I spent much of my fifteenth year on earth stealing. I had a plan. Every day after school, I would go to the Woolworth's five and dime and steal something– a packet of turnip seeds, a dish, a dish towel, a gardening implement, bug repellent… I carefully packed the loot in big boxes a shipped the boxes to myself care of Poste Restante in Nukuʻalofa, the capital of Tonga. When I was 16 I waited for the school year to be finished– that's the other side of me– and I said goodbye to my parents and sisters and friends and headed out… for Tonga… forever. I had never been on a plane so I never even considered that option, not that there was any air service at that time to Tonga anyway. I had $54. I hitched-hiked to Los Angeles and stowed away on a ship. The plan was to stow away to Hawaii and then stow away on another ship from there to New Zealand and then somehow get on the twice a year mail ship from New Zealand to Tonga, pick up my seeds and tools and household goods and live happily ever after. I got caught on the ship in San Pedro harbour and had the shit kicked out of me. I decided to hitch-hike home. A child molester picked me up and I pulled a boy scout knife on him and he threw me (literally) out of his track. I met beatniks in Colorado in campers and they turned me on to pot for a week– not a common drug for middle class white boys at the time– and then I took a bus home. Point: I was always a rebel.
When it came to politics, my grandfather, a committed socialist, taught me to never trust the Democratic Party. “They're not much better than the Republicans,” he told me when I was 14 as he was going to vote to reelect Jacob Javits, an outspoken liberal Republican who had been accused of being a Commie by the Democrats.
When I went to college I quit as president of the Young Democrats to join the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), spent my time getting high, protesting the war against Vietnam, booking music for the school's concert program, dj-ing overnights on the college station and developing a thriving pot business. I dropped out for a semester to sell drugs to Harvard students, figured it would be a good way to change the riling elite. I went back to school, finished– although my profs were almost all clients of my flourishing drug business– and went to live abroad. I traveled around Europe, Africa and Asia for almost 7 years, mostly living day-to-day. Rebel enough?
So why am I so so opposed to Trump, the political outsider candidate if there ever was one? Hillary, no matter what you think of her, represents the status quo. She's being endorsed by so many conservative newspapers and by so many prominent conservatives because she's a safe, mainstream conservative who they feel will better protect the status quo, everything I've always detested. Wall Street fears Trump, shouldn't that be a signal to me to back him? (When I was elected freshman class president in college I made sure no fraternities would be allowed on campus and I voted against something call moleskins that the basketball team requested from the student budget. I delighted in booking bands like the Fugs and Country Joe and the Fish to infuriate conservatives.) Blue America was the first national PAC to endorse Bernie and raise money for him. How do I know we were first? Even before he announced we were raising money for him as a Draft Bernie campaign.
So, I live in California now and I'm not voting for Hillary. If I lived in Ohio or Florida or North Carolina I would hold my nose and vote for her. I urge my friends in swing states to do so. I explained why a few days ago here. I find myself agreeing, warily, with the very conservative San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board which bragged in it's Hillary endorsement Friday that it “has not endorsed a Democrat for president in its 148-year history. But we endorse Clinton. She’s the safe choice for the U.S. and for the world, for Democrats and Republicans alike.” Bleccchhh. True… but blecccchhh. But what I agreed with them about was that Trump is a manipulative entertainer, a very dangerous one. I'm from New York. I learned at a very young age when a con-man is. Trump is a classic “con man”– slang from the late 1800s describing someone “who gains the trust, or 'confidence,' of his victims (often called marks) in order to manipulate, steal from, or otherwise predate upon them.” Can you think of a better definition of Trump? The Union-Tribune tries out “vengeful, dishonest and impulsive.” That works. Dorothy Rabinowitz, part of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board also endorsed Hillary. She never would have except for the Trumpist danger to the status quo. You can't imagine a more establishment New Yorker, albeit a refined literary one.
