Let's Not Forget the Apathy That Made Trump's Presidency Possible
Some people argued there wasn't much difference between Trump and Clinton. This year showed they were very, very wrong.
A scene from Hillary Clinton's 2016 Election Night event. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty
Susan Sarandon is about to get a large tax cut for her role in saving the US from a Hillary Clinton presidency; so is Colin Kaepernick. That’s 2017 in a nutshell: The country is beginning to experience the fruits of a misguided hatred of Clinton that helped make Donald Trump president.
I’ve no doubt Sarandon and Kaepernick will put that money to good use in their personal lives. For decades, Sarandon has donated and worked for worthy causes. She's traveled to Nicaragua to help feed needy infants and their mothers, given to charities designed to help end world hunger, and supported civil liberty groups. Kaepernick rightly deserved all the accolades he’s received this year, including the comparisons to Muhammad Ali, a trailblazer willing to sacrifice the prime of a professional athletic career to promote a higher cause. And he’s donated a significant amount of money, and time, to causes he holds dear.
I single Kaepernick and Sarandon out not because they are bad people, but because even conscientious Americans like them made a grave mistake when they allowed their distaste for Clinton and an imperfect Democratic Party to blind them to the threat of Trump. As the country continues to grapple with the consequences of his presidency, we should remember that we are here in part because some underestimated the threat he posed.
In June 2016, Sarandon (who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary before endorsing Jill Stein) said on the Young Turks that “in a way” Clinton was more dangerous than Trump. “They’re both talking to Henry Kissinger, apparently,” she said. “She did not learn from Iraq, and she is an interventionist, and she has done horrible things, and very callously. I don’t know if she is overcompensating or what her trip is. That scares me. I think we’ll be in Iran in two seconds.”
Well, Clinton lost—and many observers are worried that the US is inching closer to war with Iran.
Kaepernick has used his voice to raise incredibly important issues even while being ridiculed and jeopardizing his professional football career. But he bought into a false narrative in September 2016 when he claimed there was little difference between Clinton and Trump, saying it was embarrassing to see the US have two “proven liars” as the presidential nominees. “You have to pick the lesser of two evils. But in the end, it’s still evil,” he said.
He couldn’t even stick to that and didn’t vote in the end, claiming that either Trump or Clinton would just be “another face that’s going to be the face of that system of oppression. And to me, it didn’t really matter who went in there, the system still remains intact that oppresses people of color.”
This is not a screed against either Sarandon or Kaepernick, each of whom deserves respect for choosing to use their privileged positions in service of those not nearly as fortunate. Individual voting decisions are always complex, and a few quotes can never fully capture any voter’s motivations.
Neither is this an attempt to absolve Clinton of her flaws and faults. She was one of the least popular presidential nominees in American history because of choices she made. She should have anticipated the potential ramifications of setting up a private server for her emails while secretary of State. She could have mustered the courage or had the foresight to vote against the Iraq war. She and her husband could have decided against making high-dollar Wall Street speeches and other dubious choices that haunted her during the campaign. She used the term “super predator,” popularized by an Ivy League criminologist who wrongly anticipated a surge in violent crime among young men, particularly young men of color, to argue in favor of her husband’s 1994 crime bill. As secretary of state, she argued in favor of a robust military role in parts of the Middle East, policies that are still playing out in ugly ways in places such as Yemen and Libya and Syria.
It is also true that her high level of unpopularity was partially built upon conspiracies, the sins of her husband, and double standards. She had been in the sights of America's right wing for decades and was accused of murder and being involved in a supposed secret child sex scheme. She was criticized for staying with her husband after his well-publicized affairs, but surely would have been criticized had she left him. She took the lion’s share of criticism about policies—like the Iraq War and crime bill—that had widespread bipartisan support. The crime bill, for instance, was backed by most of the Congressional Black Caucus and many black activists concerned by drug-fueled gang wars in their communities. Bernie Sanders voted for it too.
