Someone said to me way back in June, after the nominees of the two parties had clinched their respective nominations, “Well, are you voting for the crook or the creep?” I assumed that there was intended in the question an allusion to that memorable election for Governor of Louisiana in which the once-indicted (but not at that point convicted) former governor Edwin Edwards ran against David Duke and supporters of the former sported bumper stickers reading: “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” At the time of my friend’s question, we didn’t yet know either quite how crooked Hillary Clinton was or quite how creepy Donald Trump was—though there were plenty in both parties who affected to think him as bad as David Duke—but of course one instantly understood which candidate was which.
In the same way, voters in Louisiana in 1991 knew who “the crook” was, which left them open to persuasion by those who didn’t bother to deny it—Mr. Edwards won, but was convicted of racketeering, extortion, money laundering and other crimes a decade later and sent to prison—but who used the fact of his corruption to reinforce the message that there was something even worse, in the shape of Mr. Duke, late of the Louisiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which made it important to vote for the crook. It seems to me that, if the Trump campaign were smart it would try something similar with my friend’s question—perhaps by way of a simple substitution: “Vote for the creep. It’s important.”
But today one can’t help feeling that that would be taking a bit of a chance on the willingness of the great American public to see creepiness as automatically less a matter for concern in a president than crookedness. I’m not at all sure that most people do see it that way anymore. By the reality-TV standards which have infected our political process and according to which this election is being fought, evidence of crookedness is quite likely to be discounted as only what is to be expected. After all, the corruption of the Department of Justice under President Obama has long been evident, as is his own preference for lawless governance by executive order. And his approval rating, as I write, stands at 54 percent. Who, even before the most recent evidence of corruption came out, ever supposed that the existing breakdown in the rule of law was likely to be arrested by a President Hillary Clinton?
It’s true that in TV Land creepiness, openly confessed to by David Letterman a few years ago with no serious consequences for his career, is also forgivable, but it is much less so, paradoxically, among the Republican base, which could account for the adamantine hostility of the NeverTrump faction of the party. They have joined with the media in holding their man to a higher standard than that of the Democrats—and of reality TV, where he was originally a star. No point in appealing to them to vote for the creep, of course. They appear to have a personal stake in continuing to see theirs as the party of feckless gentlemanliness, and to find something slightly vulgar about winning, even in a fair fight. The fact that the Democrats and the media don’t fight fair only confirms them in their own sense of moral and social superiority, which they prefer to victory in any case.
To the Trumpists, such people are simply closing their eyes to the realities of twenty-first-century electioneering, which is more like a UFC cage match than the “debate” the media still pretends it is. Is it possible they haven’t noticed that we no longer conduct our elections, or our politics generally, according to the once well-understood rules of honorable strife? Or that the idea of the honorable adversary has long been a dead letter? Has it somehow escaped their attention that, egged on by the media, our public men and women no longer understand any method of political combat but that of pinning some suitably juicy scandal on their opponent before their opponent can pin one on them? To insist on some high-minded and (as it must seem to most people nowadays) mealy-mouthed standard of rhetorical rectitude from their own candidate while giving a pass to and even encouraging and echoing the vilest sorts of character assassination from his opponent could appear to some as mere snobbery.
As the author of Honor, A History, I, too, am aggrieved that honor does not appear to be on the ballot this time around—as it was when the man without a political past stood against the highly honorable ex-prisoner-of-war John McCain, or when the self-proclaimed hero of Abbottabad took down the equally honorable author of Romney-care. Alas, it seems that we are being called upon to decide, as Dr. Johnson almost said when asked whether Samuel Derrick or poor, mad Kit Smart were the better poet, the point of precedency (or presidency) between a louse and a flea. At least it will be interesting to see whether, when the need to decide is forced upon them, our fellow citizens will prove more averse to the creepy louse or the crooked flea.