Talking with people about the presidential race often elicits a deep disappointment about today’s politics. This is certainly the case with Clinton and Trump, but it was also true for Romney and Obama four years ago. A typical sentiment voiced is a longing for the presidents of old, such as Jefferson and Lincoln. Of course, in his time Jefferson was seen by many as an academic and hypocritical ideologue, whose handshake was so cold that anyone who grasped it was said to walk away a Federalist.
Lincoln was loathed by a majority of the country. His election, which he won with less than 40% of the vote and for which he was publicly burned in effigy around the country, initiated a four-year civil war. His re-election required throwing disagreeable journalists in prison, allowing only Republicans to vote in some Confederate states, and the new states of Nevada and West Virginia to be brought quickly into the Union for a handful of free electoral votes. After which he was murdered by Americans. This, probably the country’s best president.
These are the stories I tell people when they say there’s no good choice for president. Romney would have been a fine president, as Obama clearly is. They have their separate flaws, and they would have set different courses for the direction of the country. But the electorate was given a choice between two qualified individuals to manage the executive branch. It was a choice of direction, not competency or character.
That is not true this year.
The Republican National Convention was a four day infomercial for why the GOP is not ready to manage the country. The ridiculous episode of plagiarism isn’t the problem, but how poorly it was handled by Trump and his team after it happened: The cover up, the denial, and then the North Korean-style written apology to Mr. Trump by an previously unknown speechwriter the following day. The very public rebuke by Kasich and Cruz underscored that Trump’s immature and petulant personality will prevent him from uniting his party, let alone governing the country. Trump couldn’t even get through his own convention without stating that he would break America’s promise to defend other NATO countries, inducing an immediate rebuttal from Mitch McConnell and led George W. Bush to openly wonder if he’ll be the last Republican president.
This year’s RNC was so fundamentally different in ideology from any since the Progressive Era that it was a surreal thing to watch. Gone is the idea that government needs to get out of the way and that individuals can take care of themselves. Enter the era of Big Trump, where all of your problems, real or perceived, will be solved by a new and stronger Federal Government, led by the only man that can distill your prejudices into policy cloaked in the slogans of false patriotism.
One can and should take issue with Hillary Clinton’s record. Her decision to support the Iraq war, her insistence on the invasion of Libya, and her imprudence in taking large checks from financial institutions before running for president, just to name a few. But she has a record of public service to criticize. She is “the man [sic] in the arena.” And only the most recalcitrant of Republicans would argue that Secretary Clinton has not had a successful career in public life, or that she lacks the temperament to be president.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison argues that the structure of the new constitution will naturally bring about political factions. Madison was speaking mainly of regional factions, rather than today’s ideological ones, but his basic thesis was that these factions would function to produce a majority voice. I doubt he imagined that factions would become so institutionalized that a minority of a party could control the whole.
Party identity is not just influenced by politics, but individual identity. Many Republicans will vote for Trump because he is a Republican, even though they think he is unfit to be president. That is their team, either because of personal history or ancestry. The fact that Trump holds few traditional Republican beliefs is simply unfortunate. It’s the same reason I root for Alex Rodriguez because I’m a Yankees fan, despite the fact that his career is a monument to dishonesty, ego, and greed.
But this is not baseball.