I’ve never voted in a presidential election where I was convinced one of the outcomes would be a true disaster for the country. Obviously I had preferences — sometimes mild, sometimes strong. But I never believed that our political health, our values, our economy and our national security were so fragile — and the presidency so powerful — that one election could be catastrophic. Until now.
I think the odds are extremely high that a Donald Trump presidency would be catastrophic for this country in many ways. We would be walking into catastrophe eyes wide open.
I will forego the temptation to try to deliver the killer closing argument, however. I have to believe that undecided voters have heard every possible argument by now.
The Brits were in a similar situation a few months ago. After endless debate over the Brexit referendum, the percentage of undecided voters was high on the eve of the election. The polling was extremely close. The actual vote wasn’t. Brexit won 52 percent to 48 percent.
Voter regret struck immediately. Within a few days, 4 million people signed a petition demanding a second referendum. A poll taken a week after the referendum found that 57 percent now wanted to remain in the E.U. The Brexit vote already has cost the U.K. dearly in the value of the pound, the business climate and civic morale. The leaders of the Brexit movement largely have been vanquished.
Once upon a time, Italians thought it was a good idea to elect Silvio Berlusconi, Minnesotans got a kick out of electing wrestler Jesse Ventura governor and Californians thought they were clever to elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know how those stories ended.
I can’t imagine the levels of voter regret — not to mention panic — that would follow a Trump victory. As it is now, whenever Trump’s prospects blip up, the stock market seems to blip down. Voting for Trump may feel like a solid blow against a corrupt system, but chances are those emotions will fade fast in the light after battle.
So here’s my last suggestion to those understandably depressed by both choices and considering voting for Trump, a third party or just staying home: Think about what your future self is likely to think about your decision in a couple of years. You’ve heard all the arguments from other people, but try to reframe them as an argument with yourself: Use hindsight now.
Ask yourself if you’d feel good voting for a man who bragged about groping women and has been accused of abuse many times. If Trump embarrasses the country in the White House, if he picks on the vulnerable in society, if economic inequality gets worse, you’ll remember how Trump has stirred up racial resentment, repeatedly insulted Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants, dodged taxes and refused to release his records. If things go bad internationally, you’ll remember Trump’s clumsy calls to ditch NATO, his contempt for our military leadership, his flirting with Vladimir Putin and his dazzling ignorance of foreign affairs. Think about the contempt and ignorance Trump already has displayed toward the Constitution and our democratic system.
Hindsight about the 2000 election showed me that my belief in the essential stability and wisdom of the American political ecosystem was grossly exaggerated and my capacity to imagine the worst outcomes was too narrow.
Before 2000, I had not voted in a presidential election since 1984, the year before I became a professional journalist. In 1985, I started covering politics and then Congress full time. I decided I would refrain from voting in presidential elections as a discipline, perhaps symbolic, to help maintain distance and impartiality.
I might have changed my mind if I had thought there was ever a credible candidate who was truly dangerous, but there wasn’t. Bush the Elder versus Michael Dukakis, then Bill Clinton; Clinton versus Bob Dole: These were decent if not glorious options, I felt. It wasn’t hard to abstain.
In 2000, I felt pretty much the same way, though markedly less enthusiastic about the options. I had spent time around both Al Gore and George W. Bush and thought both were fundamentally honest, well-intentioned men. Obviously, I had views on their policies and priorities, but I didn’t think either was a national risk.
And obviously, I was wrong. George Bush made what I believe was a terrible and unnecessary decision to invade Iraq that is still generating bloodshed, war and instability. I don’t think Al Gore would have done that. I don’t know what mistakes he would have made, but I don’t believe they would have been on the same scale.
None of that was obvious in 2000, certainly not to me.
The mistakes Donald Trump is likely to make are obvious, predictable and likely. I believe that those Republicans that have supported or coddled Trump, whether he wins or loses, will be disgraced in history. And I don’t think your future self wants to be part of that story.