You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three

Both presidential hopefuls are historically unpopular. Yet the dismal numbers that evidence their unpopularity happen also to support a little talked about hypothesis. That is, for many Americans, the 2016 presidential election is beginning to look a lot like the trolley problem from a high school ethics class.

The trolley problem is an ethical dilemma. It conceives of a person with the power to pull a switch and divert a rogue trolley onto a parallel set of tracks. Ultimately, the fictitious protagonist faces two choices: either do nothing and effectively doom five fictitious souls to an untimely death by trolley; or, throw the lever and divert the trolley towards a lone figure fastened to parallel tracks.

Indeed, it seems many voters might easily commiserate with the character whose hand rests on the trolley switch, especially as they approach this year’s ballot box. In real life, though, and beyond the walls of ethics class, the question is: What will all the undecided voters do?

Will they refuse to act and simply watch the “trolley” whir by? Have they bought into the dilemma at all? If so, will they abstain regardless? Or, will they vote – though they do not rejoice at the potential outcome of their vote – and force themselves all the same to choose between what they perceive to be the “lesser” of two evils? Will they abide by their conscience?

Of course, the trolley dilemma just a model, or a haphazard metaphor, perhaps. But even so, the similarities are worth considering, right? After all, that trolley is bound to come careening down the tracks sooner than later, and we may not know who’s tied down until the next commander in chief has his or her hands firmly on a whole different set of levers—and with even more lives at stake.


In all likelihood, undecided voters realize that the earnestly pro-Clinton and earnestly pro-Trump voters have one terrible quality in common, and it threatens the rest of us. Simply put, they’re uncooperative. There may be any number of reasons for this, but one thing is certain, and that is their intransigence suggests they may not be “socially competent.” Social scientist Richard Sennet says;

What being socially competent does mean is that when you’re faced with challenges you don’t fall apart and the social networks of which you are a part don’t tear. … I think the problem for us today is that learning that kind of social competence so that you’re able to manage complex situations, work with other people, is under threat for various reasons. Modern society is really, ironically, de-skilling people from many of the competences they need to deal with a very complex world…

Okay, so, it’s not entirely their fault; society doesn’t seem to be helping them out any. But at least, I guess, the Sandernistas shared an affinity for, and a proclivity towards, fairness while they organized (once upon a time). So, in a sense, then, it comes as no surprise that so many Trump supporters were wont to voice their approval of Bernie over Clinton. Who cares about the folks backing Bernie, or the Trump supporters that might have flocked to Sanders by now? As soon as Hillary supporters faced the challenge of a rigged convention and DNC party collusion, their social networks started to tear.

Unlike recovering Sandernistas, and perhaps unlike the mobilized Green Party camp, neither Clinton nor Trump supporters seem to give a shit about fairness, and this election is unfair to so many voters. Why is fairness so important? Well, for one thing, fairness regularly outplays the economic reality of everyday life, and that is something goes to heart of American culture. As behavioral economist Robert Shiller states, “A sense of fairness is a fundamental human universal. It’s been found in some recent studies that it even goes beyond humans, that higher primates do have some vestigial or limited understanding of fairness and equity.” To this day, however, the fact that the DNC rigged its own primary does not seem to alarm the cult of Clinton one bit. Their champion is winning, after all, and history – according to them – is going as it should. Everything is fair for #her.


Despite the growing contingent of anti-propaganda postmoderns who reject the dilemma-like nature of this year’s election, the fallacious, totalizing either-or lens through which millions presently experience the 2016 presidential election happens to be very much a part of the grand reality. And the Clinton filigree is most certainly guilty of sacrificing principle after principle at the altar of the argument which holds that either voters are with #her, or Trump is de facto their pagan idol. #Her camp is just as bad as the media; in fact, her camp is the media.

A friendly word of advice to Hillary’s true-believers who produce this barf: grow up. Hillary could not care less if you and your family end up tied down to the rails. So long as someone pays her enough, she’ll throw the switch and send the trolley your way with added velocity—if the price is right!

Now, clearly, the people who want to “make America great again” might be content to have trolley factories open up nationwide—so long as they get their anti-union factory overlords to come back home and see to it that once again American workers receive the finest wage-slave treatment this side of NATO. But, alas, the bell tolls for them, as the GOP, the ill-fated Republican Party, is dying now a slow death by internal hemorrhaging.

