Lesser Evilism

Chomsky’s view: Trump wins. His most virulent supporters become American Brownshirts. Climate deniers become policy makers. Inauguration becomes a death sentence for humanity. While Clinton is an imperial corporate savage, Clinton is also the lesser evil. So hold your nose, vote Clinton for the ten minutes it takes. Before and after, organize.

Joe’s view (Joe is a stand in name for many who hold this view): Clinton is despicable. A vote for Clinton is a vote for war. Hold your head high and vote for what you like or don’t vote at all. To waffle legitimates the Democratic party. To waffle aids empire. To waffle abets injustice. Lesser evilism sells out what is good.

How might we evaluate this face off?

Chomsky assesses the difference between Trump and Clinton, adds concern for humanity, and arrives at a modest prescription. Vote Clinton in contested states. Organize before and after. Chomsky opposes U.S. imperialism, corporate domination, racism, and sexism. If he votes against Trump, does anyone seriously think Chomsky will slip slide into apologetics for injustice?

Joe lets warranted hostility to Clinton interfere with acknowledging that Trump being in the oval office would be much worse. Yet to perceive that simple fact would in no way deny Clinton’s evil, nor celebrate her as good. I have to assume Joe knows that some evils are worse than others – to deny that in general would be ridiculous. So Joe considers differential evil unimportant in this case. Why?

One possibility is that Joe thinks the evilness discrepancy is inconsequential because to do something other than vote for Clinton in contested states will do more to avoid greater damage. If so, okay, that is a tenable albeit not very persuasive view. After all, voting takes just a few minutes. But if Joe thinks that damage differences are inconsequential because he simply can’t bring himself to vote for Clinton because the pain to him would be too great, that is not tenable. (I leave aside here the argument that says Trump is actually the lesser evil. I’m not sure if the people saying this are just posturing, but if not, then their chance of being taken seriously by anyone involved in progressive movements is nil – and deservedly so.)

Returning to Joe, of course it is hard for a sensitive human being to vote for evil. What a horrible situation. But Chomsky knows what is wrong with Clinton. Chomsky is committed to fighting Clintonian style politics. Chomsky has invested incredible time, energy, and focus to taking on the Democratic Party and corporate America. Yet Chomsky indicates by his choice that the pain he would feel pulling a lever for Clinton is inconsequential when compared to the additional pain people throughout the U.S. and all over the world would feel were we to have to endure Trump as President. So, I wonder, why would Joe be unable to give ten minutes to casting a vote and then get on with his activism or other involvements without the slightest negative impact of having voted for Clinton? Chomsky has voted lesser evil over and over, and suggests others should follow that path as well, and having done so has had zero ill effects on his other involvements, other than, perhaps, great nausea on the nights in question.

Tom Hayden enters the debate. He says many good people really like Clinton (which is sadly true). On that basis, in sympathy with them, I choose to like her too, says Hayden (which is one of the most ridiculous rationales I have ever heard from a thoughtful and often admirable political commentator). Women benefit from a woman President, Hayden adds (which is also true, though it can be exaggerated), so lets celebrate Clinton’s nomination and support her vigorously. Celebrate the woman? That doesn’t follow. Celebrate the likely policies? That doesn’t follow. Celebrate that the country is ready for a woman president, only that makes sense.

I assume Hayden would much prefer Sanders as president. As Sanders’ nomination became a dimming prospect, I assume to help defeat Trump, Hayden decided to support Clinton. And I assume Hayden felt the only way to do that was by delivering a kind of excited support that any talk of Clinton being evil would compromise. Hayden is therefore at least publicly not pursuing lesser evilism. Joe could sensibly say Hayden is flirting with a slippery slope and, worse, that he is establishing such a slope that others may unknowingly (unlike Hayden) slide down.

More could be said about every aspect of the lesser evil face off, of course, but I hope you will pardon me if I note that to explore this too deeply is giving credibility to nonsense or, to avoid that, would have to become too psychological and motive focussed to remain civil.

I too feel inner disgust at the prospect of voting for Clinton, but I also see that succumbing to that disgust would elevate reflex above reason and personal comfort above social responsibility.

