention had he not made it a day before the disclosure of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” video, in which he spoke, in graphic terms, of his own predilection for sexual assault and the impunity that celebrity confers. It is not merely narcissism that leads him to speak about grabbing women’s genitals or to endorse the “Lock Her Up!” chants directed at his opponent. It is his temperamental authoritarianism—a trait echoed in his admiration of Vladimir Putin.
The consistencies of Trump’s character are matched by the inconsistencies of his policy positions. Every politician is allowed to change his or her mind, but Trump abuses the privilege. His reversals on issues as fundamental as first-strike nuclear policy and our obligations to nato reflect not so much a thought process as the blunderings of ignorance. He was once pro-choice; more recently, he has suggested that women who get abortions should be punished. His role models, too, change with circumstance. Ronald Reagan, he once wrote, could “con people” but couldn’t “deliver the goods.” Now Reagan heads the list of the Presidents he admires most. Asked just last year to name the best of the previous four Presidents, Trump chose Bill Clinton, having once lauded him as “a great President.” Now Clinton, like his wife, is a criminal. Three years ago, Trump remarked of Hillary Clinton’s work as Secretary of State that she was “probably above and beyond everybody else”; now, of course, her term was a “total disaster.”
The combination of free-form opportunism, heroic self-regard, blithe contempt for expertise, and an airy sense of infallibility has contributed to Trump’s profound estrangement from the truth. He said that he saw “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks of 9/11. When he was told that this never happened, he repeated the claim, mocked the disabled reporter who exposed it—a grotesque antic captured on video—and then denied having done so. He maintained that he saw a picture of Ted Cruz’s father “having breakfast with Lee Harvey Oswald”; no such picture exists. He boasted of conversations with Putin that never occurred; he said that Putin had not invaded Ukraine. He described climate change as a Chinese-perpetrated hoax, then said that he hadn’t. Day and night, Trump assembles and distributes these murky innuendos and outright lies through his Twitter account. He is particularly obsessed with the President. To Trump, Obama has many, many secrets: his birth, his faith, his loyalties. In the candidate’s conspiratorial catchphrase, “There’s something going on.”
There is something going on. If Trump is an opportunistic infection spreading throughout the body politic, what explains our susceptibility? Many answers have been offered. The mobbed but weak Republican primary field. Cable television’s propensity for broadcasting hours of Trump’s rallies. Resentment at the “browning of America,” in the era of the first African-American President. Anger over the failure to punish those Wall Street executives who helped tip the country into the worst recession since the Great Depression. The radicalization of the Republican Party leadership. A white working class that has been losing ground, and a disconnected political class, particularly within the Democratic Party, that has failed to convey any sense of empathy. Numerous writers and analysts, including George Packer, in this issue, have explored these questions in depth.
We are in the midst of a people’s revolt, a great debate concerning income inequality, the “hollowing” of the middle, globalization’s winners and losers. If the tribune whom the voters of the Republican Party have chosen is a false one, we cannot dismiss the message because we deplore the messenger. The white working-class voters who form the core of Trump’s support—and who were once a Democratic constituency—should not have their anxieties and suffering written off. Their struggle with economic abandonment and an incomplete health-care system demands airing, understanding, and political solutions.
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Many Trump supporters are G.O.P. stalwarts who would support the Party’s nominee no matter what. At the same time, to deny the racist and nativist component of Trumpism is to shy from a fundamental truth about American social history. There really are Trump enthusiasts who resent President Obama because he is black, and because his being black is symbolic of all the other ethnic groups and recent arrivals who threaten their place in the social hierarchy. To follow Trump, in an effort to secure justice and respect, is to deny justice and respect to those he insults and disdains—particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, women. In Donald Trump’s pinched and fearful vision, politics is a zero-sum game.
Hillary Clinton’s vision and temperament are the opposite of her opponent’s. She has been a pioneer throughout her life, and yet her career cannot be easily reduced to one transcendent myth: she has been an idealist and a liberal incrementalist, a glass-ceiling-smashing lawyer and a cautious establishmentarian, a wife and mother, a First Lady, a rough-and-tumble political operator, a senator, a Secretary of State. Her story is about walking through flames and emerging changed, warier and more determined. In her intelligence, in her gimlet-eyed recognition of both the limits and the possibilities of government, she’s a particular kind of inspirational figure, a pragmatist and a Democratic moderate. We wish that Clinton faced a worthy opponent: she deserves a less sullied, more substantive win. But her claim to our support goes far beyond the nihilism of the alternative. It is also notable that she has chosen as a running mate Tim Kaine, a highly capable politician with a record of genuine compassion; by contrast, the Republican Vice-Presidential choice, Mike Pence, has tried to position himself for the future on the national stage but has distinguished himself as one of the country’s most fiercely anti-gay politicians, declaring that marriage freedom would lead to “societal collapse.”
