Seeking a peaceful calm in the autumn of my years, I am struck by how tumultuous a time we live in. It is as if our nation’s soul is in the midst of an existential crisis without any guarantee whether we will find ourselves with an enhanced or degraded sense of humanity. More than at any time in my recent memory, I harbor deep concerns about the future of our republic. As unique and alarming as this feeling is for me, we have been here before.
In the presidential election of 1860, our country was at a crossroads as the question of slavery became a test for our nation’s soul. Three years earlier, a magazine named The Atlantic was created largely to support the abolition of slavery. It was, therefore, not surprising when that publication endorsed Abraham Lincoln in one of the most significant elections of our republic. The founder, James Russell Lowell, argued that the Republican Party as embodied by Lincoln represented the only plausible path to saving the soul of this great nation. He wrote passionately, “It is in a moral aversion to slavery as a great wrong that the chief strength of the Republican Party lies.”
It would be 104 years before this publication would again make a presidential endorsement. In 1964, echoing the spirit of Lowell’s words, editor Edward Weeks noted in the magazine’s endorsement of President Lyndon Baines Johnson that his election would provide “to the vexed problem of civil rights a power of conciliation which will prevent us from stumbling down the road taken by South Africa.” More striking than The Atlantic’s embrace of President Johnson was its acknowledged aversion to his opponent, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Mr. Weeks made it clear that the election of Goldwater would do extreme damage to the cause of civil rights, especially in light of the fact that Goldwater’s “preference to let states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia enforce civil rights within their own borders had attracted the allegiance of Gov. George Wallace, the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society.” It must be noted that many members of the Party of Lincoln followed the lead of The Atlantic and rejected the candidacy of Sen. Goldwater.
For the next 52 years, The Atlantic carried on its tradition of making no political endorsements until this year. After citing Hillary Clinton’s flaws (“some legitimately troubling, some exaggerated by her opponents”), the magazine goes on to observe “she is among the most prepared candidates to ever seek the presidency. We are confident that she understands the role of the United States in the world; we have no doubt that she will apply herself assiduously to the problems confronting this country; and she has demonstrated an aptitude for analysis and hard work.”
Reminiscent of their 1964 endorsement, they mixed praise of Mrs. Clinton with alarm at the prospect of a Trump presidency: “Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racial invective; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal.”
Significantly, The Atlantic makes it a point to acknowledge the authenticity of many of the Trump supporter’s concerns; “many…are motivated by legitimate anxieties about their future and their place in the American economy. But Trump has seized on these anxieties and inflamed them and racialized them, without proposing realistic policies to address them.”
The Atlantic was not the only publication to do the unexpected this year. The Arizona Republic (founded in 1890) had never endorsed a Democrat for president but did so this month. Like The Atlantic, the paper candidly acknowledges Mrs. Clinton’s shortcomings but prefers her steady hand to Mr. Trump’s petulance. Representing the paper, editorial page editor Phil Boas made no bones about his objections to Mr. Trump: “Trump’s long history of objectifying and his demeaning comments about women during the campaign are not just good old boy gaffes…they are evidence of deep character flaws. They are part of a pattern.” Mr. Boas reassures his readers that the editorial board decision was consistent with their conservative values: “Trump through the primaries and into the general election did a half-dozen things that we believe would have been disqualifiers in years past. We think that we are being traditionalists here. We’re saying we’re not willing to compromise our values.”
Similarly, the Dallas Morning News, which had not endorsed a Democrat since before World War II, endorsed Hillary Clinton this year. The Cincinnati Enquirer which had an almost 100-year tradition of supporting Republican presidential candidates (including Sen. Goldwater) was so outraged by the antics of Mr. Trump that they backed Mrs. Clinton, as did the conservative-leaning Houston Chronicle.
This year’s presidential election presents us with a choice that supersedes the standard Democrat vs. Republican contest. The Republican Party has a long and proud history of putting forward quality candidates, but not this year. Like no election in my lifetime, this November we must make a momentous decision that will have far-reaching ramifications for our history. The Atlantic put it quite clearly: “If Hillary Clinton were facing Mitt Romney, or John McCain, or George W. Bush or, for that matter, any of the leading candidates Trump vanquished in the Republican primaries, we would not have contemplated making this endorsement.”
But Hillary Clinton is not facing any of the above named candidates; she is facing Donald Trump. Eloquently expressing the anguish that so many of us feel, The Atlantic ended its endorsement with the following observation: “We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesman and the thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.”