First, there is no sell out if one is openly clear about one’s reasoning and commitments. And second, if being true to oneself means you must ignore the immense additional pain and suffering that would mark the difference between a Trump victory as compared to a Clinton victory, then your self needs to develop a sense of empathy and justice, not posture behind left rhetoric.

Okay, but to move from the odd to the important, what about Sanders? Though Sanders’ situation is more complicated than Joe’s, Hayden’s, or Chomsky’s, I think essentially the same reasoning applies. For Sanders to call Clinton the lesser evil or, more to the point, for Sanders to constantly address what he doesn’t like and will continue to oppose in her agenda would make it virtually impossible for him to actively traverse the country giving rousing speeches about her virtues. So what can Sanders do, given that he wants Trump to lose?

On the one hand, Sanders can lie and say “Clinton is great, vote for her.” But I would agree with Joe that that would be a slippery slope for him and for many who have been drawn into social involvement by him. On the other hand, Sanders could continue to explain and reject what he believes is wrong with the government, with corporate rule, and with the Democrats and Clinton too, while he at the same time excoriates Trump and reaches out, as well, to Trump’s supporters with the truth about their situation and about Trump’s actual hostility to them and their needs. And, yes, based on all that, Sanders could still urge audiences to vote for Clinton in contested states, but to vote for Greens, or himself, or whoever, in safe states. This isn’t complicated. And it wouldn’t even be particularly hard within the contours of American politics because Clinton herself is likely to run more less this way. She will constantly emphasize that Trump is worse, not that she is wonderful.

But what would make Sanders taking this route convincing and what would cause Sanders supporters to not become passive or mired in Clintonism, but to instead remain passionate, aroused, and committed – voting for Clinton in contested states, but far more steadfastly and aggressively seeking to build a lasting movement for change in all states?

Likewise, what would prevent mainstream media from totally ignoring Sanders into oblivion? What would make his words during the campaign and the during Clinton’s administration compelling enough to keep his audiences large? What would help the support Sanders has galvanized grow steadily more astute and resolute all the way through the presidential campaign and into the subsequent Clinton administration? Here are some possibilities.

1. Sanders and the campaign could seek to arrive at its own platform, to be fought for not only at the convention, which is relatively minor, but also after the convention and into the campaign period, and then after the election and into the future. Optimally this could be a continually updated product of national discussion and exploration, not a top down inflexible delivery from above.

2. Sanders and the campaign could opt to create lasting organization to carry on. One possibility would be to set up a shadow government. Sanders could be its President…and then diverse activists could serve at all the other main positions, including Cabinet Secretaries, perhaps Senators, and so on. Sanders and his campaign could keep fund raising, no longer for the election process, but instead for the shadow government so it can pursue its program, battle the Clinton administration, and galvanize popular support for worthy change, while constantly, about every important government policy and situation, revealing what a government for the people would do, thereby continually growing support for positive aims.

3. Sanders and the campaign could move the campaign’s fund raising efforts even further than the above, from supporting his run, and then supporting the run of Sanders allies (which he has been doing for some time now), to supporting a shadow government (as proposed above), and then also supporting additional vehicles for what he has called a political revolution. His calls for funds could say, please give x for my campaign and our coming shadow government, give y for so and so’s campaign, and give z for this or that worthy movement or activist organization.

4. Sanders and the campaign could broaden and enrich his heretofore weak internationalism by traveling abroad to meet with worthy allies in other countries or to express solidarity with victims of U.S. supported imperial policies. Brazil could be an early destination. Greece too. Imagine Sanders speaking at and joining demonstrations against U.S. Military bases, or addressing immigration issues, or war and peace, again at major movement gatherings. Imagine he gives a galvanizing and inspiring speech at every stop. As but one example, at military bases around the world Sanders could speak about the needs of soldiers and of local communities and propose that such bases begin to benefit rather than diminish social good, for example, turning their energies to building inexpensive housing and sources of renewable energy for their hosts and not least for ex soldiers, all in place of endlessly squandering energy in nonsensical but corporation serving military bloat. Imagine not only Sanders giving such speeches and supporting demonstrations and gatherings, but other shadow government officials as well.

