Editor’s note: while I’ve previously said I’m voting for Joe Biden, I’ve also made clear that I’m not here to vote shame or guilt you. But, after months of meditation and discarded drafts, I think I’ve found a good way to consider this election after going through my five stages of grief about our political system and our country as we edge ever-closer to failed-state status. I share it here in hopes you find it helpful in your own thinking about what we face. Give it a read — and especially to the end, where I review a new initiative that makes me slightly optimistic that we can build a new people-oriented politics that transcends the binary, candidate-obsessed culture that exists today. - Sirota
If you want a good argument for voting for Joe Biden — sadly, the only remaining candidate with a chance to actually defeat Donald Trump — you should not do a few things.
You should not peruse his policy platform, which his campaign keeps trying to downplay and insinuate isn’t even real.
You should not try to decipher the details of his speeches, which are uninspiring.
You should not succumb to the irritating social pressure to pretend to be excited by his candidacy, which is not exciting.
And you absolutely should not look up his voting record, which is standard-issue bad.
Instead, you should go back and watch Ghostbusters II — because buried in that mediocre sequel is a fundamental truth about the subterranean forces now oozing throughout our society, underneath all the conflicts over public policy and politics.
In the film, the heroes discover a river of pink slime flowing deep below Manhattan, which is causing all sorts of mayhem up on the surface. This toxic sludge, they learn, is the physical manifestation of negative psychological energy — hate, loathing, rage and nihilism.
In the Ghostbusters’ words: “Negative human emotions are materializing in the form of a viscous, psychoreactive plasm with explosive supernormal potential.” It is “mood slime” that “feeds on bad vibes.” It is controlled by the supervillain Vigo the Carpathian, and it is an existential threat to the city and to human relationships. Indeed, at one point the Ghostbusters almost come to blows with each other, only to realize their argument is happening because they are covered in the slime that is evoking negativity.
“All the bad feelings, all the hate, the anger and vibes of this city is turning into the sludge,” says Winston. “Now, I didn't believe it at first either, but we just went for a swim in it and we ended up almost killing each other.”
Psycho-reactive pink slime is not literally a thing — but it is metaphorically real. History tells us that when hate, loathing and rage are concentrated and blasted at society in a purified form over time, it creates its own ubiquitous psychological sludge. Sometimes that evokes a society-wide malaise, other times it conjures terrible, seemingly unspeakable events — authoritarianism, civil war, genocide. Whatever the specific manifestation, the sludge creates bad consequences. It makes it impossible to think clearly or rationally. It prevents anything good from happening.
Half of the job of being president is about running the actual government (which Trump is obviously terrible at). But for better or worse, the other half is about managing this nation’s psyche as the star of the planet’s biggest television show.
Trump has proven that when every single minute of that television show is harnessed and channeled into gleefully promoting loathing, racism, classism and rage, it creates mood slime.
When that mood slime is agitated 24-7 by Fox News, Twitter vitriol, right-wing radio and Facebook misinformation — and when it is funneled into a MAGA movement with an affinity for authoritarianism — then we get the out-of-control disaster we have now.
We get a country run by the Vigo the Carpathian and terrorized by our worst demons: ignorance, bigotry, violence, ecocide and hatred for our fellow human beings.
The Thing That Makes Trump Different
In many ways, Trump isn’t the aberration that he’s portrayed as in Democratic campaign commercials and on MSNBC. On policy, he’s less an anomaly and more an extrapolation — many of his grotesque initiatives and pathologies are bolder, gaudier versions of those championed by other villainous presidents.
Trump’s climate policies are a more brazen extension of George W. Bush’s fossil fuel fealty.
Trump’s Supreme Court picks are straight off the GOP’s shelf of cookie-cutter conservative drones.
Trump’s corporate giveaways are this era’s outsized replica of the 2008 bank bailouts.
Trump’s self-dealing and corruption are garish renderings of the detestable graft that has defined politics for decades.
Trump’s attempts to suppress the vote are caricatures of the GOP’s long-term assault on voting rights and democracy.
Trump’s bigotry is a more blatant form of the modern Republican Party’s racist strategy that was infamously articulated by Lee Atwater, who said the quiet part out loud.
