THE WEEK - This scene from The Princess Bride sums up the 2016 presidential election

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 15:34
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THE WEEK - This scene from The Princess Bride sums up the 2016 presidential election
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BY Edward Morrissey

The 2016 presidential cycle has come down to the two least liked candidates in both major parties. Voters have to choose between two people who would lose to almost any other nominee, except the one they're facing this November. How do they choose between worst and worster?

Every presidential election cycle has its unique quirks, its own controversies, and its own identity. Each cycle has different personalities, the country faces different issues, and especially over the last few decades, the rapid development of media technology allows the electorate itself to color the picture. No matter which year it involved, each election is the most important election in your lifetimes and the very fate of the Republic hinges on your choice.

We've always had to make this choice, at least in the abstract. In 2016, that dilemma has become much more concrete. On one hand, we have an undisciplined, amateurish, self-centered boor; on the other, a corrupt and incompetent autocrat who used her access to power at the State Department to line her family's pockets with tens of millions of dollars.

This dilemma resembles the battle of the wits between Vizzini and Westley in The Princess Bride. For those who have not seen the classic film (Inconceivable!), Vizzini captures Westley's true love Buttercup, and Westley must best the Sicilian in a battle of wits — to the death. Westley, in disguise as The Man in Black, places two goblets of wine on the table, and informs Vizzini that one contains deadly "iocane powder." Westley says, "The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead."

The scene has become a classic and hilarious example of rationalizations, bluffs, and bad options. One can imagine Vizzini marching through the same arguments when faced with the need to choose between 2016's presidential goblets.

"The candidate in front of you has played a fool," Vizzini declares, "and only a great fool would choose to partake of foolishness. So I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of you."

"You've made your decision, then?" Westley replies.

"Not hardly," Vizzini retorts. "Deadly choices come from corruption, and the other candidate corrupted her office of public trust, enriching herself and her family. She also started an air war in North Africa that allowed pirates and terrorists unfettered access to the Mediterranean," Vizzini would add, "which is one of the classic blunders, as you know. One cannot trust such a candidate, as I do not trust you, so I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of me."

"There are a couple of Dixie cups on the side," Westley points out.

"There isn't any wine in them."

"True enough," Westley admits. "But you're just stalling now."

"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?" Vizzini erupts. "One bested my Republican field, which means it's exceptionally strong (at least when it was bottled), and you may be relying on its strength to put the iocane in front of you. The other bested the Socialist, which means it's clever — and you may have been clever in putting the wine in front of me."

"Then you've made your choice?"

"Look — a soundbite!"

Westly turns, Vizzini switches the goblets, and proceeds to choose the one in front of him. After eyeing Westley closely while he first sips from the goblet, Vizzini downs his and crows with triumph. "You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool!" And at that point, as fans of the film remember, Vizzini drops dead.

Buttercup is amazed. "And to think all along it was your cup that was poisoned."

Westley shakes his head. "Both cups were poisoned," he explains, "and I didn't even need to add iocane powder, to which I've spent the primaries building up an immunity." But unlike in the film, Westley then also falls over dead, which leaves Buttercup in the lurch and the rest of us holding our popcorn, wondering what to do with the rest of our evening.

This isn't a perfect analogy. No Man In Black forced us to drink from these goblets. We placed them in front of ourselves. Both parties had other choices, and plenty of opportunities to change directions. The arguments for either goblet at this point rest largely on the assumption that the other would be more deadly, not that either of them are healthy. And that argument is likely correct, which calls for extraordinary discretion — as well as resignation that no matter which we drink, we're not going to feel good afterwards.

What comes next? We'll have to hope that America can spend the next four years building up a resistance to the draughts from which we drank.