Well, here we are.
As the 2020 U.S. General Election finally arrives, it has been clear for months that Donald Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic would be the central issue. But with a wild campaign drawing to a close, Trump’s positive test result, along with those of dozens of Oval Office insiders and White House staffers, is the type of deus ex machina that would seem comically forced in an Aaron Sorkin script.
However, there is no outlandish plot device that cannot be outdone by the reality of our modern political circus. With Nov. 3 around the corner, Trump’s Covid infection, and the confused timeline surrounding it, have seemingly nosed out all other issues – and there are many – that would play a pivotal role in the end of this race. But in the immediate aftermath, the response from many on the left, jumping at the opportunity to crack wise or act superior, is willfully blind to the grander picture.
In no uncertain terms, for reasons both moral and political, Trump’s positive diagnosis was a tragic happenstance for this country. If you support him, you needed him to recover so he could continue to fight for your goals. If you are neutral, you needed him to recover because a critically ill President during an election would be wildly destabilizing in terms of governance, the economy, and foreign relations. If you oppose him, you needed him to recover because the surest way to fully repudiate what he represents is to soundly defeat him at the polls.
This is not the time for schadenfreude. To take any pleasure in his illness is simply, for lack of less-cliche phrasing, not who we are, or at least not who or what we aspire to be.
That said, Trump and his inner circle’s exposure to, and infection with Covid-19 is a catastrophic failure of national security. He is the most-powerful person in the world, and, as such, is the person we can least afford to contract a novel contagion. That he did is a microcosm of the cavalier incompetence and lack of seriousness with which this administration has handled the pandemic and countless other significant national issues that have fallen under its purview.
I try to poke fun at Democrats and Republicans in equal measure, but I am not unbiased. My politics are generally left of center. On some issues very far to the left, on others not as much, and, on some, to the right. No voter fits into a box, but in the four previous Presidential elections since my 18th birthday, I have been a reliable vote for the Democratic candidate.
I subscribe to a brand of dreamy progressive pragmatism. I have a certain set of ethical beliefs about how society should be and how societal goals should be achieved. Those, combined with a conviction that empirical data is more valuable than anecdotal evidence, guide my decisions when I fill out my ballot. Regardless of whom you vote for, I hope you have a grounded thought process of your own when you wield the most powerful weapon our republic grants us.
I bring this up not because you must take my thoughts with a grain of salt, but because there is an important fact that undergirds the fierceness and clarity of why I believe the only choice this November is Joe Biden. That fact is this: a lack of bias is not the same thing as objectivity.
In The Boys on the Bus, Tim Crouse’s stellar book on the press covering the 1972 U.S. Presidential Election, he quotes one journalist who remarked on the state of news at the time: “Those guys on the plane claim that they’re trying to be objective. They shouldn’t try to be objective, they should try to be honest. And they’re not being honest. Their so-called objectivity is just a guise for superficiality. They report what one candidate said, then they go and report what the other candidate said with equal credibility. They never get around to finding out if the guy is telling the truth. They just pass the speeches along without trying to confirm the substance of what the candidates are saying. What they pass off as objectivity is just a mindless kind of neutrality.”
When I first read that passage two years ago, I found it eerily prescient. While some outlets like Fox News or MSNBC hew closely to a narrative in a bid to feed red meat to their viewers, the biggest curse of modern news is the presentation of opposing perspectives with equal validity and equal time, when the objective truth is that one is far more valid than the other. Several years ago, John Oliver highlighted this absurdity, noting that discussions on climate change on cable news often pit one talking head scientist against another. In reality, 97% of scientists agreed that climate change was man-made and in dire need of a course correction, which Oliver illustrated by bringing 100 “experts” on set in groups of 97 and three.
A free press that expresses opinion in light of objective facts is a crucial safeguard. Joe McCarthy’s destructive hearings on communism ended in part due to being publicly challenged on air by Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite helped turn public opinion against American involvement in Vietnam after a visit to the war zone convinced him the conflict was unwinnable.
