The choice: America at the fork in the road

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tomorrow, Americans will make history one way or another. Either we will elect someone poised to be the worst president in the nation's history or we will elect the first woman president in our history. It is shocking to me that we are even at this point, that millions of Americans are even thinking of voting for Donald Trump. I am not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, as regular readers will know, but the choice this year is not a difficult one.

Hillary Clinton may make some good decisions or some bad decisions, but the decisions she will make will be deliberate, the result of wide consultation, with an awareness of historical perspective and familiarity with policy alternatives. She will look to the political consequences of her decisions, in both the best and worst sense of politics: Best, because policies demand the broad support of the American people to be effective and worst because the Clintons are the ones who brought us triangulation once and could do it again.

Donald Trump puts the "hazard" back into "haphazard." The man said he knows more about ISIS than the generals because he thinks he knows more about everything than anyone, trusting his gut even when the subject matter is unfamiliar. We know this because we have seen it with our own eyes: Go back and look at the video of his interview with Chris Matthews when Matthews asked if women who get an abortion should go to jail. Trump clearly had never thought of the issue with any such specificity, but instead of declining to answer, he trusted his gut and said, "There has to be some form of punishment," as if aborting one's child was not punishment enough. Imagine that instinct playing out on all the myriad issues that confront a president.

In a Clinton administration, I worry that groups like Emily's List, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign Fund will have too much influence over both policy and personnel. I worry that Clinton's judicial nominees will include some with progressive views than run roughshod over important constitutional principles: Just as I think religious liberty cannot be an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians, I do not think the call of equality should be allowed to trample the independence of our religious institutions from government meddling. I am not confident Clinton's appointments to the bench will be as solicitous of our religious institutions as I would want.

In a Trump administration, who knows? Some Republicans have deluded themselves into thinking that Mr. Trump would rely on establishment Republicans to staff his administration but he has made it clear time and again that he hates establishment Republicans. I suspect he would appoint people like himself: brash, with careers in business, uninformed on public policy. Does anyone think Donald Trump is really committed to solidarity with the unborn? Is he capable of solidarity with anyone but his own interests and those who, like Vladimir Putin, are willing to serve those interests?

The core issue, however, is different, not only between the two candidates but between Trump and every previous Republican nominee in my lifetime. The alt-right has long been viewed as the conservative fringe, referring mostly to those with ties to white nationalist thinking. This election season has given that group a different designation: the base. It is horrific that so many other Republicans were willing to jump on board the bandwagon but through the primaries it became increasingly obvious that millions of Republican voters did not object to Trump's xenophobic language about immigrants, they warmed to it. The leadership of the party, such as it is, was reluctant to risk distancing themselves from what they were realizing is their base. This was a mistake that will haunt them for years. In the late fifties and early sixties, conservative Republicans refused to serve as fellow travelers to the John Birch Society crowd. Today's conservatives decided to go along for the ride. The recent ad for the Trump campaign, warning of dangerous international actors set upon destroying the United States, and then listing three Jewish people, was not a dog whistle. As Sen. Al Franken said yesterday, it was a "German Shepherd whistle" and it was ugly but not atypical of the alt-right.

The alt-right, however, is more than a bunch of white nationalists. It is an approach, a style of politics, epitomized by Breitbart News. It publishes items that are obviously untrue, but publishes them anyway. It looks for the incendiary and, instead of trying to minimize that which inflames, it pours fuel on the fire. Its worldview is Manichaean: The friend of my enemy is my enemy, the world is divided into black and white (literally), good and bad, us and them. It nurtures a sense of grievance and exploits fears of change. It claims the mantle of true conservatism, but it has more in common with the manners of Robespierre than of Burke. Since August, Trump's campaign has been led by the former executive chairman of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, who has mainstreamed their style of politics. The wider the margin of Hillary Clinton's victory tomorrow, the more the election result is seen as a clear repudiation of the alt-right approach to politics, the better it is for the country and for the Republican Party. The more Republicans who suffer at the polls as a consequence of the party's alignment with this nastiness, the more they will realize that they must choose a better path.

The nation will decide tomorrow about who will be our next president, but it will also decide whether or not this vile political extremism will become mainstreamed or not. That the voters who appear likely to beat it at the polls are Latino voters is a wonderful thing. Our country deserves better than this because our people are better than this. I am relishing the moment when we get to watch Sean Hannity's face when the election is called for Hillary. I look forward to watching Donald Trump be forced to concede. That is, if the voters turn out and do the right thing.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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