Claire Standish is nothing if not a creature of political convenience. She sidles up to the jock when she thinks he will protect her from the rebel. She sidles up to the basket case when she wants to do a public good deed making that unique creature over into a fresh-faced Seventeen cover model. Claire pimps her charity case to her previous political ally, the jock. She sidles up to the brain when he can get her out of her detention homework jam. She sidles up to the criminal to hook up with someone beneath her class, conveniently within view of her dad as he sits in his (and by rights, eventually her) BMW.
Claire’s moral core is revealed in the cathartic circle scene. When asked, after an afternoon of soul searching, if she can bring herself to acknowledge the other four students when they see each other in the halls Monday, she says, “I don’t think so.” Even here, asserting her ability to deny humanity dependent on circumstances, she does not give an affirmative “no.” She leaves herself wiggle room. That is, of course, the pragmatic way to collect people you may need later, when the next prom election rolls through.
John Bender appeals the way every anti-hero has ever appealed: by not giving a damn. As the Big Lebowski said about true nihilism once: “Oh, that must be exhausting.” Bender does give a damn about fear and adoration. When the jock refuses to believe Bender’s pantomime about an abusive home life, Bender without blinking shocks with evidence of his damage. John Bender reveals his moral core when the principal has him alone in a storage closet and offers Bender a free sucker punch if a fair fight is to come afterward. Bender does not take the bait, and Principal Vernon rightly says, “That’s what I thought. You’re a gutless turd.” Bender would rather cower in the well-known safe place of constant sniping and zero material performance.
These two nominees, arguably their entire generation, still mentally roam the halls of their high schools. Clinton/Claire is the kind of social mover that no one really likes but will vote in for prom queen, mainly because they are simply too tired from survival to imagine a better royal court. The Clintons of the world are really more exhaustedly tolerated than liked by most people, until they aren’t (See: France, Russia: revolutions of).
Trump/Bender obnoxiously bullies everyone because at core, this is the only thing of small, petty meaning and value he now wants to achieve. Any fool can corrosively and pettily mock every institution and person attached to it that guide our civilization. When you give Trump the chance to punch all these elites in the face, given his track record of running from really hard work like the marriages many of us sustain day in and day out through courage and grit, what do you think he will do? Stick it to Ryan? Smack around the Mexicans? Arm wrestle with Putin? Trump may, if elected, be called a gutless turd one day too.
I offer this trip down memory lane to suggest that what we are being asked to choose between in November can be thought of as archetypes we can make more sense of. Let’s face it, in many ways, high school never really ends. Those with gifts and privilege endlessly and exponentially leverage them into a more nimble ability to choose which humanity they recognize when politically and economically convenient. Those who position themselves as criminal rebels rarely become revolutionaries that give the oppressed what they want and need. It’s just too much damn work. But deliverance, alas, will likely escape us this cycle whatever the outcome. As we will return most likely to another choice between lame and lamer in four years, maybe at the polls we should greet each other with Bender’s last line: “See you next Saturday.”
Editor's Note: Chris Dahlie is a member of the editorial board.