Thousands of Little Trumps

I’m tired of Hillary partisans, too—the ones who devote more energy to verbally bludgeoning Clinton’s doubters on the left than to taking on her real enemies on the right. But even if, like me, you are critical of Clinton—of her corporate centrism, cronyism, elitism, and militarism—please consider voting for her anyway. She is probably going to win, but it’s no longer a lock. Trump has a narrow but plausible path: As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gives him a 33 percent chance of winning. True, FiveThirtyEight foresees a better chance than all but Trump’s zealot legions, yet the data website notes that even if you accept more Clinton-confident analyses, her lead, averaging between two to three points, is only a polling error away from a becoming a loss—an error the size of which we’ve seen before. And then there’s his potential to cause great harm in defeat—especially if he loses by a narrow margin—which is why I’m voting for Hillary even though I live in the “safe state” of Vermont. Hillary’s victory isn’t enough. We need a vote total that makes the defeat of Trumpism clear.

I write this as someone who has long been a public critic of Hillary and Clintonism. In 2007, Kathryn Joyce and I teamed up to report a sharply critical story on Hillary’s deep-rooted corporatism and affiliations with a right-wing religious movement known as The Fellowship, published in Mother Jones. We didn’t speak to Hillary—her press secretary cursed at me just for asking—but we interviewed many significant figures from her life, particularly about her long and surprisingly deep relationship with faith, and we read the bulk of her writing. The portrait of Hillary that emerged was about what most critics would expect: Lip service for progressivism combined with a penchant for “compromises” nobody but the far right asked her to make. Perhaps most telling was her collaboration with then-Senator Sam Brownback, one of the most zealously right-wing legislators in recent history, and the late ideologue Chuck Colson on an effort to water down a human-trafficking bill to the extent that many NGOs and activists concerned with the safety of sex workers saw the bill as an attack on their work. Bad stuff. I also teamed up with Kathryn to write a piece for Religion Dispatches on Hillary’s surprising backroom dealing on abortion. What’s sometimes described as “centrist” seemed to reflect the kind of purely political triangulation that has always made Clintonism antagonistic to the Left. I followed that up with an expansion on the two articles for my book The Family. While much of the progressive press responded positively to this work, conservatives accused Kathryn and me of making sins of HRC’s only virtues, and Hillary partisans attacked us for suggesting that she’s anything less than the reincarnation of Dorothy Day.

I offer this history in the hopes of convincing you that I’m not another Hillary partisan trying to bully you into abandoning your Jill Stein vote, or your plan not to vote at all, for the sake of yet one more exercise in the democracy-destroying and soul-crushing ritual of lesser-evilism. As a writer on religion who has spent time with real killers and the worst bigots, I take the term evil seriously. I don’t think Hillary is evil. I think she’s one more entry in a long tradition of neoliberal American imperialist politics. That’s bad! Very, very bad. But evil? No. Hell, I don’t even know for sure if Trump is evil—that might require a more expansive imagination than he possesses. But after studying the American right for decades and publishing two books about it, and after traveling around with the Trumpers for a New York Times Magazine story in the spring, I can say with certainty that yes, Trumpism is evil. The real deal. The thing that must be stopped.

This is not to ignore the brutalism of Hillary’s foreign policy. But the horrors that attend what is euphemistically described as “interventionism”—otherwise known as imperialism, for better or worse—is that of the state, not of the movement that supports Hillary. American centrism is willfully blind to the “collateral damage” of its self-declared good intentions, but it is fundamentally different than the nihilism and narcissism that pervades Trumpism. The desire to tear it all down, the good and the adequate as well as the bad; the belief that “winning” means hurting your enemies; the adoration of the pain of others, whether it’s the victims of the pig-blood-dipped bullets with which Trump has repeatedly fantasized killing Muslim prisoners of war, or the rally protesters I’ve seen tossed around like beach balls the crowd wants to pop. It is a terrifying joy, joy at the prospect of violence, of revenge they believe righteous, joy in the image of other people’s suffering.

There are critics on the left who say that Hillary’s psyche is riddled with Nixonian paranoia. I think that might be right. And those who dismiss the danger of a Trump presidency insist that the establishment will keep him in check, or that he’s too self-involved to really care about doing much damage. But these arguments ignore the one awful truth Trump speaks: His candidacy is a movement, too, and were he to win, thousands of little Trumps would sweep in behind him, appointed or emboldened. Beyond them, spreading through the land, the disease: Trump’s vanity, infectious, the violent joy of a Trump rally exploding into a cloud that would darken the world. “Policy”? It would become a kind of mean joke, a wink between the men, and, yes, women who’d giddily take their real cues from the boss, the big man, the strongman who America, for all its sins, has always, until now, resisted.

This is not to say that your conservative uncle who’s a Trump voter is himself evil. I’ve met decent people who are Trump supporters, people who dedicate their lives to genuinely helping others, nurses and firefighters and doctors. They support Trump because they actually believe he’ll bring back factories or they hope that he won’t fight as many wars. It doesn’t matter. They are not Trumpism. They are not the force that has propelled him further than any of his critics imagined he could come. What to call that force? Ultra-nationalism? White supremacy? Yes and yes, but that’s social science, anger and hate one can measure. The danger of Trump, like his appeal, goes deeper than data. So, please cast a ballot for Hillary. Or, better yet, here’s a slogan: Vote Against Evil.

Jeff Sharlet’s most recent book is Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief (Yale, 2014). He is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College.