Trumped both ways: ‘Snake Oil’ or ‘Business as Usual’

14 September 2016

This week’s TWOG is co-authored with John Breitner, after we realized that our discussions about the U.S. election led us from different political perspectives to the same conclusion.

One of us is American and the other Canadian, one conservative, the other liberal.  We live in Canada, a good vantage whence to watch the U.S. election.  Where, we wish to ask, are the good folks of America, in politics and in the population? In the population they appear to be marginalized by a choice between one politician who is selling snake oil, 21st century style, and another who epitomizes the establishment that many of them abhor—business as usual.

Donald Trump gives voice to many Americans who know that they are getting bamboozled. Yet here is the ultimate hustler, the very type who does so much of the bamboozling. Trust me, he says. Hillary Clinton gives voice to many who appreciate how dangerous her opponent could be. Trust me, she too says, while offering a steady stream of reasons why people cannot.  Sure we all have our flaws, but among 320 million Americans, could two not be found with flaws that reveal an underlying integrity? 

How is anyone to believe that either candidate will deal with the deeply-rooted problems of America today: income disparities, the legal corruption of political donations, a warming globe that needs to be cooled, crony capitalism that has harmed so much of the American middle class? Add to this the ultimate problem: an uncanny tendency to deal with all these fires by repeatedly pouring oil on them.

How, exactly, will the hotshot with the checkered background, who promises to “make America great again”, do that?  How will the archetype of the American establishment challenge that establishment?  And how will either of these two, who used to socialize together as members of the 1%, improve the lot of the 99%?

Americans have been hearing the “trust me” line for centuries. Lincoln famously claimed that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  Maybe so, but it appears that you can fool many of the people much of the time because, to quote P.T. Barnum, a sucker is born every minute.  So, evidently, is a shark.  Ask the contractors and workers of Atlantic City who sued the Donald for reneging on his contracts.

Trump, of course, also offers business as usual—in his case, quite literally.  I’m a businessman, he says. I can do it.  We’ve heard that before too.  Even if we leave aside that government is not business, even if we ignore the record of so much of today’s business as usual—all the lobbying, pay-to-play donations, corporate social irresponsibility, and the obscenity of executive compensation—we still have to ask what kind of a businessman is Donald Trump anyway?  Was he serious when he offered to renegotiate the U.S. federal debt to solve the deficit problem?  Or when he asked that an American-born judge of Mexican descent be recused from hearing complaints about his infamous “Trump University”?

What, then, are the good folks of America to do? When two people engage in a battle, both can look bad, even though one may have been worse. They drag each other down. No-one should be fooled by this. We believe that the calculus of the U.S. election is quite simple. The flaws of these two candidates hardly deserve the equal attention they are getting in some of the correct media. One is flawed, but the other could be fatally flawed. Business as usual may be intolerable, but snake oil for the ills of this world is downright hazardous. What Donald Trump would do as president is anyone’s guess; what Hillary Clinton would do is not.

So the American among us will hold his nose and vote Democratic. Then both of us will take a deep breath and contemplate the bigger issue: how can good folks save democracy from itself?  We urge you to do likewise.

© Henry Mintzberg and John Breitner 2016.  John is Director of the Center for Studies on Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease at the Douglas Hospital Research Center in Montreal, and a Professor of Psychiatry in the McGill University Faculty of Medicine. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.