We can't vote for either one: On world stage, Clinton and Trump present different, but serious, dangers

It is pathetically impossible to determine which one would be worse, the only metric we have left. It's OK to pass

Published May 8, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/AP/Steve Helber/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/AP/Steve Helber/Photo montage by Salon)

As of this past week Americans voters have their choices in November—all three of them. I do not see them as nearly as clear or simple as a lot of people might have imagined even a little while ago. The exception is the third of these alternatives, the right to remain silent—a phrase ordinarily used in another context but perfectly correct in this one. This position seems to have just gotten a great deal clearer, if not simpler.

In my read, the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as it now shapes up does not present voters with anything like an obvious choice. Neither does it seem certain at this moment which of two candidates unworthy of election—let us speak honestly—will triumph. Nor can one say which of the two would be worse, and this, pathetically, is the metric now establishing itself in many voters’ minds.

As a quick aside, it truly tells us a lot, doesn’t it, that Clinton can bring a record of service decades in length and still face a serious challenge from Donald Trump. Every time she tells her mobs of supporters, “This is going to be a tough fight,” I think how shameful a fact this is. Madame Secretary, I reflect, looks a lot better in the television series, risible as it is. Téa Leone, with her whiskey voice, her greeting-card compassion and her ritualized moral ambivalence as she executes our dishonorable foreign policies, somehow manages to come over more persuasively.

What a moment.

The best that can be said of this political season is that the fixed framework of American politics appears to be fracturing. This will be a fine thing if it proves to be so, and I view this development as especially important in its medium-term potential on the foreign policy side. The question is whether things will truly fall apart, or at least begin to do so. Two policies hang in the balance above all others—the relationship with Israel and our fomented confrontation with Russia—and I will return to them.

For now we must accept that the process of coming apart, while desirable, could never be other than messy. And neither could we rightly expect to define its form. Political irruptions of the kind we witness are almost always uncontrollable during certain stages. Nobody knows where the water will go when the river overflows its banks. In this case, we have an egregious candidate who stands outside the political superstructure, apparently prompting paroxysms within the policy cliques and what we call the deep state, and an egregious candidate whose priority in all spheres is to reinforce both. I leave readers to assess the implications here as they might, but there is no denying it is a hard call.

Anecdote: There is a little lunch club in my village, guys who gather for soup and BLTs once a week just to get out of the house during our nine-month winters. It is a mixed bag. Yesterday a kindly, confirmed Republican of the old school brought me up short with this: “I’m sitting this one out. I’m not getting my hands dirty with either of them. I don’t want to have to say I helped make the mess.” This from an ex-State Department official with a long record of service.

I have long considered not voting a legitimate position—whether for the sake of clean hands or for any number of other reasons—but the stance now grows defensible among people who might have cursed it even an election or two back. Not voting is one form of political participation among countless others—an argument I have made scores of times. Look, we applaud people in other countries when they boycott elections that present no substantive choices. Low turnouts, depriving those contesting high office legitimacy, are viewed as honorable in such cases. They are political assertions, verdicts.

And in this one, ours in a few months?

And how does the principle of remaining silent look when applied in the foreign policy space?


I am already getting notes from people overseas asserting that Trump is “less dangerous,” in the words of one, than Clinton. The reasoning seems to be something like, “Better the devil we don’t know than the one we do.” In my reasoning it is a choice between a candidate schooled in the deep state’s procedures and committed to its priorities, chief among them “full-spectrum military dominance” across the planet and neoliberal economic hegemony, and a candidate unschooled in any of these things.

Let’s consider this.

Clinton, we have to conclude without qualification, holds out zero promise of an altered direction in American foreign policy. So far as I can make out, she has never once in her decades of public service evinced any modicum of imagination or original thought on a foreign policy question. This applies to means as well as ends. Clinton is shoulder-to-shoulder with Defense Secretary Carter on every question wherein their views have intersected and aired: NATO’s eastward thrust, the power transformation in the western Pacific, Syria, Iraq, the Middle East altogether. She could comfortably reappoint Carter as President Obama reappointed the hawkish Robert M. Gates (to the astonishment and dismay of many). There has been talk she could name Vicky Nuland secretary of state—more feminist progress, we would be advised in such an eventuality.

Clinton famously declared a “reset” in Russian relations during her early years as Obama’s secretary of state—amateurishly sending Sergei Lavrov some cutie-pie button so marked. (The Russian foreign minister must have looked at the ceiling half in despair.) We understood—or the Russians did, anyway—what this meant quickly enough: Let’s get back to the Yeltsin-era subservience. Vladimir Putin’s sin lies solely in his refusal; the rest is Washington’s expertise in crowd control—we being the crowd—and the Pentagon’s desire to keep defense contractors in double-digit profits.

As to Israel, Clinton is cravenly a creature of Aipac lobbyists. Any candidate who professes “unconditional support for Israel,” as Clinton has more than once, is 1) recklessly ignorant when it comes to statecraft, wherein nothing is ever to be declared unconditional even if it is, and 2) a no-hoper on the Israel-Palestine question.

In sum, I have heard no one but no one in the Clinton camp or anywhere else assert that Hillary Clinton promises positive change in American foreign relations. On the Israel and Russia questions, nary a peep of any kind. Memo to Clinton voters: This is a prudent thing, tactically speaking. Touch Clinton’s foreign policy plans and you cannot prove but foolish. Well, hypocritical, too.