Indeed, it has been dying for some time, and it may even be thought to be on life support. Whatever the case, I can just imagine the delusional whaling emanating from the Trump camp as it responds to the would-be coroner’s speculative autopsy (i.e., public opinion) of the GOP: “We’re fired up! We’re pro-Trump!” they say now, and “Build that wall!” they gasp amid their death throes.

A word of advice to the now proudly self-proclaimed “deplorables” (who get points for, I guess, ironically adopting the civilly disobedient social philosophy of the ever progressive Hester Prynne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist in The Scarlet Letter): Thomas Jefferson, one of your beloved founding fathers, thought millions of ignorant, uneducated people (John Adam’s words, not mine) could establish a free republican government without it being coopted by an egotistical strongman at the top; and yet, despite Jefferson’s fierce love for the French Revolution, he was proven dead wrong by the imperial aspirations of Napoleon.


Three additional items should worry undecided voters as they weigh their course of action in light of the upcoming loathsome election. One is a rallying cry to which both Clinton and Trump stalwarts eternally march. It boasts, “This is what we think and we can think no other!” Well, sociologist Richard Sennet describes this dogmatic paradigm as “a recipe for both intellectual and social death.”

Despite the unprecedented number of undecided voters and abysmally low polls associated with both Clinton and Trump, and rather than dare to imagine another way of proceeding, both political contingents would condemn the rest of us to the kind of social death that stems from such an intractable line of thought, which hardly qualifies as “thought.”

The second issue pertains to the intellectual poverty that goes hand-in-hand with the lesser-evil voting gambit that rules the day. Consider, for instance, the collusive DNC, the corrupt Democratic Party, which is guilty of guilt-tripping, and bullying, undecided voters by alleging that a vote for anyone but Hillary is de facto a vote for Trumpelstiltskin himself.

Twenty years ago, late great Hunter S. Thompson gave an interview and said, “…I didn’t vote for Clinton in ‘96. I voted for Ralph Nader. There’s a terrible danger in voting for the lesser of two evils because the parties can set it up that way.” The candidates are certainly different than two decades ago, but Thompson’s logic holds true. And don’t think for a second that Thompson is the only one to put lesser-evil voting in plain terms. Listen to Malcolm X in a speech he gave shortly before they sent the trolley his way:

I say again, I’m not anti-Democrat, I’m not anti-Republican, I’m not anti-anything. I’m just questioning their sincerity, and some of the strategy that they’ve been using on our people by promising them promises that they don’t intend to keep. When you keep the Democrats in power, you’re keeping the Dixiecrats in power … A vote for a Democrat is a vote for a Dixiecrat. That’s why, in 1964, it’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet. It’s either a ballot or a bullet.

The third worrisome note being harped on by this year’s symphony of political discord dates back to the 1973 coup in Chilean. Ariel Dorfman, a former adviser to the country’s democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, describes the lynchpin in the demise of the socialist revolution that his country had begun to unfurl:

We could blame the CIA, the United States, the oligarchy, and the military all we wanted, but they never would have prevailed if we had been able to get the majority of Chileans behind our reforms … For the very people who should have been our allies then and were dispensable as allies against Pinochet in the years to come … I did not take the opportunity to comprehend that we were being insufficiently democratic, that we were accelerating the revolution beyond what was reasonable, that we had swept people … under the carpet of history, as if they didn’t count, as if their dissidence was to be despised instead of valued, as if consensus were a crime.

Everyone seems content to turn up their noses at this election and wish it away as if one day it might become nothing more than a painful spasm in American history. And all seem unified in the hope that this episode of ours will not repeat itself. But who, we might ask, in either Clinton’s or Trump’s camp, is truly building a democratic alliance against the very system that has given us the illusion of power and coerced us to participate in a deadly scenario? Who in either camp decries that system, which, should we struggle to free ourselves from the strictures of its Hillary-or-bust election, threatens to tie us all down to the tracks while rubbing the lever with a bloody palm and looking us in the eye with smug smirk on its face?

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.