Over the holiday season, I spent time with an uncle in the U.K who is decidedly more right wing than I am. He supported Brexit, and views liberal pc culture as one of the biggest problems in British society. My uncle is a highly intelligent man, a professor, lecturer, and columnist who is routinely invited onto news shows to do battle with lefties.
I am not as emotionally invested in the Brexit debacle as many of my friends and family are given I live in the States, so I managed to navigate myself through the conversation without losing my cool. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, and greatly enjoy his company, so I considered what he had to say, and we politely disagreed. The topic however, then moved onto America and Donald Trump. My uncle asked me what I thought was happening in the States and wanted to know what I thought the cause of Trumpism was.
“I’m no fan of Trump,” he told me. “But I understand why lots of Americans voted for him.”
According to my uncle, economic anxiety was the main issue, and he saw corrupt elites in both parties being responsible for the almighty backlash. I told him that having spent the best part of three years monitoring and reporting on Trump supporters, I had reached a different conclusion.
“It wasn’t anything to do with economic anxiety,” I said. “It had everything to do with racism and the hatred much of the nation felt towards President Obama. Multiple studies have shown this was the case.”
I’ve written about this extensively, and the data is conclusively on my side. It wasn’t an argument that holds sway with my uncle though, and it was something we couldn’t really get past. In my uncle’s mind, racism is largely a mute issue in modern society — in both the UK and US. He believes we are past the days of segregation and slavery, and believes liberals are cashing in on the subject as a way to appeal to people’s sense of victimhood. The conversation then turned to Hillary Clinton’s role in the election of Trump — a subject I struggled to maintain my poise over.
“Clinton handed Trump the presidency,” my uncle said. “It was a huge own goal.”
To an extent, I agreed. I don’t believe Clinton ran a great campaign, and I never thought she was a good candidate. I did however, point out that she had in fact beaten Trump by almost 3 million votes. “More Americans voted for Clinton than voted for Trump,” I said. “That’s not exactly a resounding victory for Trump.”
“If Hillary Clinton was president, America would be at war right now,” my uncle then said, echoing the views of the far left and the Alt Right.
I could see where this was going, and I stopped myself from getting into a heated argument over the merits Hillary Clinton (I’m still recovering from the 2016 election and have no desire to relive the “both sides” debate ever again). I didn’t ask my uncle directly whether he would have voted for Trump over Clinton, but I assume that he would have done. Instead, I asked him this:
“Who would you vote for if someone was holding a gun to your head, Donald Trump or Dick Cheney?”
“That’s easy,” answered my uncle. “Donald Trump, every time.”
“Here’s the thing,” I said, “I would vote for Cheney every time.”
“Why? He’s a murdering, warmongering psychopath, Ben!” said my uncle.
“I agree. However, I know that at the end of four years, if voted out, Dick Cheney would leave office. I don’t know that about Donald Trump.”
My uncle looked stumped for a moment. “That’s a good point,” he said. “I hadn’t considered that, although I disagree.”
“As a Jew, I can smell a fascist,” I told him. “With Donald Trump I detects something very, very dangerous, and I don’t believe he’ll walk away if he is voted out. And that’s the difference.”
We ended the conversation there, and I felt I had at the very least, made my uncle consider my perspective and take it more seriously.
The interaction got me thinking more about the kind of threat Trump presents, and why his politics doesn’t actually matter. I reframed the question I asked my uncle and considered whether I would have voted for Trump if he had been a stalwart progressive who believed in everything I do. What if Trump supported women’s reproductive rights, a fair minimum wage, the protection of the environment, taxing the rich, and reigning in the abuses on Wall Street? What if he had advocated for more oversight over the police, investment in deprived areas, and wanted to expand Medicare for all Americans? Would that version of Donald Trump be worth voting for?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that under no circumstances should someone like Trump be voted for regardless of their political positions, and here’s why.
I broadly agreed with many of the reforms Hugo Chavez made when he was president of Venezuela. He poured money into health programs for the poor, hugely expanded health care access, and took environmental issues incredibly seriously. As a young man, I defended Chavez vociferously, and that was because I liked what he was doing. Now older, I have reconsidered my position. Chavez was not the dictator many in the West made him out to be, but he showed alarming dictatorial tendencies. He dramatically concentrated power in the presidency, and committed egregious human rights violations against those who tried to speak out about his dangerous behavior. Chavez did not take dissent or democracy seriously, and for those reasons alone, he posed a huge threat to the longterm health of the country.
There is nothing more important in a healthy democracy than electing leaders who, despite their political positions, believe strongly in a healthy democracy. That means they welcome dissent, militantly support a free press, and leave when they are voted out. Hugo Chavez did none of the above, and Donald Trump is displaying remarkably similar tendencies while in office. He routinely blasts the press and calls them the “enemy of the people,” has purged his administration of dissenters, and has remarked on numerous occasions that he may not accept the outcome of US elections if he doesn’t like the results.
Once the system is corrupted, it takes a very, very long time to restore faith in it again. So even if Trump supported absolutely every policy I do, I would still dedicate myself to ensuring he never, ever took power.
The extremely well thought structure of the US government makes the country quite unique in its ability to withstand would-be tyrants like Donald Trump. The Founding Fathers designed the system in the event that someone like Trump emerged, and thus far, the checks and balances appear to be keeping his worst instincts in check, despite a completely compliant GOP and the control (until this week) of all branches of government.
It is only because Americans take democracy so seriously that Trump has not turned the country into a banana republic. There is still enough belief to save the country from the existential crisis it finds itself in, and contrary to many people’s opinion, it isn’t a matter of right vs left. The battle will come down to those who believe in democracy and those who don’t.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.