There were honest critiques of Clinton. But there was also a caricature of her as a liar and a fraud that ultimately helped Trump.
And despite the claims that Clinton did not do enough for vulnerable and people of color, after college she did not head to Wall Street when she could have—she went to the Children’s Defense Fund instead. And she went undercover to expose racial discrimination in Alabama. And she was an important figure in the formation of a program that still provides health insurance for millions of poor children. And she, like so many other talented women, often sacrificed her own ambitions to help further her husband’s. When she was a senator she was praised by colleagues from both parties for her ability to get things done. She was not in favor of going into Libya because she wanted another war; she believed it would help prevent what some believed was a pending massacre. No, she is not from the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party, but neither is she an amoral warmonger. If she seemed likely to continue Obama’s interventionist policies and continue to use drones—well, Sanders said he would use drones to fight terrorism as well.
There were honest critiques of Clinton. But there was also a caricature of her as a liar and a fraud that ultimately helped Trump—who didn’t have her record of public service or her experience. The narrative that both candidates were equally tainted by scandal was pushed by many disillusioned leftists and helped along by a media that gave a disproportionate amount of coverage to Clinton’s emails. Voters looking for an excuse to cast a ballot for Trump or stay home in disgust were given one by the anti-Clinton brigade.
There were many other reasons why Clinton lost by a razor-thin margin, including James Comey’s last-minute decision to announce a reopening of the email investigation and her campaign’s own poor decision not to aggressively campaign in the upper Midwest.
But when a unique threat like Trump arises, we must be able to recognize it and respond accordingly. And that’s where Sarandon and Kaepernick, among others, failed.
Sarandon and Kaepernick likely have real empathy for 800,000 or so DACA recipients whose future is uncertain. They may cry for the record number of civilian casualties that have resulted from the way Trump has prosecuted long-simmering wars in the Middle East. They probably hate that the Justice Department has rolled back the police oversight policies from the Obama administration. I’m sure they are terrified by how emboldened white supremacists are in the Trump era. But the decision made by voters like them in November—to prioritize their disdain for Clinton over everything else—helped pave the way for all of that, and more.
It wasn’t just 63 million mostly white voters who put Trump in office; he was helped by Americans who deluded themselves into thinking there would be no material difference between a Trump and Clinton presidency.
Had Clinton been president this year instead of Trump, DACA recipients and their supporters would not have to wonder whether they would face deportation come March and could be pushing for actual immigration reform. Had Clinton been president, 2017 would have been spent debating how best to improve and expand the Affordable Care Act rather than by a desperate attempt to save it. Democrats would have had a fifth vote on the Supreme Court to shore up women’s rights and voting rights. If there was a tax reform bill, it would have been better constructed to help the poor and middle class. Kaepernick and Sarandon were wrong: There was a big difference between Clinton and Trump, and we’ve been seeing it all year.
The good news is that the tide has begun to change. The young black voters who were lukewarm to Clinton and those who opposed her for a variety of reasons are energized and have made their presence felt already in elections. We’ve seen it happen in Virginia and New Jersey and even Alabama, which is sending a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a quarter of a century. For that, Democrats can thank the black vote, in particular black women. If they don’t take those votes for granted, they could retake one or both chambers of Congress in 2018.
It was one thing to imagine a Trump presidency in the abstract; seeing the real thing in action has moved people like nothing else.
For all the talk about whether Trump won because of an ill-defined economic angst among the white working class, greed among the richest Americans, or racism, there has not been enough about why Americans who should have—and in some cases did—oppose Trump didn’t set aside their differences and vote for the alternative.
Politics is sometimes about voting not for the lesser of two evils but the best option you have—while simultaneously working to improve those options. I hope we have learned those lessons after 2017. If not, we will remain susceptible to a repeat of the disaster of 2016.
Follow Issac J. Bailey on Twitter.