For the rest of us, here is the reality. Americans rarely, if ever, required the skills of statecraft during the American century (dating it to 1898, ending it in 2001) because our foreign relations have been consistently based on superior military power and, post-1945, subterfuge. The opening to China might stand as a single exception. This is the tradition Hillary Clinton defends and proposes to continue advancing without significant alteration. It becomes impossible to justify a vote for her, given that her domestic program—by her own description—promises marginal change at the maximum.

Now to Trump.


My starting point with Trump is his position on American exceptionalism. It is implicit but discernible. He plainly considers America the greatest of great nations, fine, but he runs on the premise that it is great no longer. As the TomDispatch web site pointed out Thursday, “The Donald is the first American presidential candidate to openly campaign on a platform of American decline, while Hillary is still stuck in a world of too-many-superlatives for the waning American century.”

There is a lot to think about in this distinction.

As predicted in this space a couple of columns back, the foreign policy cliques and those reflecting their views in the media have mauled Trump’s foreign policy speech in Washington late last month. This is an excellent sign. Were I some cornball tech devotee with a thousand “apps” on my cellular telephone, I would call him a “disrupter.” And we all love the disrupters, don’t we?

Trump has kept it up despite the jeers. Here he is last Wednesday on the O’Reilly Factor, the Fox News program, when asked about the Pentagon’s recent allegations that Russian jets flew imprudently close to American ships in the Baltic. I would have said American ships sail imprudently close to Russian waters, but never mind:

“If it were me, I will tell you, I would call him [Putin] and say, ‘Don’t do it. Just stop it. Don’t do it.’ … Let’s go. Come on. We’re going to have a good relationship. Don’t do it.’”

“Don’t do it,” as an Irish journalist named Danielle Ryan has since pointed out, “is not some revolutionary position on Russia.” Of course not, and one would never select The Don to quarterback any genuine reset in Washington’s relations with Moscow. But it is impossible, simply impossible, to ignore the core thoughts: Trump takes us back to the pre-Bush II era, that time long ago when American presidents and State Department secretaries did not refuse contact with adversaries or those with alternative views. Trump would talk, not bomb, shell, sanction or subvert. He is not phobic with regard to the Russians. He does not demonize others with other perspectives. This is a positive value out of anyone’s mouth. Excellent he has introduced it into the conversation.

Hmmm. How does this stack up against Madame Secretary’s position?

Ditto Trump on Israel. I do not hear Clinton talking about “a more balanced approach” in the Israel-Palestine question. You do not, either—supporter or otherwise.

In Andrew Bacevich’s new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” the soldier turned scholar (whom I will take up in columns to come) cites a Carter-era diplomat named Hermann Eilts writing in International Security in the fall 1980 edition. Bacevich writes:

“Instead of girding for war, Eilts counseled, Washington would be better served in pursuing ‘an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem,’ thereby transforming the region’s political climate. The situation required not force but creative diplomacy.”

Eilts, who was key during the 1978 Camp David talks, made a connection that must not be missed, even as the policy cliques insist from one administration to the next this connection does not exist: The Israel-Palestine tragedy is very close to the core of the crisis enveloping the Middle East. Leave it as it is, go along year-to-year as the Netanyahu government incessantly establishes an apartheid reality in contravention of international law, and no sense will be made of the Middle East.

Whose position on Israel and Palestine, Trump’s or Clinton’s, seems to you closer to that of Eilts and Bacevich?

No, I do not posit Trump as a fount of “creative diplomacy,” to take Bacevich’s phrase. I credit Trump only with saying something other, something more defensible, than what Clinton has to say. It is not much but not nothing, given how abjectly poor American policy and the American conversation on Israel and Palestine have been to date.

Hillary Clinton derives from a tradition from which American policy must break. Donald Trump by definition derives from no tradition. One cannot vote for the former, but it does not follow one therefore votes for the latter. Sanders supporters and various stripes of Hillary-haters who now contemplate voting for Trump—and one hears of many—should take note. Too many problems attaching to Trump.

To call Trump’s foreign policy thinking inchoate is too indulgent, given it implies he is doing his thinking and is not yet finished. I do not see that he has or is. In my read he still draws from the raw instinct that has propelled him in business, wherever that may be. He is a seat-of-the-pants man as yet. So we do not truly know what he would do in any given case.

He does not grasp the reality of complexity, let’s say. As noted in a previous column, there is some likelihood that the policy cliques will shove him into a crash course on the orthodoxy and the deep state’s protocol now that he is unambiguously the Republican candidate. But we do not know this yet, either.

We do not know much, in short. I confess to liking Trump’s capacity to connect with undercurrents in American society and culture that the elites of both parties have ignored with impunity for decades now. Deprivation and abuse among muddled-thinking people—political, social, economic—is no different from deprivation and abuse among the clear-minded. But this is not the same as elevating ignorance, xenophobia and “America First” nationalism to a position requiring respect.

All this puts him well beyond the pale. No vote for Trump, then.

Feeling like political orphans, are we? It takes getting used to, but bundle up and you find it is not all that cold out here. It is our fate as of this election, in any case. It is important to understand this, and then grasp the responsibilities arising from it, which are far more complex than those associated with voting. Remaining silent in November is the doorway to activity, not passivity.

What about Téa Leone for president, on the other hand? Reagan cut the trail for entertainment stars and they named airports and parks after him when he was done. Téa has a lot of experience, given her show consults with State regularly. (Oh, yes. The long arm of official propaganda has many fingers.) And Téa, Madame Secretary, has far better hair than The Great Communicator’s. It deserves a casting credit all its own, in my view.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Foreign Policy Hillary Clinton