5. Sanders, the campaign, and then the shadow government could not only be a megaphone for inspiring analysis and vision, but also a touchstone for activism. Sanders has said over and over that neither he nor any other president could enact the political revolution he favors without millions of people organizing, including in the streets. Consistent with that correct insight, Sanders and his campaign and then the shadow government could call for diverse national campaigns – for example, for a higher minimum wage, for debt cancellation, against various trade policies, for a massive energy makeover, for military reduction and retooling, and on and on.

None of this has to diminish the number of votes Clinton receives much less raise the number of votes Trump receives. On the contrary, all of the above could do the opposite even as it builds organization, awareness, desire, and hope to fight on through Clinton’s presidency and into a better future.

As a first step, can we transcend the perspective that says beating Trump by having Clinton elected is one option, and fighting for real and lasting change and even for a new society, is another? The contrary truth is that with modest creativity, these ends can be simultaneously accomplished. Chomsky, Joe, and Hayden too could be on one team.


  1. avatar
    Ed Lytwak June 16, 2016 1:37 pm 

    IMO, many of these comments miss the point. It’s not about whether Trump,Clinton or even Sanders are the “lesser” evil. Personally, I have no interest in arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
    For me it’s about accepting and participating as co-dependents in a system that is evil, rotten and corrupt. It’s about accepting that our only choice is having lesser evil rule for and over us.

  2. H H June 15, 2016 6:10 pm 

    American Brownshirts? Pardon me! Weren’t we also told we had to invade Iraq because Saddam was the next Hitler? And now we need to vote for Clinton because Trump might be the next Hitler?

    There is no question that millions of Americans feel vulnerable enough to make them want to lash out at whatever scapegoat is presented to them. This however is a result of 40 years of crony capitalism imposed on the world by greedy Wall Street banksters, including Hillary’s favorite client Goldman Sachs.

    A vote for Clinton is a vote for status quo. That means continuation of those same policies that turned millions of Americans into potential Brownshirts and hundreds of millions of people around the world into potential ISIS recruits. What makes us think that after 4 (or 8!) years of President Hillary Clinton, the number of potential Brownshirts and the number of potential ISIS recruits will not have doubled?

    What if Trump’s desire to protect his personal wealth (including protecting his Trump Tower in Manhattan from rising sea levels or from people willing to fly planes into skyscrapers) would lead to a much more pragmatic and saner US foreign and economic policy than Clinton’s well-demonstrated desire to expand the US Empire around the world, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure?

    The best evidence refuting the notion that Trump might be the next Hitler is however Trump’s beautiful wife Melania (and her two, equally good-looking predecessors). Given his wealth, ability to marry models, and having people like Bill and Hillary Clinton attend his wedding, Trump’s ego needs much less boosting than that of Adolf Hitler, a German army veteran devastated by Germany’s defeat in WWI.

  3. avatar
    David Danforth June 15, 2016 1:57 pm 


    I feel sad at your words.

    When you and Noam ask me (I live in Colorado, a swing state) to game the system, yet again, in order to save us from a greater evil, you are really telling me this: You may not vote your conscience… there is no democracy… the machine model of party politics has displaced it… but that’s OK because an enlightened movement will form if only I (and other swing state voters) can give it the space to do so.


    There are three ballot issues in Colorado that deserve careful attention. They matter far more to me than the presidential bender. They are:

    1. State wide single payer health insurance.

    2. A initiative by Walmart, Kroger, and Safeway to take over the $1.9 billion retail liquor distribution business. By law, liquor in Colorado is sold through Mom & Pop package stores. W, K, & S want to move this concession into the supermarkets they own.

    3. Fracking rules. Colorado is an oil and natural gas producing state.

    At the Federal level, democracy has been profoundly frustrated level by a glassy-eyed elite that does not seem to be able to serve even its own interests. I would urge my fellow citizens to concentrate on issues that they can do something about.

    Ranking ‘evilness’ is a fool’s errand.

  4. avatar
    Reg Tydell June 15, 2016 4:37 am 

    Thanks Michael. Well argued. A helpful lesson in “Lesser Evilism”, relevant not just to the U.S. but to electors in all democracies. Australia hasn’t had a Citizens United legal ruling, but the oligopoly is just as bad (just less able to influence world events negatively). Many thinking people in the current Australian election will vote Green, but then have the privilege of choosing where their second preference goes. In most marginal electorates the second preference is going to determine the successful candidate. Australians have a choice between a party (Labor) which still (marginally) represents working people and a Coalition which represents global capital. An easy choice unless your thinking processes have been fatally impaired by the MSM (which, sadly, means most Australian electors).

