The presidential campaign just concluded as a world-stage tragicomedy that wasn’t even about politics. It was a sociological phenomenon, a reflection of a society that is feeding itself into a shredding machine of its own making, and now can’t find the “off” button.
Decency has gone missing.
Lots of things might have precluded Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House: almost anyone else as a Democratic nominee; a democratic process instead of the Electoral College; responsible and effective news media; a different way to finance campaigns. Perhaps the most upsetting thing, however, is that Trump should never have been considered anything but the boorish, bigoted, narcissistic, tasteless tramp that he is. This is not a political question, but a question of taste and discretion, and America has been found woefully lacking in both.
It is decency, in a word, that has gone missing from the national psyche.
The worst of Trump’s deplorables were looking for a Benito Mussolini. If we’re lucky, what they found was a Silvio Berlusconi. Remember him? Media tycoon thrice elected prime minister, finally resigning in 2011 amid criminal charges and scandals including “friendship” with a 17-year-old prostitute? That guy. That guy is the one the other, less deplorable Trump voters wanted. In other words, they wanted a clown, a distraction, a face for their own most base lusts.
You have to go back to 1972 to find a semi-serious candidate who could rival Trump for racism and outright crassness. To find anyone of that ilk getting into the White House, you have to go to the 1865 accident of Andrew Johnson or the 1828 campaign of Andrew Jackson. A slaveholder responsible for mass murders of Native Americans, Jackson was a Trump-style, unrefined populist who also loved to stick it in the establishment’s eye.
The nation survived the putative founder of the Democratic Party, but we are much the worse nation for it, morally stained by his perpetration of the Trail of Tears and weakened, even in years of robust growth, by declining public ethics and the lack of a central bank. Probably, the nation will survive Trump, but he can cause a lot of devastation before he leaves.
It was not, strictly speaking, a repair of the system that helped us to recover from the damage of Old Hickory. It was the collapse of the Whig Party and the rise of the Republicans, who, ironically, carried through Jackson’s intention to preserve the Union. Now we have two parties on the verge of implosion. What kind of system is it, after all, that produces the two least popular major political figures in the nation as the nominees?
While the election itself reflects deep social problems, the issues within the parties are purely political, and if they were adequately addressed, the country would have a better choice between or among nominees. So how does one fix such a system? The question is a stumper when you consider this: you can sustain the argument that the Democrats had too little democracy in their nominating process, and the Republicans had too much.
The temptation is strong to look to third parties. Impediments to their success, however, have proven insuperable, always. The American political system was designed by people, some of whom, like George Washington, detested the whole idea of parties, but who certainly didn’t envisage the healthy existence of more than two.
It looks, therefore, as though the two major parties will remain in place, but will change more rapidly and radically than usual. The race for the national chairmanship of the Democratic Party between Howard Dean, now an establishment figure, and Keith Ellison, the Muslim congressman backed by Bernie Sanders, will be telling. It’s problematic, because Dean represents a status quo choice, and Ellison has a background with the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan.
On the Republican side, it’s Donald Trump’s party for now. Most Republicans in Congress would rather it be Mike Pence’s party, and they are in a position to make it so. But they are running out of time, having lost the popular vote in the presidential election to a fatally weak Democratic nominee, and facing demographic changes that will overcome their increasingly old, white, right-wing, and Southern party.
So the politics may fix itself, sort of. What of the underlying problem, the cultural meltdown that seems to have destroyed all sense of public decency? Almost half the people who voted, after all, voted for the poster child for public indecency – an advocate of torture, a misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic spokesman for ethnic hatred.
There is no easy answer, and certainly not a quick one, for that. Politics is important, but it is chiefly a symptom, not a herald, of our values. A nation is more than a political unit, and certainly more than can be defined by geography. This one is split and fraying. Heaven knows we need genuine leadership, not a boss.
One of the usual complaints from progressives is that there doesn’t seem to be a next leader. Sanders has more than hinted that he’s thinking about a presidential run in 2020. He’ll be 78 years old, and there has to be someone else from the Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party who will take up the challenge. Look for Ron Wyden, senator from Oregon, at your state’s next annual Democratic Party dinner. He’ll be talking about the issue of privacy and his feud with the National Security Agency. There will be others. There will be a healthy primary battle, and perhaps the Trump era will prove a brief historical aberration.