Even during the crisis of Watergate, we said ‘the system worked,’ but voters are telling us that’s no longer true. Now, anything could happen.
WHEN Richard Nixon was forced from office in 1974, a round of self-congratulation broke out.“The system worked!” we told ourselves.
A determined press following leads to the inner sanctums of the White House, a federal judge forcing revelations, a Congress relentlessly probing who knew what, and—ultimately—a political party informing its own president that it was time for him to go.
Now, with the 2016 election over, any whiff of the-system-works self-congratulation would be self-delusion. The blunt fact is that many of the guardrails that were supposed to protect the world’s oldest functioning democracy have been shown to be perilously weak, as vulnerable to assault as the Maginot Line was in the face of the German army some 75 years ago. And as we move from the terrain of campaign to governance, there is no sound reason for optimism that those guardrails can be reconstructed anytime soon.
By one measure, this may sound like hyperventilating. After all, Donald Trump won the presidency by the narrowest of measures. Four states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—were decided by one percent of the vote or less. Had Clinton won Florida and one of these other states, she’d be planning her transition. That small gap has less to do with Trump turning out those “missing white men” than with Clinton failing to entice her voters to the polls. Turnout this election was below not just 2012 and 2008, but 2004—and that’s with 47 million more voters on the rolls today. (It also suggests that what the polls got wrong was not that they missed “hidden” Trump voters, but that they counted too many “likely voters” who decided to stay home.)
That view, however, fails to capture just how convulsive the shock waves were this whole campaign season. First, voters by the millions decided to jettison once inviolate standards for choosing a leader for a major political party. For more than 150 years, Americans have chosen between two; both with the capacity to absorb insurgent movements and fold them into broad coalitions, while rejecting the extremes. Democrats under Woodrow Wilson and FDR embraced many of the goals of the left, but not the more radical notions of a Huey Long. Republicans became an ardently conservative party half a century ago when Goldwater became their nominee, but they effectively read the John Birch Society out of their ranks.
The voters by and large went along with these establishment-directed rules, just as they did during and after Watergate. They observed the guardrails.
This year, a substantial portion of the Republican Party, at least, crashed through them. By “normal” standards—character, temperament, experience, knowledge—Donald Trump was the most manifestly unfit candidate for the White House in our history. None of the fervent objections from Republican voices—not the warnings of conservative national security veterans that Trump s a “clear and present danger,” not the refusal of four of the past five GOP presidential nominees to back Trump, not the rejection of Trump by newspapers across America that had not backed a Democrat in decades—if ever—had any impact on the party’s voters.
And that is part of what bodes ill for the path ahead. Once they’re freed, how are you going to keep voters down on the farm? If a candidate’s “qualifications” are utterly disconnected from the realm of civic involvement, and can come from pure performance; if boasts of thuggish behavior are no longer considered disqualifying, but rather a measure of a refreshing freedom from “political correctness,” then what remains as a line that would-be leaders cannot cross?
After the election of Trump, what remains as a line that would-be leaders cannot cross?
We may soon find out, and it could be very ugly for America, both at home and around the world.
Why wasn’t Trump stopped? In part, it’s because the Republican Party had already embraced behavior that would once have been unthinkable. Ofcourse you can’t really threaten not to raise the debt ceiling; that would risk something close to a global financial meltdown. (Of course you can’t use the filibuster on almost every key piece of legislation to turn majority rule into a supermajority). With so many “unthinkable” positions turned into an agenda, choosing a nominee—and a president—without traditional credentials was just another step down a road already taken.
There is, however, more to the story. Trump was immune to the hits that would have doomed any other candidate, in large part, because his ardent supporters hear any negative assertions as coming from a corrupt, incompetent, mendacious establishment that has ignored and/or betrayed them. In a way, they see Trump as their version of a classic Hollywood populist hero—courageous enough (and rich enough) to reject the demands of an arrogant power elite, blunt enough to say exactly what he means about immigrants, refugees, the media, “speaking truth to power” (as the left says), but in a language never before heard on the presidential stage.
And this goes back to the voters and their profound mistrust of anything that smacks of Washington insiderism, whether on Capitol Hill or in the media. But when it comes to governance, that mistrust can be toxic. If, for example official sources tell us the climate is getting hotter, what would it mean if the chief executive is in the habit of dismissing any evidence that contradicts his own beliefs (or prejudices). If a leader has gained office by telling his followers (falsely) that crime is at an all-time high, what policies might he pursue based on that premise, even if the facts say that crime has been on a decades-long decline? Past presidents may have been under illusions—about what military force can accomplish, or how poverty can be cured—but we have never had a president so willing to cast aside uncontroverted evidence that displeases him. After all, that “evidence” is produced by the despised, distrusted “insiders.”
For its part, the Democratic Party bears its full share of the blame. Its wholesale embrace of identity politics, its apparent indifference to what has happened to the working class that was at the core of its base from the days of Andrew Jackson, its willingness to nominate the symbol of “more of the same” in a political climate where “change” was the driving force, has left it—and the country—in the hands of Donald Trump. Clinton’s vulnerability as a candidate were on full display before she even entered the race.
What we are left with, then, is a dynamic that suggests skepticism—if not worse—about the calls to “reach across the aisle” and “find common ground.” Voters who rallied around Trump’s frontal assault on “the establishment” embraced the idea—pushed for years by voices like Sean Hannity, Ruch Limbaugh and Andrew Breitbart—that compromise is a sure sign of betrayal. They see in Trump the leader who will work his will not by consorting with the enemy—for they indeed see political opponent as enemies—but by conquering him.
That is why he won the highest office in the land. Why should we expect anything different once he enters that office? There are, after all, no guardrails.