In the movie “Game Change” there is a scene in which John McCain’s campaign consultants urge him to run ads that feature controversial black pastor Rev. Wright, who was Obama’s pastor. McCain explains that there is a dark side to American populism that some candidates are willing to tap into to win election, but that he is not one of those politicians. This is a movie, to be sure, but apparently something very like that conversation did happen in the McCain camp and they never ran ads featuring Rev. Wright.
In 2009, the Tea Party had a rally at the U.S. Capitol. I went down there to see what it was about. Mostly, I found the people and the proceedings goofy, but after about twenty minutes of milling about, my friend who accompanied me said, “We need to get out of here. They are making me feel very uncomfortable.” My friend is black. I realized that people were looking at him differently from the way they were looking at me. What had seemed goofy to me was dark and ominous to him. That memory came back watching a Trump supporter cold cock a protester at a Trump rally last week. Trump’s subsequent musings that he might pay the legal expenses of the assailant tells you all you need to know about Trump’s willingness to encourage the violence at his own rallies.
Donald Trump’s appeal is not, I believe, premised on the intricacies of his tax plans. On any given policy, the man has said starkly contradictory things, except on immigration where his commitment to building a wall has been consistent and loud. What is his appeal? People who feel insecure about their place in society are his base. Some of that insecurity is based on hard and ugly truths, such as the declining economic prospects of the working class. Some of it is based on racism, people who do not like having a black president, or who do not like it when Latinos move into the neighborhood. Some of it is based on the perception that white working class voters are nobody’s concern, that campaigns are all about gay rights or abortion rights or more affordable college or prejudicial actions by the police, or other issues that do not impact on white blue collar workers. Trump taps into that insecurity, and instead of looking for policies that will make their lives more secure, he galvanized the insecurity into anger and gives it a voice. When he promises to make America great again, he is speaking to people whose lives aren’t great anymore. But, instead of solutions he offers resentment and, even when he confronts a truly important issue, like the ill effects of globalization on workers with low skills, he turns it into an opportunity to bash other nations, with no program for resolving the challenges globalization poses.
Trump’s appeal is pure emotion. The fact that his performance on the stump displays what one can only conclude is a deeply narcissistic personality seems not to bother his fans. Like all bullies, he is also a big cry baby. During an interview Friday night on CNN, after his campaign rally in Chicago had been canceled, Trump complained to Don Lemon that CNN was showing film that was two hours old, it wasn’t live, that the crowd had long since dispersed but CNN kept replaying the scenes of shoving and punching from earlier. He said the coverage was unfair, a charge we have heard before. I was hoping Lemon would say, “Grow up!”
So much about this election season is novel and disturbing and weird. Each day seems to bring something new and not a week goes by that we are not forced to witness something that makes one fear for the state of the country. But, there is one constant this year that is especially worrisome: The entire campaign is being driven not by policy but by personality.
This is true on the Democratic side too. Yesterday, Politico ran a story about Hillary Clinton’s liabilities as a candidate. The article cited three basic problems for Clinton: She is not viewed as trustworthy; she is considered a creature of the establishment in an anti-establishment year; and she represents the past not the future. The three items blend in together in certain ways, but the core issue is the perception that Clinton is not trustworthy.
When I was on holiday recently, we visited with long-time friends who are rock-ribbed Republicans. They, too, said that Clinton could not be trusted. I asked what they meant by that and they said that they thought she would do or say anything that would further her career. Okay, I replied, but why is that a problem? Would she do anything that would risk having a failed presidency? Do you think this sense of political calculation would lead to recklessness? At one point does a willingness to follow public opinion become a problem in a democracy which is, after all, premised on the sovereignty of popular opinion? To be clear: I do not find Mrs. Clinton a particularly trustworthy type either, and I would not want her marrying into my family, but I think the fact that she shifts in the wind does not exactly distinguish her from other politicians, except perhaps by degree.
I fear that even on the Democratic side, people confuse passion with trust. It is true that Sen. Sanders delivers a more passionate stump speech but I am not sure I trust his prejudices (“every other country in the world does it!”) than I do Clinton’s. Yes, she says some cringe-worthy things as she tries to appear consistent when confronted with a flip-flop. Yes, she is unimaginative in answering basic, human questions such as “Have you ever lied?” She said, “No” to the interviewer when she should have said, “Well, I have told lots of white lies, for example, when you and the camera crew arrived a few moments ago and I said how happy I was to see you.” Her best moments have come when she admits her own limitations, when she admits she is not a natural politician like her husband or President Obama, but such moments are few and far between. And, this campaign, like her 2008 campaign, seems to have been assembled from amongst not only the acolytes but the adulators, a trait that would serve her poorly in the White House.
I suppose it was inevitable that in a country where television rules the media, where we are trained as consumers first and citizens second, and in a culture that is obsessed with celebrity, our political choices would become framed not by issues but by personalities. Gone are the days when either party actually fought over what would be in the party’s platform. And, I do not see how we free ourselves from this type of politics. It is true that our Constitution stipulates that we, the people, elect a person not a platform, but when our campaigns are no longer about ideas but are driven by our perceptions of a candidate’s personality, we invite a vacuity into our political life, and worse than vacuity. That’s the thing about democracy. It is only a good as we want to make it.