[Publisher's Note] The Referendum, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher's Note]

The Referendum

Such fervent admiration for a man who openly traffics in swindles and lies—where did it come from?
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on November 2, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

At the end of August in 1988, as part of my work with an organization that advocated freedom of the press, I went to Santiago, Chile, in the midst of the campaign leading up to a national referendum on the question of whether to extend the dictatorship of the Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet. My mission concerned Chilean journalists, who were often thrown into prison for “crimes” imputed to them by a government intolerant of the civic principles dear to my American and European colleagues.

I’d been struck by the courage of certain opposition journalists, among them Francisco Herreros, the editor of the fortnightly magazine Cauce. When I’d visited Herreros during his incarceration, he’d demonstrated a composure worthy of our trade. In thinking about my Chilean experience during these past few weeks, I’ve realized that I was equally impressed by the wonderful simplicity of a plebiscite whose choice—“Sí” or “No”—gave rise to extraordinary passion and participation of a sort not usually seen in the course of an election. Everywhere in the capital, you could sense a level of excitement, a veritable wave of emotions that almost made me jealous of the Chileans, who until then had been oppressed and terrorized by a military regime that didn’t hesitate to kill, torture, and otherwise eliminate its opponents in its quest for total control.

Obviously, that situation isn’t really comparable to the presidential election that’s going to take place tomorrow in the United States: Donald Trump is not a generalissimo with absolute power, although he does sometimes embody, with some panache, that role. At the same time, this election has little in common with a traditional choice between candidates and their platforms; it’s being played out almost entirely on the basis of the incumbent president’s personality and conduct in office. I’ve become even more aware of this phenomenon since October 18, the day when I watched, behind the wheel of my car, a mobile rally of Trump supporters on Long Island—a convoy of pickups and SUVs several miles long, displaying flags imprinted with Trump’s face, American flags, and signs with the slogan make america great again. The drivers, all of them white as far as I could tell, sounded their horns again and again, while other militant Trumpians, among them a surprising number of women, stood on the side of the road and applauded, smiling and genuinely enthusiastic on that sunny autumn Sunday.

Such fervent admiration for a man who openly traffics in swindles and lies—where did it come from? I saw in the faces of the crowd a kind of furious delight linked to an unquenchable anger toward the Trump-hating journalistic, corporate, and Hollywood elites. These people, Trump’s base, having been ignored for a long time by politicians of both major parties, their economic status frozen or in free fall, seem to view the president’s self-centered rancor—his “I don’t give a damn what my enemies say” attitude—as a moral virtue. It is to that, and not to Trump’s ultimately mediocre and weak politics, that his supporters say (and will vote) “Yes!” Better that than to suffer anew the cruelty of “globalization” and the “digital revolution” advocated by the Clinton and Obama cliques.

Unfortunately, Trump also doesn’t give a damn about the ordinary people who support him in his simulacrum of a presidency. As far as Trump’s concerned, the supporters I came across on the road are simply “losers,” good for nothing except yelling about the iniquitous elites and buying tickets to pro wrestling matches like those held in his former hotel in Atlantic City. In order to understand how far Trump has let those people down, see Stéphane Lauer’s recent column in Le Monde and the opinion piece by Alan Blinder published in the Wall Street Journal on October 21. From the promised revival of the coal industry to the project of national reindustrialization, the Trump “show” has very little in common with reality.

So how does one vote “No” in this referendum, in which “No” is not officially an option? The answer is more complicated than it seems. While Joe Biden was a U.S. senator from Delaware, he supported all the neoliberal legislation cherished by the Clinton Administration and its Republican allies— notably NAFTA, the trade agreement with China, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act of 1933, which separated commercial banking from investment banking. Under the George W. Bush Administration, Biden went even further: he backed the Republican-sponsored “reform” of the bankruptcy laws. Biden did this as a favor to credit-card companies, the vast majority of which are headquartered in his state. As vice-president, the conformist Biden, a dedicated giver and taker or patronage, remained silent when his boss, Barack Obama, in the beginning of his first term, reneged on his campaign promise to “reform” NAFTA. The contempt for and indifference to ordinary workers— particularly those in manufacturing—exhibited by the Democratic Party for the past three decades led directly to Trump’s election in 2016. The three states essential to his victory were Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all of them gravely damaged by the Clinton-Gore-Obama-Biden politics of “free” trade.

So I won’t be choosing Biden tomorrow; instead I’ll mark “Biden” on my ballot as a way of voting “No” in a referendum on Trump. To say that New York’s electoral votes are already safely in the Democrats’ pocket and thus to grant yourself the luxury of voting for a third party is to shirk your responsibility as a citizen. An unequivocal rejection of this detestable president will send him packing. A good result, no?

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