Trump’s lies are a stream-of-consciousness version of the lies that got us into the Iraq War. And his version of that debacle is his willful mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trump’s anti-science, greed-is-good-attitude has justified anti-mask efforts, emboldened attempts to force workers back to the job during a pandemic and shaped a Republican Party whose majority now thinks 200,000 coronavirus deaths are “acceptable,” according to the latest CBS/YouGov poll. But that is all a cartoonish version of the know-nothingism, me-first-screw-everyone-else selfishness and let-them-eat-cake disregard for life that has defined Republican politics for the last 40 years.
Of course, being especially terrible and extreme is enough of a reason to vote against Trump, even if many of his policies aren’t new or unique.
But then again, there certainly is something distinct about Trump — something that separates him from other presidents, something that we all sense but that isn’t often named. It is the thing his followers love but that makes him a special threat — a thing that so many hate about him, to the point where their rage gets expressed as misguided nostalgia for even horrible presidents like Bush.
That thing is this: Unlike the other leaders in our modern history, Trump aims to sow anxiety, fear, instability and division all the time. He is a troll, but more than a troll. He is a chaos agent. He is trying to hack into everyone’s brains to amp us up, worry us, scare us, freak us out and drive us crazy at every minute of the day — and not in service of any cause other than his own power and narcissism.
To be sure, some presidents have engaged in fearmongering and demagoguery at particular moments — for instance, Bush and Cheney successfully scaring the country into a war based on lies. But no president in the recent past has sought to keep the country in a permanent state of psychological stress every single minute of every single day, regardless of the issue or scenario.
Even the bloodlusting Bush clumsily sought to calm nerves after 9/11 by telling us to chill out and go shopping. It was inane and silly and a small gesture compared to the reckless destruction Bush would soon create with his war on terror, but it at least evinced a rudimentary acknowledgement that part of a leader’s job in a functioning civilization is to sometimes try to promote a sense of equanimity.
Trump doesn’t believe in that. Whatever the crisis, he is not merely mishandling it — he is also inevitably trying to dial it up to make it more intense, more scary, more disorienting, more polarizing and more psychologically taxing for everyone involved.
When it comes to wildfires, rather than reassuring us with a plan to protect and fortify the country, Trump is blaming the victims, threatening to cut funding for states that are being decimated. He’s also pushing out climate denialism by insisting things will magically get cooler.
Same script for the pandemic — rather than reassuring us by unveiling a plan to get the disease under control, he is now blaming blue states and insisting the disease will just “go away” on its own as he holds rallies that ignore infectious disease science and jeopardize people’s lives.
The message is simple: Be mad at some made up “other” (in this case, blue states); either feel panicked that nothing is even minimally under control or be wildly misinformed by the debunked garbage theories coming from the highest official in government; and don’t bother to care about your fellow human being whose home may be incinerated or who may get infected because you refuse to wear a mask.
When it comes to the upcoming election, Trump isn’t telling everyone to stay calm and honor our system that has peaceably passed power from one president to the next. Instead, he refuses to say he would even accept the results — a move that terrifyingly suggests that whatever happens in November, our democracy may be coming to an end.
Meanwhile, facing demonstrations against systemic racism, Trump isn’t out there trying to calm tensions or call for due process.
Instead, he logs on to cheer on his supporters flooding into Portland to try to intensify tensions. He tries to make a “both sides” equivalency between civil rights protesters and Nazis. He deploys federal police to brutally clear a park of protesters to manufacture TV images of him as the Dear Leader. He endorses extrajudicial “retribution.”
He tweets that “if I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters,” — and adds that if he loses in November “your stocks will be down to nothing and we will have a depression like you've never seen before."
"Trump routinely uses fear appeals. He routinely tells you who to be afraid of, whether it's an internal threat or an external threat to the nation. He uses fear appeals to try and motivate voters," Texas A&M historian Jennifer Mercieca told NPR, which rightly noted that “Trump has time and again used ominous language and tweeted out videos of violence in other areas where he sees risks for the nation.”
Predictably, Democratic leaders have gleaned the wrong message from all of this. They believe any presidential agitation at all is bad, and simply want a return to “normal” (read: sedation, status quo and surrender). As Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet said in a cynical pledge to try to boost his failed primary bid: “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time. I’ll do my job watching out for North Korea and ending this trade war. So you can go raise your kids and live your lives.”