  5. Thom Burlington June 14, 2016 6:41 pm 

    Dear Michael,
    I was happy to see your active proposals towards the end of your article, especially starting at point 2. However, I would inject some urgency by editing your key phrase “galvanize popular support for worthy change” to “galvanize popular support for revolutionary change”.
    The US is no longer a “democracy” and it has had non-democratic structures for a very long time.
    Way beyond the platitudes, there is a great deal of urgency that needs to be addressed at this time, as, for example, today’s articles in Znet explain.



  6. Tom Johnson June 14, 2016 3:25 pm 

    This entire piece is based on the assumption that Clinton is a lesser evil w/o any evidence for that. She has a record. As does Obama of whom the same argument was made.

    Trump does not. Trump would have to navigate an arena that is totally unknown for him…and us. How would the oligarchy that owns and runs this country (and many others) act in relation to his craziness?

    Also, this does not consider that a vote for Clinton is a vote to continue (and strengthen) the Duopoly and its oligarchical bosses.

    Additionally it assumes that left electoral activity with the Greens, socialists or independents has no worth in terms of party-building and movement building.

    Finally, it disingenuously accuses we “Joes” (what about Janes and Jolenes?) about not caring about the horrors that Trump will bring with him. I find that to be a manipulative and deceptive tactic.

    And as for the “safe states” tactic, it reaffirms that left votes and independent votes are worthless in themselves and can only be used to make statements when the don’t actually matter.

    • avatar
      Paul D June 14, 2016 4:02 pm 

      “How would the oligarchy that owns and runs this country (and many others) act in relation to his craziness?”

      “Also, this does not consider that a vote for Clinton is a vote to continue (and strengthen) the Duopoly and its oligarchical bosses.”

      Trump IS an oligharch – but he is also a fascist, in the classical, racist, xenophobic, power-obsessed sense, on top of it!

      And we already know the answer – from how the Republican Party is quickly unifying behind Trump – as to how the oligarchs will respond to Trump. As a billionaire oligarch himself , they will think that they have gone to heaven!

      And regarding the “safe states” tactic – yes – under the current US electoral political system, left votes and independent votes ARE worthless in themselves. Deal with it. If you wasn’t to change it organize, organize, ORGANIZE – outside of the electoral system, but for now, spend the 10 minutes that your vote will take trying to contain damage to the conditions that will allow us to organize and minimize the damage done to our fellow citizens – notably the black and brown ones, who, like global warming, concern for them seems to be strangely missing from the white, male, so-called “left” who think “Trump will be not so bad” in spite of all evidence to the contrary And no, “the worse, the better” and other nihilistic strategies have never worked.

      • avatar
        Michael Albert June 14, 2016 4:34 pm 

        At the risk of further misinterpretation, etc. here is another point to consider.

        A Trump election, some might think, will lead the public to want really radical change. Actually, though, it is far more likely that in addition to the direct additional harm it would entail, the desire it would arouse would be to have a democratic party president. Democrats, Clinton herself, likely, would lead the call for change. A Clinton election, in addition to doing lessor harm, would arouse the desire to go further left ala Sanders, or more radical possibilities. I think this is not paramount, but nonetheless somewhat relevant. Indeed, If I thought that Clinton and Trump were essentially alike as far as the harm they and their administrations would do, I would still want Clinton to win, for the reason noted here, and for the precedent of a woman President, as well.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert June 14, 2016 4:27 pm 

      If you think Trump is less bad, fine, that is your opinion then, I guess. I myself admit that I find it hard to fathom that someone with values and desires I assume you have, could think that, but so be it. If you think he has no track record, doesn’t have a constituency and so on, so be it.

      But the article assumes nothing that you say it assumes. And it doesn’t accuse anyone of anything, either.

      I notice that you simply ignore the real substance, the points about how we might go forward, how Sanders might.

  7. Clive Ray June 14, 2016 3:20 pm 

    I’m afraid I have to agree entirely with Ed Lytwak. There can be no greater evil than Hillary Clinton. The worst Trump could do would be to overtly pursue some of the policies that Clinton would pursue by stealth. This would incite protest and Trump would even listen. The Left has lost the plot.

