Speaking in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, Donald Trump painted the election in stark terms, as a choice between a “rigged” status quo and “our incredible movement to take our country back from the death spiral it is currently in.” If you set aside the phrase “death spiral” as typical Trumpian hyperbole, the underlying sentiment betrays a common bias: Every election is portrayed as the most important in the history of the republic, even when the stakes are comparatively low.
But Trump is no ordinary candidate. And his very presence in the race means this is not a normal election. The fact that Donald Trump could become president of the United States really does make this one of the most consequential elections ever.
America has had trivial presidential elections, battles where both candidates were variations of the same centrist message. In the 1960s, it took microscopic inspection to discover differences between the moderate liberalism of John F. Kennedy and the moderate conservatism of Richard Nixon. In fact, astute political observers like Dwight Macdonald argued the two men were so alike it was hardly worth voting. In 1968, George Wallace said there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republicans and Democrats, words Ralph Nader echoed in 2000.
Even if, for the sake of argument, the view that the parties are essentially the same might have had some logic in previous elections, that’s certainly not the case this year.
Trump describes Clinton as a creature of a rigged system. Another way to express the same thought is that Clinton embodies political normalcy. The one aspect that sets her apart is her gender. But in many other ways, she’s a classic political striver of the sort familiar in both parties: She went to an Ivy League school, studied law, and ran for office. She spent decades cultivating alliances within her party and, when necessary, making deals with her political foes. She’s a grinder who loves to study the intricacies of policies. In sum, she’s a political geek.
If Clinton is a political geek, Trump is a political freak. He’s never held office, and has minimal party loyalty (he has switched parties at least five times and continues to feud with his own party even after winning its presidential nomination). He makes wildly contradictory policy statements on even signature issues like immigration. He has no understanding of how the political system works, and advocates blatantly unconstitutional policies like stripping citizenship from those who have extreme ideological views.
But that’s not even the half of it. What makes Donald Trump a political freak is his clownishness, which is not just a matter of style but cuts to the core of his political identity. There are endless examples of said clownishness: the silly nicknames he gives his rivals (Little Marco, Crooked Hillary), the wild conspiracy theories he’s willing to spread (such as the story that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination).
A prime recent example is the tweet he sent out about MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski:
That Trump would call Scarborough and Brzezinski clowns, while himself writing an oafish tweet, is a nifty example of projection.
Trump’s cloddish behavior shouldn’t be seen as just a personal foible. Rather, it is integral to his message. By playing the clown, he’s putting forward a covert message: The system is so terrible that it deserves only mockery. To take it seriously in any respect would be to undermine that message. Trump’s loutish antics are a way of thumbing his nose at normal politics and suggesting that respectable politicians (see: Hillary Clinton) and the system they represent are illegitimate.
The rap against Hillary Clinton is that she’s too cautious and self-controlled, that she never stakes out a position without gauging public opinion. But those are the faults of a normal politician. If she’s the quintessential normal politician, then Trump is the ultimate anti-politician, the prankster who deploys derision to destroy the system. And if he were elected president, we would see a steady erosion of the very fundamentals that uphold that system.
Hillary the Geek and Trump the Freak are well matched as opposites. They are offering America a real choice.