As of today, I have not decided whether I can, in good conscience, vote for a presidential candidate this November.
I have family members who press me to vote against Donald Trump. I have admired friends who press me to vote against Hillary Clinton. I have others who propose a protest vote by staying home or voting for the Green or Libertarian Party candidate.
It is very unlikely that I will be able to stomach voting for Clinton. In our current crisis of elite failure, we do not need in the White House a person with her career-long record of dissimulation and deceit coupled with a pathological need for selfish opportunism and money.
Clinton and her husband epitomize the worst narcissistic excesses of my generation — the baby boomers. From her cruel 1969 put-down of the first African-American ever popularly elected to the U.S. Senate and his dodging military service in Vietnam to their becoming multimillionaires — part of the 1 percent — ostensibly through public service, Hillary and Bill have been at the forefront of baby-boomer selfishness.
For me, the great issue in the election is: Can we overcome the seemingly incorrigible failure of our elite institutions?
Elite failure from politics to Wall Street has become systemic over the last 30 years. It has happened under the baby boomers.
Some point out that great cultures last only about 250 years. Have we Americans now crossed over from outstanding success as a people into terminal decline?
A cancer of inadequacy and careerist self-absorption has eaten away at politics, bureaucracy, education, religion, business, the professions, journalism and culture.
A pervasive cronyism has taken over our capitalism and our government. The rain of good fortune falls on a favored few — both Democrats and Republicans, but only provided they are well-networked. Claims to preferential entitlements rather than putting good character and hard work on the table drive upward mobility.
Our elite’s social utility was well-described, if somewhat colorfully, by Matt Taibbi when he likened Goldman Sachs in 2009 to a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Our “new class” of cultural, political and economic aristocrats thrives on rent extraction, not market discipline. They make their money on transfer payments from those more vulnerable than they, transfers imposed by rules, regulations, and concentrations of power and influence.
Politics keeps us from working for the common good. Special interests of various kinds win out over ordinary people in the allocation of government favors. Bureaucrats pontificate in their cubicles like gerbils spinning in their wheels. Education serves educators, not students. Religion provides little moral excellence. Business has brought us, first, dot-com excesses, then Enron and WorldCom, then the subprime fiasco, unnecessary high-frequency trading, and rising inequality of income and wealth — and now secular stagnation.
The gatekeepers of justice — lawyers and accountants — serve their paymasters, not us. Doctors and nurses have become institutionalized mechanics keeping close watch on costs and payments. Journalism sells entertainment for profits. Culture indulges narcissism as far as the eye can see, as the ear can hear and as social media can promote.
Political correctness forbids us from speaking the truth. Demanding “safe spaces” for our precious little egos encourages the invidious inequality of multiple standards with resulting disrespect for both truth and the rule of law. Multiculturalism is just another version of hegemonic discourse that marginalizes some for the disproportionate benefit of others.
Even the courts are slipping away from high standards, replacing fidelity to the rule of law with more political and personal — and therefore more prejudiced — manipulation of the written words that are supposed to provide equal justice for all.
Most tellingly for me: What have our elites done since the civil-rights movement (the last great work of the Greatest Generation), really, in truth, in the streets and in our public schools, to overcome the old injustices of slavery and segregation? A lot of money has been spent in remediation, but what has been accomplished? We are still keeping “our eye on the prize” while “holding on” from day to day.
Can Hillary Clinton save us from all this? I think not. She is the queen bee of the status quo, having spent her career building this system up to its present state of degradation.
When she accepted her party’s nomination for the presidency, there was for me one very telling moment in her speech: when she spoke of her mother. For the first time, I felt I was hearing something genuine from her.
As she described her mother, I finally understood who she really is. She has been shaped by her Methodist mother to put the world aright in the same mode as my two grandmothers and one great-grandmother — from the same religious and middle-class background — tried to set things straight, with diligence and in good faith.