    • avatar
      Paul D June 14, 2016 3:42 pm 

      Can you provide some factual basis for your comment? Your remarks regarding “stealth policies” and particularly that his policies would “incite protest and then he would listen”, are pure conjecture at best, and seem to be more based on pulling fantastical facts out of thin air.

      Please start by providing the facts supporting your hyperbolic :there can be no greater evil than Hillary Clinton” as history- even recent US history, clearly shows there can! Also, please note that the “worse, the better” argument you seem to be making has never worked anywhere in history.

      I think you can start by simply visiting the respective candidates websites and comparing them. No, you cannot, without evidence simply dismiss Clintons positions as “lying”. However, regarding Trumps. positions – you should know that there is a long history of right-wing extremists moderating their positions in elections then moving hard right. Recall how Bush presented himself as quite a moderate against Gore – even as he was already plotting his savage invasion of Iraq. So no, claiming that Trumps is just engaging in bluster is, once again, pulling facts out of thin air in pursuit of some kind of “motivated thinking.

      • Clive Ray June 14, 2016 6:41 pm 

        Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, encouraged her husband to bomb Yugoslavia; as Secretary of State she was heavilly involved with the coup in Honduras and was right behind the destruction of Libya – she went, she saw and Qaddafi died, along with his pan-African currency project. These are just for starters. Whatever she says on her website, Clinton has a proven record of evil doing.

        A Hillary presidency would see actions such as Obama’s in Syria: pretending to fight Isis while in fact being its very creator. Hillary would continue to pretend to be trying to address global warming while continuing to kowtow to the fossil fuel industry.

        Trump is not a career politician. He didn’t get where he is by selling his soul to corporate donors. He wants to be popular. If president, he would soon be doing what the population as a whole wants: action on global warming and less military interventionism – whatever his website says.

        I agree this is highly optimistic and a terrible indictment of the political reality we face but a realistic expectation of the alternative, Hillary, presidency is WWIII before her first term is up. She can’t wait to get her hands on those codes.

        • avatar
          Paul D June 15, 2016 2:07 am 

          He wants to be popular. If president, he would soon be doing what the population as a whole wants: action on global warming and less military interventionism – whatever his website says….

          Do you honestly believe the US population as a whole wants action of global warming and less militarism? Why is he propositioning plenty of militarism (ending the Iran agreement and possibly invading) and does he totally dismiss global warming? Why are Republicans, including Ryan, supporting him? Are you forgetting that Trump is first and foremost – a lifelong Republican and Billionaire capitalist?.

  8. avatar
    Ed Lytwak June 14, 2016 1:38 pm 

    People who categorically dismiss that Trump is actually the lesser evil. should not be taken seriously by anyone involved in Left movements – and deservedly so. People who fail to distinguish between ephemeral electoral mobilizations and long-term constructive political program organizing are co-dependents in maintaining corrupt representative governance politics.

    • avatar
      Paul D June 14, 2016 3:22 pm 

      As Michael Albert stated in the article, any serious arguments that Trump is the lesser evil using totally beside the point non-sequiturs like “he never voted for any war”, “he never implemented government policies that started wars” – then totally ignoring:

      1. His life of unaccountability to anyone but himself in his mob-connected real estate empire

      2. His clearly and consistently stated repugnant and fascist position on many domestic and international affairs…

      should not be taken seriously.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert June 14, 2016 4:39 pm 

      Well, Ed, you have just suggested that left movements shoiuld ignore chomsky, me, and on and on. Okay, if you believe that, fine.

      We will see whether labor organizers, housing organizers, anti war organizers, minimum wage organizers, black lives matter organizers, ecology organizers take that advice, or, continue to feel that as bad as Clinton is, Trump would be much worse.

      • Clive Ray June 14, 2016 6:59 pm 

        Trump would do all the wrong things at first – openly – and spark debate, outrage and protest. What more could we hope for?

        Clinton, like all Democrats, knows how to get the corporate agenda through without anybody even noticing. Clinton will sign TTIP. That signed, kiss goodbye the environment and minimum wage.

        • avatar
          Michael Albert June 14, 2016 7:12 pm 


          Yours has been a view for a long time on the left – there is nothing remotely new in it, but it is nonetheless horribly off.