A chasm lies between a candidate’s promises and a President’s legislative accomplishments, but the ambitions must be assessed, however partial their eventual enactment. In many ways, Clinton’s campaign is the antithesis of campaigns during past times of economic uncertainty. She offers no soaring rhetoric on the order of “Morning in America,” “A Bridge to the 21st Century,” or “Yes We Can.” What she does offer is a series of thoughtful and energetic proposals that present precisely the kind of remedies that could improve the lives of many working-class and poor Americans of all races. She would simplify the tax code for small businesses and streamline their licensing requirements. She would increase health-care tax credits through the Affordable Care Act, which, in theory, would both expand coverage and reduce the burden on employers. She would also seek to expand access to Medicaid and would extend Medicare to people as young as fifty-five. She would substantially increase funding for community health centers and provide significant federal support for child care. And her college-affordability plan would help students refinance debt, and support states that subsidize tuition.
Clinton’s tax plans are also designed to promote broader-based affluence. She would increase the tax rate on short-term capital gains for high earners, with lower rates for longer-term holdings; close the “carried-interest” tax loophole that favors hedge-fund managers; and levy fees on banks with high debt levels. She would impose a four-per-cent surcharge on incomes above five million dollars a year, and adopt a minimum thirty-per-cent tax rate on incomes above a million dollars a year. She supports an “exit tax” and other fiscal adjustments that would discourage so-called corporate inversion—the offshoring of companies to tax havens like Ireland. And she proposes tax incentives for investing in towns that have faced significant losses in manufacturing jobs. To address the compounding effects of trade and technology on displaced workers, she would promote training, and include a tax credit for businesses that take on apprentices. She would allocate $275 billion over five years to infrastructure improvement, focussing on transit and water systems, which should create employment while reducing inefficiencies.
In general, Clinton’s tax plan is less advantageous to the financial industry and more conducive to jobs-intensive enterprises. Despite her reputation for being overly solicitous of Wall Street, Clinton has strong proposals to prevent large financial institutions from taking on risks that could derail the economy again. She promises to defend the Dodd-Frank reforms (which Trump, like all the Republican candidates, has pledged to overturn) and to build on them. She would impose new fees on risk; strengthen the Volcker Rule, which prevents banks from making potentially disastrous bets with government-backed deposits; and bring regulatory light into the so-called shadow banking system, where much of the 2008 financial crisis began. She would demand that hedge funds and other large financial firms provide far more information to regulators about their trading activity, and her Administration would prevent those firms from becoming so overleveraged that a faulty bet could bankrupt them and lead to widespread economic crisis.
Clinton brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to matters of foreign policy, but she is more hawkish than President Obama. She urged intervention in Libya, and our failure to coördinate a more orderly mission there has had dismal results. As Secretary of State and as a candidate, she has been among those who have pressed the President to use American military strength in Syria more extensively than he has been willing to countenance. Considering the dimensions of our failure in Iraq, we hope that Clinton has learned a greater caution from the President for whom she worked. And yet, as Secretary of State, she did an enormous amount to repair relations with foreign governments in the wake of the Bush-Cheney years and to focus greater attention on our complicated relations with China. She was also instrumental in laying the groundwork for the economic sanctions and the political approaches that led to the nuclear deal with Iran, signed after her tenure ended.
The most important reason to vote for Clinton may be the matter of the Supreme Court. For two generations, conservative Justices have dominated the Court, and they have imposed their will on several critical areas of the law. Thanks to Citizens United and related cases, the law on campaign finance is in shambles, and wealthy donors now reign over the political process. In 2013, a five-to-four majority gutted the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the most important civil-rights law in American history, and Republican state legislators have taken advantage of this shameful moment in the Court’s history to limit the franchise of those who might vote against them—that is, minorities and Democrats. Over the years, a shifting alliance of Justices has protected certain key constitutional rights—notably, a woman’s right to choose and the right of universities to consider diversity in student admissions. Clinton has a chance to lock in these gains, reverse some of the losses, and even augur a new, and very different, era on the Court.