Clinton wants to “mother” us into right thinking and right acting. Like my grandmothers and great-grandmother, she is scrupulous about seeing to all the details of our lives so that we — especially the men among us — do not go astray. And my grandmothers and great-grandmother never thought, nor does Clinton think, that criticism of such efforts can ever be justified.
Since Clinton believes that those out of step with her elitist values are “deplorable,” she will never stoop to make the changes that they want to see. She knows better than they do what is right.
But I don’t want to be so bossed around. I want freedom and my individual dignity, and I want her to respect me. I am a baby boomer, too, after all, something of a narcissist in my own way.
But can I vote for Trump? I am not sure, but let me give you the case for “yes” that has some appeal for me.
We need a rebellion against our elite, and Trump has emerged from nowhere as a rebel leader in that cause.
With a cosmic irony fit for a divine justice with a good sense of humor, up from the ranks of narcissistic baby boomers comes one hellbent on upending our elitist system of privilege, cant and irresponsibility.
Trump is crude, ungracious, vulgar in his tastes. He is a social upstart, a parvenu. He is the guest who dominates the social gathering with his insistent and off-color prejudices. But let us not forget Chairman Mao’s insight that “a revolution is not a dinner party.”
Samuel Adams drove the colonies forward to the revolution of 1776; Andrew Jackson opened our politics to the middle class. Neither had much social refinement.
Trump’s populism is a not dissimilar disruptive technology upsetting our political status quo. But it does come, sadly, at a cost to our social harmony.
The strength of his disruptive force can be measured by the intensity of opposition to his ideas and his personality, even among Republicans with good standing in our elite. Because he is an outlier, Trump provokes fear among many in the status quo who retaliate against him without goodwill, some even with loathing, to protect what they feel is working well for them.
In an era of elite failure, Trump serves the important function of making public the fact that our elites have failed. Putting the truth first is a fundamental good, no matter who it is who is willing to speak truth to power.
Second, Trump’s linking our sequestered feelings of something having gone wrong with our country to culprits permits public discussion of what needs to be done now. You can’t fix a problem until you have named it. Trump is a cultural pugilist punching away at trite conventions just when we need to open our minds and turn them away from the pious but superficial certainties and ego-centricities that have brought us to where we grimly are as a divided nation.
Thus, Trump has brought illegal immigration out of the cultural closet to pose the question: Should there be only one law for all Americans or different laws for different people? Metaphorically, Trump rightly asks: “Can we live well as a community with some Americans following the law and others not?”
Third, a Trump administration would be filled with innovators willing and maybe even eager to upset apple carts. They, too, would be upstarts and parvenus in the corridors of power. They would be inexperienced, and his administration would be chaotic. But how else can a nation rejuvenate its elites except by challenging their smug conceits with countervailing emotional energies?
We have never before in our history experienced such elite failure. We have no guide to successful cultural therapy for narcissism or for the tearing down of self-satisfied institutions of command and obedience and then for their successful reconstruction to truly serve the public interest.
Fourth, in giving African-Americans a fair stake in our society, Trump will start a jarring but more honest conversation about what to do. He will break with the elite conventions, entrenched on the left since the end of the civil-rights movement. He will table for our serious consideration the personal goals of self-discipline in education and work that have done so much for Asians, recent African immigrants, Hispanics and those whose ancestors came from Europe.
Fifth, in foreign policy, Trump as president would counter the rising global attraction to tribalism with a more muscular nationalism of our own, responding in kind to the new circumstances in the flows of ideology, power and interest now shaping our security and prosperity.
Finally, in the economy, he will experiment to get growth going again, just as Franklin Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. Risky, yes. But our elites, from the Federal Reserve to Harvard’s Faculty of Economics and Business School, have no good ideas about what we should do to restore growth and prosperity for the middle class, which is the bedrock of our democracy.
Clinton can’t steer us out of elite failure, but Trump might.
Food for thought.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.