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Neither Clinton Nor Trump Is the Great Pumpkin
On the 50th anniversary of the Charlie Brown classic, politics reminds us that hope isn’t always an asset.
"Here we are, less than three weeks from the election, with only our faith and hope to get us through this long, dark night. And what are we hoping for?"
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown premiered 50 years ago this month. It was rebroadcast an hour before the third and last presidential debate on Wednesday, and it couldn't have been more timely. The Peanuts classic has so much in common with this presidential election: They're both dark, melancholy and absurdist comedies about unwarranted faith, bitter disappointment and, in spite of all that, sustained hope. As Linus writes in a fan letter to the Great Pumpkin, “Everyone tells me you are a fake, but I believe in you.” He adds a postscript: “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” After a fruitless night of waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to appear in the sky with a bag of toys, Linus tells Charlie Brown that, even so, his faith is intact: “Just wait ‘til next year,” he says. “You’ll see!”
So here we are, less than three weeks from the election, with only our faith and hope to get us through this long, dark night. And what are we hoping for?
Some of us hope for the country be made great again by a man who will magically solve our problems—build a wall to protect us physically, put up trade barriers to protect us economically and smoke out and destroy our existential threats on the fields of battle.
Some of us hope that a centrist politician will morph into a determined progressive—a self-described “progressive who gets results”—and apply real political muscle to the agenda that she has, in theory, signed on to: a living wage, a reformed campaign-finance system, deep reform of the criminal justice system and much more.
Watching Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this past year, it’s hard not to think of Lucy inviting Charlie Brown to practice a few placekicks in the yard. “I don’t mind your dishonesty half as much as I mind your opinion of me,” he says, before Lucy convinces him to try the kick and, yet again, pulls the ball away.
Like Linus, like Charlie Brown, we keep faith and hope alive by denying so much. “I will keep you in suspense,” Trump said Wednesday, in declining to say whether he would accept the legitimacy of the election results. But really: We deny reality so well without the assist.
Over the course of this election, largely in response to the profusion of lies from the man who “tells it like it is,” fact-checking has become a minor industry. We can’t know the exact effect, but it’s enough to note that, no matter what he says, or how provably false his claims are, or how he behaves, Trump maintains a steady share of about 40 percent of the vote. Willful denial. Unwarranted faith.
But it’s not just Trump, nor Trump voters. It’s the norm. The greater the weight of the evidence for climate change, the direr the scenarios we face, the less oxygen the issue seems to get in our political culture. Climate change got a single, passing mention in Wednesday’s debate. And that’s more than Black Lives Matter got—more than the deep structural inequalities of our economy got.
In the wake of Wednesday’s debate, there has been much made about Trump’s rigged-election conspiracy theory and about the danger he poses to American democracy. And rightly so. But his candidacy also raises a less obvious, even darker truth.
Faith and hope are vital to the workings of a healthy democracy: the faith that one vote actually matters and that the good life is about more than self-interest—the hope that progress is possible—the faith and hope that justice will prevail.
Yet hope and faith can also lead to long nights of waiting for the Great Pumpkin. “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me,” as Linus says. “I don’t want to know.” And out in the pumpkin patch—not wanting to know about Trump, Clinton and the most serious threats we face—seems to be precisely where we find ourselves.
Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.