The Republican-controlled Senate has refused even to grant a hearing to Merrick Garland, President Obama’s politically moderate and highly qualified nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, who died in February. It will be among Clinton’s first duties to renominate Garland, or choose someone else for that seat, and, since Ruth Bader Ginsburg is eighty-three, Anthony Kennedy eighty, and Stephen Breyer seventy-eight, she may have several more opportunities to reshape the Court. A progressive Supreme Court could be Clinton’s most noble legacy, but one whose realization will require strong Democratic voices in the Senate—something that voters should remember in other races to be decided on November 8th. A Court of Trump appointees could fail to check him or any future demagogue. In the notorious Korematsu decision, in 1944, the Supreme Court acceded to President Roosevelt in allowing the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, an action that Trump recently refused to denounce outright. As Justice Robert Jackson, who dissented in Korematsu, noted, a precedent like that remains a loaded gun. Clinton will not radicalize the Court; she will honor its best traditions of truly judicious scrutiny.
Despite the conspiratorial conjectures of Clinton’s opponents, her politics hide in plain sight. She is a committed progressive on many issues, including the rights of women and minorities; gun laws (she would expand background checks, close gun-show and Internet-sales loopholes, and repeal legislation that immunizes the gun industry from liability litigation); and, more recently, immigration (where she favors comprehensive reform, a pathway to citizenship, and an end to family detention).
On the existential issue of climate change, Clinton has pledged to pursue the Congress-proof path that Obama has set off on. She would carry out his so-called Clean Power Plan, a series of regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector, which is currently in litigation. She has called for the installation of half a billion solar panels by 2020—producing roughly five times the amount of solar power currently generated—and, most ambitiously, she has said that she would put the U.S. on track to reduce over-all emissions eighty per cent by 2050. At the same time, Clinton has declined to support the measure that experts say would most effectively further these goals: a tax on carbon. Her reluctance here, while disappointing, is not hard to fathom; such a tax stands no chance in Congress, at least as it is currently constituted.
Like President Obama, Clinton has “evolved” on such issues as L.G.B.T.Q. rights, Wall Street regulation, and higher minimum wages. During the past year, she listened carefully to the arguments of Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign and of the Black Lives Matter movement, and, without relinquishing her essential center-left pragmatism, she came to embrace some of her party’s boldest and most progressive ideas, on college-tuition policy and criminal-justice reform. Unlike her opponent, she is capable of listening. Yes, it is political listening, but Clinton is a politician, and that is hardly a sin.
Hillary Clinton is neither saint nor prophet; she is a pragmatist of deep experience and purpose. But her toughness, her guile, and her experience—qualities that helped her patiently decimate Trump in their three debates—will be assets in future political battles. In “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that there was no reason “to believe that Abraham Lincoln, the statesman and opportunist, was morally inferior to William Lloyd Garrison, the prophet. The moral achievement of statesmen must be judged in terms which take account of the limitations of human society which the statesman must, and the prophet need not, consider.” In this populist moment, the attractions of continuity hold little romance. And yet Clinton not only promises to be a vastly better President than her opponent; she has every chance of building on the successes and insights of a predecessor who will leave office with a remarkable record of progressive change and, in an often ugly time, as an exemplar of Presidential temper and dignity.
Last month, in a broadcast to union representatives, Clinton remarked, “Why aren’t I fifty points ahead, you might ask.” Throughout the campaign, commentators have had much to say about her “negatives,” her “baggage.” Her greatest political problem—the reason that she is not even farther ahead in the polls—is that so many voters distrust her. She and her husband are not unique among politicians in enriching themselves on the speaking circuit and in the business world—everyone from Al Gore to Rudolph Giuliani has done so—but it is understandable that, when those fees amount to tens of millions of dollars over the years, and when Clinton speaks in such familiar tones to audiences of investment bankers, her opponents assume the worst. The Clintons are right to assert that their foundation is infinitely more worthy than Trump’s, but it is also more than fair to wish that the Clintons, knowing full well that they were not done with public life, had taken far greater care to avoid potential conflicts of interest, or even the appearance of them. There is another reason to wish for reëvaluation: Clinton’s mistrust of the media can make her guarded, stubbornly opaque—a reflex that was evident from her initial failure to come forward with her Whitewater documents, in the nineteen-nineties, to her failure a few weeks ago to disclose her pneumonia.
