I voted early at the town hall in my small Vermont hamlet last week. Partly because I may be out of town on election day—and partly because I wanted to make sure that just in case Donald Trump got forced from the race, I had the pleasure of voting against him. And it was a pleasure, the same pleasure an antibody must feel when it wipes out some invading virus.
For me, Trump represents much of what’s wrong with American politics. A man who wants to jail his opponents, harass women, and scapegoat immigrants for the nation’s problems would obviously do great damage in the White House—heck, he’s obviously done great damage already. But it’s the “obviously” part that worries me some.
Yes, it was good that the tape emerged of Trump boasting about his sexual aggression; it removed any possible doubt that he was fit for the presidency. But the very crudity—the very obviousness—of his pathetic boasts may lower the bar so much that other forms of political ugliness seem tame by comparison. Trump is defining political deviancy so far down that from now on, if there’s not a tape of you talking about the private parts of strangers, you may get a pass as normal. Which would be a shame. Because while Trump represents “much of what’s wrong about American politics,” he by no means represents all of it.
Take Vermont, which has historically been spared most of the worst currents of American political life. Partly because it’s so small that it gets overlooked. And partly because it’s so small that you can’t get away with much: If we’d had a Trump, we’d have figured it out pretty soon because there’s only 600,000 people here. A couple of loud millionaires have moved here over the years, thinking that they’d be able to buy themselves a Senate seat or a governorship on the cheap, but they’ve been sent packing. (One lost his debate, and the election, when he didn’t know how many teats a cow has.)
Now, though, the pervasive corruption of our American political system is reaching even backwaters like ours. The Republican Governors Association, with the Koch Brothers as by far their biggest funding source, have so far invested more than $1.5 million to make sure that the GOP wins the governor’s office. Why? Who really knows. There’s a pipeline that crosses the state, and there’s been a proposal to reverse its flow to carry tar sands oil from Canada—the Koch brothers are the biggest owners of tar sands acreage. Maybe they didn’t like the GMO labeling law that emerged from Vermont. Maybe the rise of Bernie Sanders and his attack on Citizens United freaked them out. Maybe it’s just too cheap a bauble to resist. As Jane Mayer demonstrated in her remarkable book Dark Money, they’ve amassed a formidable network of billionaires who have weaponized cash in our political system, and they’re using it systematically to advance their interests.
Whatever the reason, it’s disconcerting. Two million dollars buys a lot of airtime in Vermont—you can’t turn on the radio or the television without listening to absurd attacks on the steady Sue Minter, one of only two women running for a governorship anywhere in America. She’s a perfectly normal progressive Democrat, who served admirably in helping lead the state’s cleanup response after Tropical Storm Irene devastated our valleys. But now she’s dragged through the same mud that’s become common in so many other places.
Compared to Trump’s disgusting bluster, it seems almost tame. But it isn’t tame. Trump is such an idiot that he’s easy to spot; it looks as if there will be enough antibodies to protect the body politic from his poison. But forces like the Koch brothers are more insidious. They’re what daily, undramatically diminishes our democracy. They’re what turn people off to politics, convert them to cynicism (which I suspect is the Kochs’ real goal). I spent last week crisscrossing Ohio and Pennsylvania registering young voters, and I met many who no longer believed in our political life enough to even bother voting. That’s a triumph for people like the Kochs, whose preferred politicians invariably try to limit voting rights. It’s a tragedy for a nation, one that needs everyone involved if we’re going to heal from the trauma Trump’s inflicted on our civic sense.
The only way to beat that cynicism, in the short term anyway, is to vote, in Vermont and every state. Right now in my home state the two most important men are not Ben and Jerry—they’re Charles and David Koch. What a pleasure to fill in that bubble on my ballot with my ballpoint pen and try to take them down a notch.