But agitation unto itself is not the issue here. Americans actually do need a president who is constantly in our face trying to motivate and mobilize the population, telling taboo truths about climate change, the health care crisis, poverty and fascism in a calm way — even when those truths are scary. That’s what great leaders do — they don’t promise to leave us alone and let us disengage. They do the opposite: they engage and energize while also exuding a sense that things are under some modicum of control and moving forward towards something better.
The issue here is that Trump is agitating against the truth and for instability. He isn’t mobilizing for any greater cause than grabbing himself and his cronies more wealth and power. He is clearly trying to unnerve the population and he is making clear nothing is under control.
He is stressing everyone out and intensifying cultural conflicts in an effort to move us backward into a civil war.
Data Show The Effects Of Trump’s Mood Slime
Of course, Republican politicians and conservative media outlets have been using divisive, violent and demagogic language for a long time — and Trump himself campaigned using such caustic rhetoric, warning of an influx of undocumented immigrants “bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists” into America.
The difference is that while this language has coursed through media and periodically reared its head in the cauldron of political campaigns, it has not been consistently amplified by a sitting president day after day, as official government policy. That is what has helped create the toxic sludge — and data show how that the mood slime oozing from the White House has conjured a real-life version of the angst, mayhem, hate and despondence of the Manhattan in Ghostbusters II.
• A 2016 study from Texas researchers found that “counties which hosted a Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate-motivated incidents... The rhetoric used in the Trump rallies likely promoted White identity and served to increase a sense of group threat, which led to heightened incidents of hate incidents.”
• A 2017 study by Tufts University researchers found that “exposure to Trump’s prejudiced statements made people more more likely to write offensive things, not only about the groups targeted by Trump, but sometimes about other identity groups as well.”
• A 2018 study from researchers at the University of Alabama and Loyola University found that “Trump’s election in November of 2016 was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes across the United States... counties that voted for President Trump by the widest margins in the presidential election also experienced the largest increases in reported hate crimes.”
• A recent survey found one in four young people have contemplated suicide in the last 30 days — which psychologists attribute to the pandemic, but which I suspect also has to do with the sense of hopelessness, despair and anxiety created by Trump’s constant 24-7 agitation, negativity, hate and divisiveness.
If these trends weren’t disturbing enough, it is worth noting that they are emerging at a moment when authoritarianism has become a viable political ideology and movement in our country, much of it aligned behind Trump.
According to a study released in June from the bipartisan Voter Study Group, “Nearly a quarter of Americans say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections would be ‘fairly’ or ‘very good’ and 18 percent say that ‘army rule’ would be “fairly” or “very good.’”
The same study found that “the highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative, and have negative attitudes toward racial minorities... Those who say it is fairly or very important for someone to have European heritage to be an American are 30 percentage points more likely to support a ‘strong leader’ than those who decisively reject this racist conception of national identity.”
The findings echo a 2016 study from a University of Massachusetts scholar that found “a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump — and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism. That’s right, Trump’s electoral strength — and his staying power — have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations.”
Put it all together, and these are conditions for something cataclysmically bad if Vigo the Carpathian is given another White House term.
Not Him, Us
Having been an investigative journalist who covered Biden, and having literally just worked on a campaign against him, I know well the flaws in Biden’s record, which illustrate deep flaws in his values. His support for the crime bill, the bankruptcy bill, Social Security cuts, Wall Street deregulation, corporate-written trade deals and the Iraq War are indefensible, as are his opposition to Medicare for All and a fracking ban. They aren’t just policy compromises — they are a character issue. And it is worth adding that many of these policies led to the voter frustration that Trump opportunistically seized on and exploited to win the 2016 election.
However, even stipulating all of that, Biden is not an authoritarian. He is not a Trump-level hatemonger, nor is he a threat to the foundational pillars of what remains of our democracy. Unlike Trump, he does not wake up everyday trying to incite and inflame. He is not Vigo the Carpathian.
In the presidential role of government manager, Biden would likely promote inadequate or even bad policies, and progressives would have to push him everyday to stop failing. But with Biden in that presidential role of chief TV star managing the nation’s psychology, there is little chance that he would actively try to preserve the toxic slime that is eating away the tattered social fabric of America.