I am self-aware enough to know the influence of my Oppy columns falls a shade below that of those two men. My point is they made the objectively correct choice, leaving neutrality by the wayside. In that vein, here is mine: In the past when I voted for Barack Obama as opposed to John McCain or Mitt Romney, I was making a choice based in political preference rather than objective knowledge that there was a right or wrong option. McCain and Romney were good men, but I did not share their views on many issues and did not agree with their agenda for the country.
My vote in 2020 is not a political choice. It is a moral imperative. We often demonize political opponents, but there has never been an individual who has proven themselves so manifestly – and dangerously – unfit for the awesome powers and daunting responsibilities of the office. To call Donald Trump’s term chaotic would be generous. To see him attempt to use the powers of the Presidency to curb dissent and publicly punish adversaries is frightening. To call his handling of the pandemic one of the great failures of American leadership is to perhaps exhibit bias or lack neutrality.
But it is also objective.
The vote may be the most important right or obligation this country provides. We cannot underestimate the uniqueness of and the power that comes with having a choice in who leads us, and, this time around, the choice is not difficult.
I am not a doomsayer who feels the very future of American democracy is at stake. I believe in the inherent strength of our government institutions and that there is real security in the separation of powers. But I also believe that security is reinforced by a chief executive who supports and values that separation. Regardless of his party’s agenda, the current President has demonstrated a persistent desire to break down governing norms while valuing personal fealty over a unified goal of advancing American progress. His tenure has resulted in deteriorated faith in our governing system, real damage to international stability, and palpable danger to all of us at home.
Whatever your thoughts on Biden’s policies, his age, or his mistakes – and he has plenty – his inherent decency and belief in American promise is not in dispute. He was a pivotal player in passing popular Obama-era initiatives, and has a lengthy track record of reaching across the aisle. He has consistently prioritized his constituents’ needs rather than his own, and will pursue a more perfect union in good faith. At the very least, his administration will staff the west wing and government agencies with competent career civil servants, an area where the Trump administration has fallen painfully short. Running the government can be about pursuing policy objectives, but it is also about keeping the lights on. It is that fact that has driven dozens of career conservatives to publicly support Biden. It’s why long-time defenders of conservative free market principles like Goldman-Sachs have predicted a stronger economic future under a Biden presidency. It’s why Cindy McCain released a lengthy ad this month explaining why she is voting for the man who successfully campaigned against her late husband’s best shot at the oval office.
Meanwhile, Trump has paradoxically tried to paint his opponent as both an ineffective establishment puppet and an extreme radical. He has continued to downplay the danger of Covid, telling Maria Bartiromo he beat the virus “because I’m a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young.” He has promised top-tier health coverage to seniors while his administration tries to kill the Affordable Care Act. According to The New York Times he actually considered ripping his shirt open to reveal a Superman logo when he left Walter Reed to prove Covid can be conquered. In the past three-plus years, he has consistently used the office to enrich his family. As his poll numbers continue to sag, he has actively sought to sow doubt into the very process that sustains representative government, even as several members of his administration have a history of not heeding that warning. In recent weeks, he has pressured Mike Pompeo to release deleted e-mails from Hillary Clinton, a woman who, and this apparently bears repeating, is not running for President this year.
In dueling town halls this past week, the difference was stark. As one candidate combatively avoided questions about his health and pled ignorance on promoting absurd conspiracy theories, the other engaged in thoughtful policy discussion and continued answering questions once the broadcast ended.
Too often Trump has chosen the path of empty showmanship rather than doing the hard work of governing for the people he swore an oath to serve. He has failed to realize he works for us, and not the other way around. One wonders what he says to aides that hasn’t been leaked to reporters. Oh, to be a fly on Mike Pence’s head.
My life has now spanned nine presidential elections. I vividly remember all but the first. The objectively correct choice has never been clearer.
Speaking of objectivity, the man responsible for that quote in The Boys on the Bus? That’s current Fox News anchor Brit Hume. I’d like to think it’s evidence those on the left and right can still agree on clear conclusions some of the time. It gives me hope that the objective conclusion will be clear on Nov. 3. But we, as a nation, are lucky in that hope is not our only option for determining our future.
We can vote, too.