BEFORE WE ALL START WEEPING tears of joy that we finally don’t have to sit through another dumpster fire1 of a Presidential Debate for a solid four years, we should maybe take a minute to clear a few things up. One Presidential candidate said a few things last night that could profoundly dangerous to our future as a country. Let’s review:
1. The President doesn’t have total control over the country or the world.
This shouldn’t need saying, but Donald Trump spent most of last night taking the view that everything bad that has happened in the country and in the world over the past 8 years has been directly orchestrated by Barack Obama, and, by extension, Hillary Clinton, so let’s take a moment to remind ourselves: the United States is a democracy. There are checks and balances on each branch of government. No single person has total control over everything.
Take Obamacare: Obamacare, like literally every bill that passes through Congress, was a compromise. It was not really the ideal bill for anyone. Republicans (mostly) didn’t want this type of reform, Democrats (mostly) wanted much stronger reform, and this is what came out. In a good democracy, everyone is just a little bit disappointed by every law that goes into place. This is a boring truth about our system of government, but it’s part of what makes it so effective: by staying realistic about what we can achieve, by setting idealism slightly to the side in the name of pragmatism, we can make slow, incremental progress towards a goal. Obamacare was a single step in the direction of a goal.
And thousands of people were involved in the passing of the bill: the President, his staff, Congressmen and Senators, their staff, consultants, policy experts, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, pollsters, and activists all played some part in the construction and passage of that single bill. To think that a single person — even if it’s the most powerful person in the entire process — is the sole creator of a policy is to show a woeful lack of understanding of the democratic process.
Likewise, it’s ridiculous to assume that ISIS exists exclusively because of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. That is a profoundly simplistic way of seeing the world. Some people like to counter with, “If George W. Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq, ISIS never would have existed!” But even that is, to some extent, wrong. Because ISIS was founded in 1999, before Bush even took office.2
The truth about the world is this: There are 7 billion people here who are making independent decisions. Undoubtedly, in some ways, American policies in the Middle East have aided the rise of extremist groups. Undoubtedly George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have influenced the course of history in outsized manners, and none of them can claim zero responsibility for our current situation. But other people, whether they are world leaders like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and Binyamin Netanyahu or terrorists like Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder of the group that would become ISIS), and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the current leader of ISIS) have had an impact on the course of events as well.
The world is insanely complicated. We are not all puppets attached to Barack Obama’s strings. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. That Trump’s absurdly naive, simplistic, and perverse view of the world resonates with so many Americans is genuinely terrifying: we can’t run a country if we aren’t willing to see the world as a complicated, nuanced place.
2. Government isn’t run like a business.
Another huge problem with the entire Trump phenomenon is the idea that, if we just ran our country like a business, there would be no problems. “And if we could run our country the way I’ve run my company,” Trump said, “we would have a country that you would be so proud of.”
That is, again, a tremendously simplistic way of thinking about government.
Running a successful business, to be totally fair, is not an easy or uncomplicated job. But at the end of the year, what matters for a business owner is the balance sheet. If they made a decent amount of profit, if they grew as a business, they were successful. If they weren’t successful, the business owner has to make some hard decisions. He or she has to sell off assets or fire some people.
But you can’t fire people in a country. You can’t just slide a person who’s not performing up to snuff into a trebuchet and launch them into the Atlantic Ocean. Problems for governments aren’t as easily pawned off onto someone else. Often, the government is the only entity that can possibly solve a problem.
And not everything a government concerns itself with can be measured as easily as cash on a balance sheet. The government has to concern itself with issues like health, safety, and well-being, which don’t always translate easily into dollars and cents.
This is not to say that businesspeople are necessarily bad at politics3: a lot of their skills are important and useful in running a country, and plenty of businesspeople have become good, competent public servants. But the skills don’t exactly overlap, and to think that a government and a business are basically the same thing is to totally misunderstand what government is.
3. The US election can’t be “rigged.”
What has gotten the most news out of last night’s debate is that Trump has said he won’t necessarily respect the results of the election.
Let’s be clear: people very well may die because he said this. If he refuses to accept his inevitable loss on November 8th, there could be unrest and violence. Already, some of his supporters are suggesting they’ll start a revolution if he loses.
That appalling reality aside, free and fair elections are the basis of representative democracy. To undermine trust in that basis is to undermine the entire system in an extremely dangerous way. And furthermore, there’s just no truth to it. America’s democracy has plenty of flaws, but riggable elections is not one of them. The system is set up so that both parties would have to participate in the “rigging” on a massive scale. The polls are independently observed. There are safeguards against fraud and human error on all levels. Even Al Gore accepted the outcome of the most contentious election in history, even though it meant losing the Presidency by about the most razor-thin margin imaginable.
This is not how it has to be.
Republicans and Democrats can disagree on matters of policy while still being fundamentally decent people. It is possible for several well-informed, thoughtful people to have totally differing opinions. But this election is something different. This is not about policy. It’s about ignorance. And ignorance at this high of a level is a cancer on American democracy. Please, please, please: Vote on November 8th.
1. It seems like “dumpster fire” is a popular descriptor for electoral nonsense this year, but I feel like a dumpster fire would be mildly fun to watch. A more accurate descriptor for what watching these debates felt like may be “dog eating a dirty diaper,” or perhaps “Civil War soldier having a limb amputated without anesthetic,” but neither of those roll off the tongue in the same way.↩
2. And Christ, no, that doesn’t mean it was founded by Bill Clinton.↩