          Reagan was supposed to have that impact, Nixon too, earlier, in some people’s views – but Reagan was a disaster for serious left progress. The point is, repeated over and over – when there is a republican president sowing dissent, especially one that is strikingly horrible, the dissent, while it may grow large, is over whelmingly about getting back to what becomes an exaggerated view of the better prior days of democrats. When a democrat, especially one who is thought at the outset to be really promising is in office, the dissent tends to move, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slower, toward more substantial radical conceptions, demands, and acts. It is no accident we got BLM, OCCUPY, and then Sanders in response to Obama. But the ease with which some radicals come to the conclusion that we should welcome what will be, or even just could be, utterly horrific because maybe it will spur a response is really stunning. It spurs a response, alright, to go back to more bearable horror. It is revealing the hopelessness of liberals, that can push further – again, see the article’s suggestions for Sanders.

          And that ignores what Trump would be doing reversing accomplishments, imposing new obstacles, and so on. You, like others, simply ignore the bulk of the article you are addressing… The possibility for Sanders to contribute positively after the election.

          • Clive Ray June 14, 2016 8:16 pm 

            You mention Reagan and Nixon but, from a less US-centric perspective, it was undoubtedly Bill Clinton who did more damage to leftist causes globally. It takes a Democrat to drive those trade deals, such as NAFTA, through.

            And the Environmental Protection Agency was created under Nixon, and gutted under Obama.

            I would love to see Sanders as US president, but the media have chosen Clinton and ignore Sanders into oblivion is exactly what they will do. The only thing Sanders can do to make difference now is to refuse to indorse Clinton.

            Personally I fail to see what Trump accomplishments could possibly out-reverse TTIP and TPP. That’s assuming that Democrat Obama doesn’t get them signed off before his term is up.

            OCCUPY was Obama’s opportunity to buck the corporate agenda. He didn’t take it.

            The massive anti-nuke movement during the eighties was Reagan’s opportunity to buck the military-industrial complex. He took it.

            Falling into the lesser-evil trap every election cycle is how the left gives its blessing to the accelerating rightward movement of what passes for the political centre. The UK public refused to fall for it last year, and by refusing to vote for a neoliberal Labour Party led by Ed Miliband, albeit at the cost of a second Conservative government (which is meeting lively public resistance), space was created for the ascendancy of a genuinely leftist leadership under Jeremy Corbyn.

            It’s not so much about electing Trump as it is refusing to elect Clinton. This is an opportunity that the US-Left declines at its peril.

            • avatar
              Paul D June 15, 2016 1:59 am 

              The EPA was not “gutted” under Obama. Like every other federal agency, funding and staffing has been flat or declining over the past couple decades – but this trend goes back well before Obama. Such statements are the sort of “plucking facts spontaneously out of thin air” that has become epidemic among Sanders supporters (but not Sanders himself over the past 6 months or so.

              • Clive Ray June 15, 2016 6:51 am 

                I agree that “gutted” was a poor choice of words. I was refering to the EPA’s effectiveness rather than its size or funding. EPA scientists are effectively gagged. True this came about towards the end of the Bush II era, but Obama has done nothing to remedy the situation and his policy of prossecuting whistleblowers rather than protecting them as per his campaign promise has hardly helped. Note also the EPA’s performance over the Flint water crisis.

      • avatar
        Ed Lytwak June 14, 2016 7:48 pm 

        I don’t think anyone is going to ignore the Left-anarchist icon Chomsky What i’m suggesting is that people use their own capacity for independent and critical thought to evaluate Trump rather than take Chomsky’s word for it. Organizers should do the same regarding the feasibility of electoral mobilizations by faux socialist candidates to advance self-governance, i.e. direct, participatory democracy. I can’t think of one electoral mobilization that has resulted in long-term gains in building a constructive program for direct democracy. Can you?

        • gary olson June 14, 2016 9:59 pm 

          Per usual, Mike’s cogent analysis merits serious consideration. As a swing state (PA) voter I’ve been agonizing over this matter for some time now. My question: why are those advocating an HRC vote so confident that this is better for those living outside the United States and especially in the Middle East? She is a known war criminal. For all his obvious domestic faults, Trump remains something of an unknown in that respect. I’m eager to hear responses.

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