That wasn’t always true. In the past, Biden dabbled in being a hater and was periodically hater-adjacent — and you could argue that he participated in the creation of the toxic sludge of his day. Biden worked with segregationists against integration policies. He used racially charged language. He helped create the destructive tough-on-crime lingo. He aided Bush’s efforts to marginalize Democratic antiwar critics. He did, more recently, crap on millenials struggling through a tough economy.
I don’t vote-shame. I’m not going to sit here and vilify people who remember all that and decide they cannot bring themselves to vote for Biden. Everyone’s pain is their own. Everyone’s vote is their own personal decision and moral calculation, and anyone trying to bully or insult you into voting one way or the other is in the wrong.
But I will say this: People I respect — and who have legit grievances against Biden — are making a choice to vote against the toxic slime, and that’s important, at least to me.
People like Bernie Sanders, who was steamrolled by Biden’s lying.
People like Anita Hill, whose reputation and humanity Biden unapologetically helped Republicans steamroll, but who is nonetheless voting against the toxic slime.
People like young climate activists, who were dually insulted by Biden’s comments about millennials and his continued refusal to ban fracking, but who know the climate is a ticking time bomb and know they could at least try to pressure a President Biden to do better.
People like the terminally ill Medicare for All activist Ady Barkan, who is voting against the toxic slime even as Biden opposes a Medicare for All program, because at least there would be a chance to try to shame a Biden administration into doing more.
These and other principled progressives are not sellouts.
They know that the election and a new administration will not be able to instantly remove the toxic sludge that Trump has slathered all over the country and that has coarsened our culture. They know it will take years — and policies to materially improve millions of people’s lives — to successfully clean up this nationwide Superfund site of loathing, bigotry, violence and resentment.
And they are under no illusions about Biden. They believe in the premise summarized by the new campaign called #NotHimUs, which says “We’ve got our own reasons to vote for Biden, and Joe ain’t one.”
Sponsored by the grassroots group Roots Action, this initiative rejects the ineffective tactics that try to insult disillusioned voters into falling in line. Instead, it does something novel: It is brutally honest with voters and admits that we’re in a shitty position with a suboptimal candidate — but then argues that rejecting Trump is of utmost importance.
“Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are not entitled to our votes,” says the new initiative’s website. “After decades of pursuing neoliberal policies, they arguably don’t deserve our votes... But just because the Democratic Party doesn’t deserve to win, doesn’t mean that we deserve for them to lose. We can’t let the Democratic Party lose to Trump because, in spite of all their failures, Trump has without a doubt been much worse for working people...Working people cannot afford for Trump to win a second term. Frankly, this election matters much more to us than it matters to anyone in the ruling class in either party. We have to avoid the worst harm to working people and poor people. And after we defeat Trump, we have to push for much, much more.”
One set of cynics might say that the bar is now pathetically and depressingly low if we are left to evaluate our remaining viable presidential choices on the continuum of hate and civility. On that, I totally agree: Yes, the bar is embarrassingly low. Yes, turning elections into contests about proper tone and etiquette is often a go-to ploy of an establishment that never wants elections to be about messier things like wealth inequality and corporate power.
But this is something different. Trump is way beyond violating tonal norms — he is actively and deliberately catalyzing conditions for civil unrest.
Another set of cynics will write off the “Not Him, Us” idea as a cheap marketing ploy and insist that there will be no way to move Biden after the election is over. They will say Biden is too tied to the corporate elites and political machine that helped deliver us to this moment of crisis in the first place.
I have the soul of an eternal optimist trapped in the brain of a pessimist, so I still want to believe democratic pressure can work, but I also know it often doesn’t. I acknowledge that maybe the cynics are right, but…maybe they aren’t.
I think there’s a chance to move Biden on certain issues (and I totally reject the idea that during general elections, everyone should refrain from pushing candidates or scrutinizing them — and we will continue to do that right here). But I can also see a newly elected President Biden reading from the standard Democratic playbook, championing weak incrementalism and making sure nothing would fundamentally change.
In short, I can’t predict the future, but I do believe this: We’re in a lot more trouble if Trump is given another term to pump toxic sludge into our society.
Four more years of government-sanctioned fear, incitement, hate and misinformation blasting from the White House as Vigo the Carpathian assaults the final vestiges of our democracy will completely foreclose on the future.
In light of that, I’ll cast my vote in support of a tiny chance for a future.
That’s better than no future at all.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
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