For the most part, however, Clinton is distrusted in ways that have little to do with her own choices, beyond the choice to be part of public life. She has been the target of twenty-five years of hatred, misogyny, and conspiracy-mongering, endlessly metamorphosing from one confected “scandal” to another—Filegate, Benghazi, the State Department e-mails. As each one has proved to be more smoke than fire, the fury has found another target. Now attention has moved to the WikiLeaks dump of her staff’s e-mail. Thanks to the tradecraft of what appears to be Putin’s hackers and his fond desire to unnerve the American political class, we now know that Clinton’s aides exchange fevered political calculations; that they say in private what they might not on television; that they make the occasional thoughtless or arrogant remark. Not since the release of the Nixon White House tapes has any political figure had private communications subjected to this degree of public scrutiny. Yet no dark alter ego has emerged. Whatever Americans think about Hillary Clinton, we cannot say that we don’t know her. We do know her. And there is a great deal to admire.
David Plouffe, who managed the Obama campaign in 2008, has called the Trump candidacy a “black-swan event”—irrational, but unique to Trump. It is unlikely, Plouffe says, that anyone will soon come along with the same capacity to overstep the traditional institutions of party, media, and big money, and tweet his way to the nomination of a major party. Yet this ignores the nativist backlash that has gripped other parts of the world. It ignores, too, the reckoning that is due in the party that nominated him, with Ted Cruz as the more primly demagogic also-ran. (Cruz also talks about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods and about Clinton’s criminality.)
Not even a sound defeat is likely to cause Trump to recede from view. Now, as he trails in the polls and declares the election “rigged,” thanks to a collusion of the media, political élites, and inner-city “communities,” he seems to be preparing the ground for an unlovely and prolonged assault on a Clinton Presidency. Even some Republican leaders who have withdrawn their support for him have adopted his maximalism. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said that Clinton wants to strip away all color and joy from the lives of Americans. Senator John McCain has sworn that he will work in the Senate to block any Supreme Court nominations that a President Clinton might make. Neither has come to terms with the ways in which his party’s rhetoric and tactics have enabled Trump’s rise. If anything, their hope seems to be that the swell of passions he has brought together will not dissipate but propel their own ambitions.
To witness Trump’s behavior these past weeks has been to watch a man preparing the outlines of his own martyrdom. It is unclear how he will go on making his political mark. Will he run for office again? Will he fan the calls for “revolution” among his most outraged supporters? Will he build a new alt-right media platform? Or will he retreat to the Elba of Mar-a-Lago? There is no predicting the actions of a man who prides himself on his unpredictability. But, beyond Trump, there is Trumpism: a profound hostility toward political professionalism; a strong antipathy toward technocratic élites; a disenchantment with liberal values. Whether it gathers behind a Ted Cruz, or a Ben Carson, or some candidate yet unsummoned, it indicates a seam of disaffection that any successful Administration must address.
Clinton may lack Obama’s capacity for eloquence. Her task as President is, nonetheless, to find a way to communicate and connect with the public. Inspiration and persuasion are part of the job, in the office as well as on the campaign trail. She must reach the most alienated and angered members of the American electorate. Obama inherited a financial crisis when he took office. The civil crisis that Clinton will inherit is less sharply defined, but her political legacy will depend upon her ability to alleviate it.
Another legacy of hers will be assured. The election of a woman to the Presidency will have myriad reverberations in the life and the institutions of this country. President Obama’s election certainly did not end the saga of racial conflict and prejudice in the United States, but as a distinct step forward it opened up the world to countless young people. Similarly, electing a female President means imagining new possibilities: that a woman might survive that gantlet of derision to hold power with confidence, without apology, to enlarge our notions of authority and hasten an age when a female President will no longer be exceptional. Just as President Obama was able at certain moments of glaring injustice and crisis to focus the country on matters of race in a potentially lasting way, Hillary Clinton, who has emphasized in her campaign and throughout her political life such issues as early-childhood education, paid family leave, and equal pay, could also change the nation in deeply consequential ways. That’s a thrilling possibility for all Americans. ♦
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that USA Today endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Published in the print edition of the October 31, 2016, issue, with the headline “The Choice.”