[I]t was the view of Donald Trump as a fearless foe of liberal piety, that image of him as an outsider, untainted by experience in government– itself one of the more remarkable boasts of any presidential campaign in memory– that persuaded so many Americans he is the leader the country needs. As opposed, that is, to Mrs. Clinton– the educated former secretary of state, with lengthy experience in government… No one witnessing Mr. Trump’s primary race– his accumulation of Alt-Right cheerleaders, white supremacists and swastika devotees– could fail to notice the menacing tone and the bitterness that came with it.
Not for nothing did the Democrats bring off a triumph of a convention, alive with cheer, not to mention its two visitors whose story would lift countless American hearts. They were, of course, the Muslim couple Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Capt. Humayun Khan– brought here as a child– died in Iraq in 2004, saving his men from an explosive-rigged car.
His countrymen now go streaming to his grave at Arlington National Cemetery to leave notes and flowers. He reminded us of who we are—the nation that takes its newcomers and transforms them into Americans. After 9/11, Capt. Khan, American, could scarcely wait to serve his country. The national response to the Khans injected a sense of unity and affirmation, however brief, into an atmosphere of embittering divisiveness.
The end of the election is now in sight. Some among the anti-Hillary brigades have decided, in deference to their exquisite sensibilities, to stay at home on Election Day, rather than vote for Mrs. Clinton. But most Americans will soon make their choice. It will be either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton– experienced, forward-looking, indomitably determined and eminently sane. Her election alone is what stands between the American nation and the reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House.
I voted for Humphrey against Nixon in 1968. Not all liberals did. At Vox last week Michael Ansara, who, like me, was an SDS organizer at the time, explained that he didn't, why he was wrong then and won't make the same mistake in November by skipping out on Hillary. “The rules of the election game are rigged to favor the corporate elites,” he wrote of the 1968 election. “We are so habituated to being the prophetic minority that we cannot understand that a majority of the country is swinging against the war. We are so disgusted by all we have experienced that we want to “up the ante.” We think our job is to create so much disruption that the elites will be forced to end the war. Our slogan is Vote with your feet, vote in the street.”
Those of us in the student antiwar movement see Humphrey as profoundly corrupt, profoundly tainted by his support for the war. We hate Nixon, but in truth we have not experienced what a right-wing government can do. We have come of age and to activism in the years since 1960– so we only know Kennedy and Johnson as presidents, we have only experienced a liberal domination of national politics, and, more often than not, the policies we are protesting are the policies of liberal Democrats.
In the fall of 1968, we experience a great failure of political imagination.
We think it doesn’t matter if Nixon or Humphrey wins. We think the war will keep going the same no matter who wins. We cannot imagine that it will expand, that there will be a simultaneous policy of “Vietnamization,” so that the American body count decreases, and escalation that will claim another million more Asian lives. We cannot imagine the disaster that will befall Cambodia because of Nixon and Kissinger and the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong. We do not see what is coming– at home as well as internationally.
We do not understand that soon Nixon will invite to the White House and celebrate the leaders of building trades unions who led violent attacks on antiwar protesters in New York. We think the well of black sadness cannot get any deeper. We are wrong. We cannot imagine what will be unleashed against black leaders and the black community. We do not imagine that the FBI and Chicago police will shoot and kill Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as he sleeps in his bed, possibly drugged.
We have no idea the damage that will be done.
We cannot conceive of the manipulative use of a “war on drugs” to go after black communities and the antiwar movement. As cynical and as sophisticated as we think ourselves to be, we cannot conceive of policies that, years later, Nixon’s top aide, John Ehrlichman would bluntly describe to Dan Baum of Harpers thusly:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… You understand what I'm saying?
We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Despite our growing dread, we do not imagine that protesting students will be gunned down at Kent State and Jackson State. That Hoover’s FBI will get the green light to go after Nixon’s enemies.
We have a failure of political imagination. We have a failure of moral imagination.
We sit out the election. We organize street protests. We march. We mock. We do not organize young people to vote in one of the closest elections in American history. There are tens of thousands of young people looking to us for direction. We do not say, “Make history. Swing this election to Humphrey and show how powerful we as a group now are.” No, we say, “A plague on both your houses,” and walk away.
Nixon wins. Without knowing it, we have missed our moment.
