We are now just days away from accomplishing the seemingly forgotten purpose of this presidential campaign—electing a president. It has been a wild race of unprecedented developments. Some were welcome (the nomination of the first woman to lead a major political party), others not so much (pretty much the rest of it). We started by discussing whether Mexican-Americans were predisposed to rape and murder, and are now embroiled in Russian intrigue, sexual assault allegations, and the reemergence of an investigation into the former Secretary of State’s electronic communication storage and transmittal practices, thanks to a laptop seized from a disgraced former congressman caught sexting a minor. But if this sixteen-month whirlwind of busted hopes and broken norms seems far too like the story arc of a House of Cards season, two baseline facts deserve attention in these final days. The two candidates are very, very different, and yet are nearly equally disliked.
Looking only at the favorability ratings of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, you might think that the United States faces two equally awful choices. After months of Trump’s slightly worse polling, the two candidates have now converged in ignominy. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that both Clinton and Trump had 59% disapproval ratings, and the two also shared a 47% “strongly unfavorable” rating (other polls still show a small gap between the two). They are the two least-liked major party presidential candidates in the history of modern polling. So, from one vantage point, Americans will trudge to the polls next Tuesday not to select a president but rather to register their antipathy.
On the other hand, the qualitative difference in the reasons why the two nominees are so despised could not be more divergent.
Donald Trump has many faults—some trivial, others fleeting—but for our purposes he has at least six that weigh heavily on his suitability for office. First, Trump is deeply ignorant and unserious about national affairs, and has shown a complete inability and unwillingness to learn. His answers on everything from abortion to crime to Syria have been an incoherent mess since the moment he descended that escalator of doom, and they haven’t improved in the slightest. Indeed, it was widely reported that Trump would not (or could not) prepare for any of the three presidential debates, and unsurprisingly each contained a multitude of garbled monologues. Second, Trump’s unprecedented level of reckless narcissism has dissolved fundamental political norms and discarded the restraint and diplomacy required of the president. Even setting his petty twitter assaults aside, Trump has made it very clear that he tolerates only sycophants and cannot resist lashing out when disparaged. Or as the Clinton campaign has framed it: “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
Third, Trump is a pathological, unrepentant liar. This is not hyperbole or disputable opinion. His campaign appearances have been filled with wild accusations, replete with denials of just completed statements. Trump lies with such regularity and breadth that it often can be difficult to keep up. Fourth, Trump’s only coherent policy agenda is one of white supremacy. His central tropes are of brown hordes from Mexico and Syria pouring into the country, committing heinous crimes and acts of terrorism. His rhetoric on policing and “inner cities” is none-too-subtle racial coding. His venomous Arizona immigration speech traded on inflammatory stereotypes while dangerously parading the family members of victims of violent crime committed by undocumented immigrants. His campaign has at times actively courted hate groups, and his mass deportation plan put into action would evoke imagery reminiscent of the Holocaust and the Trail of Tears. Fifth, Trump’s core identity is one of brooding, deep-seated misogyny. We have learned over the past year that his core philosophy goes beyond merely holding demeaning views of a woman’s place in society and extends to pervasive sexually predatory behavior. And sixth, Trump’s business background is one of failure and fraud; his successes have come from exploiting both the vulnerable and the U.S. tax code. He has lied and cheated his way into a reputation for philanthropy without any record of actual giving.
And Hillary Clinton? Her list of “seems” is a mile long. She seems shady, seems duplicitous, seems conniving, and seems unscrupulous. In terms of substance, though, we have this: she violated State Department rules—though no laws—in furtherance of her troublesome penchant for opaqueness. She courted ethically dubious donors (some of them from foreign governments), which later gave the appearance of impropriety about her tenure as Secretary of State—though her donor list was disclosed with complete transparency and the endeavor was done in support of an A-rated charity that has saved millions of lives. She made a mint giving speeches to Wall Street executives and other one percenters, placing personal enrichment ahead of the optics of her planned quest for the presidency. She has privately (and publicly!) acknowledged that real progress means playing politics. She’s not very good at giving speeches. Her husband is a lout.
No doubt some of these differences have filtered down to the electorate. In an election where the fundamentals suggest a Republican-favorable environment, the Democrat Clinton appears on track for at the very least a modest victory. Furthermore, there’s no question that a “basket” of Trump’s voters are wide-eyed about his racism and misogyny and support him nevertheless. Yet, Trump’s likelihood of winning at least four of every ten votes on election day—and possibly much more—is due more to the fact that many voters don’t perceive him to possess the above faults, perceive Clinton’s faults to be far more egregious than any plausible reading warrants, or hold a combination of both views. In short, this election may be decided by voters’ failure to properly calibrate their distaste.
In a very real sense, then, the fate of the country will come down to voters who dislike both their options and how they parse those negative feelings. For those who preferred other candidates in the primary and now thoughtfully recoil at their options, this election is a test of responsibility and intellectual honesty. For those truly in the middle, blithely decreeing a pox on both houses is a pure cop out. Differentiating between different levels of distaste is not degrading, it is a civic duty. Meanwhile, the visceral hatred that many Trump supporters feel towards Clinton partly reflects the fear they have of a changing society. Conversely, many Clinton supporters’ terror is founded on the dread of sliding backwards. Even with dual disgust, the key is degree and direction. This election season, the test will not be who we hate, but how.