Looking back, we young idealists and activists were not so much wrong in our assessments of Humphrey as we were totally wrong in our assessment of whether it matters if a corporate center liberal is elected over an insecure, unstable, right-wing candidate who does not respect the Constitution.
Our failure was not in our assessment of Humphrey but in our failure to understand Nixon and what was at stake. We could have turned the close election in favor of Humphrey. We could not have moved the election results by 5 points, but we certainly could have moved the needed one.
Our refusal to participate started a process of making our movement profoundly irrelevant. We allowed Richard Nixon to come to power. We allowed a right-wing counter-reformation to hold power and warp American politics for most of the next four decades. Within our movement, we allowed militancy to replace strategy.
Any history with “ifs” is hugely problematic. I cannot predict with any confidence what a Humphrey administration would or would not have done. I am sure it would have had its share of evils. However, the difference between a president who is not doing enough for progress– even one wedded to the national security state– and one who is using the power of the office actively to reverse progress and mobilize racists, the xenophobic, and the elites against progress is enormous.
The toll of the Nixon administration is long and heartrending. Internationally, more than a million Cambodian lives lost and a million additional Vietnamese and Laotians killed. In South America, the cost is perhaps best symbolized by the pain of Chilean singer Victor Jara, as the soldiers in the US-backed coup against an elected socialist president first chop off the fingers of his guitar-playing hands and then shoot him dead.
Domestically there was a cost, too, as Nixon started the counter-reformation to the ’60s, flouted the Constitution, created enemy lists, launched the war on drugs that would eventually lead to mass incarceration, and cynically did everything he could to destroy the leadership of the black community and the antiwar movement.
We who want to revitalize our democracy, fight against inequality and for justice, and work for change need to be able to imagine a very different, exciting alternative future. We need that positive vision. However, we also need the imagination to understand how profoundly bad it can get when demagogues come to power.
You know where this is going. Anyone my age or Ansara's age or Bernie's age could tell you the next soundly sad line:
The only way Donald Trump does not become president of the United States is if Hillary Clinton does.
Some supporters of Bernie Sanders seem intent on making the same mistakes we did in that fateful year of 1968. Some of the pioneering, innovative protesters who have created Black Lives Matter seem to share our 1968 disdain for electoral politics, as if elections and who is in power could be ignored in the struggle for profound social change.
Others, the perpetual Hillary haters of the left, once again suffer from a profound failure of imagination. Unable to imagine how bad it could become, they preach about refusing to be forced again to “settle for the lesser of two evils.”
Young people may play a pivotal role in this election. For the very first time, “millennials” now are as large a group of potential voters as my tired generation, the baby boomers. The pool of younger voters is also far to the left of the older voters. The young once again have a moral passion that could produce real change.
Some Sanders supporters still say they will stay home. What is currently altering the dynamics of the race and whittling down Clinton’s lead is the attraction of younger voters to the third-party candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein. Where Obama in 2012 received 60 percent of voters under 30, when Johnson and Stein are included in the polls, Clinton is receiving only 31 percent of those voters. A significant group of Sanders supporters cannot bring themselves to support Clinton, the candidate of the establishment, no matter what the threat from Trump and no matter how hard Bernie campaigns for her.
A recent YouGov poll shows only 60 percent of Sanders supporters choosing Clinton, with Jill Stein getting 11 percent and Johnson getting 6 percent and many still undecided. If Clinton could get 80 percent of the Bernie voters to support her, she would be back at her comfortable lead of early August. As pollsters turn to quizzing the smaller pool of “likely voters,” many of the groups that most oppose Trump diminish, as so many of those people do not actually make it to the polls.
The one irreducible fact of this bizarre election is this: The only way Donald Trump does not become president of the United States is if Hillary Clinton does. In any closely contested state, staying home or voting for a third-party candidate is, in its impact, a vote for Trump. It does not take a great leap of moral or political imagination to envision the damage a Trump presidency will bring to our nation and to the world.
I left the U.S. soon after Nixon was elected and stayed away until he resigned rather than go through impeachment. I have no doubt– none whatsoever– that Trump is worse to an unimaginable magnitude.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis