Today the United States is riven by two kinds of political divide. In addition to the familiar left-right kind, with Bernie Sanders at one end and Ted Cruz at the other, there's a divide between people who live for politics and people who are sick of politics. Civic as opposed to ideological polarization, call it. On both axes, the moderate middle has been hollowed out.My one caveat is the degree of certainty about whether Trump would be a bad president. The most unlikely candidates can turn out well and some of the most promising can turn out disastrously.
Liberals and conservatives who make a living from politics, or love it as an end in itself, pronounce tirelessly on liberty and social justice and the deep constitutional principles at stake in federal bathroom policy. The rest of the country doesn't care about this permanent war of ideas and worries more about holes in the road, what's going on in the schools, depleted retirement savings, and the latest hike in health-insurance deductibles.
The two divides are linked. Ideological polarization has shut Washington down, separating it from the concerns of many if not most citizens and rendering it useless in their eyes. That's driven new extremes of civic polarization, with the politically engaged talking exclusively to and past each other, leaving the disenchanted to seethe in silence about their smaller concerns. The result is Trump.
I could never vote for the man. He isn't a would-be dictator, and even if he were, the Constitution would stop him. But he has some unusually bad ideas, and in foreign policy, he'd have more freedom of action. He seems totally uninformed, intellectually unanchored, and completely unpredictable. Who knows what he might do or try to? It's a frightening prospect. The view that you can safely vote for Trump because things really couldn't be any worse is just wrong. He's the man to prove they could be.
Believing otherwise, however, doesn't make his supporters idiots or racists. As to whether politics as usual has failed the country and something needs to change, I'd definitely start paying attention to those people. On that important point, they're absolutely right.
I anticipated that Obama, having a virtually blank track record of accomplishment of anything other than getting elected, would perform poorly overall as a president but took solace in the thought that he would deliver on elements of his platform that I valued such as more transparency in government, reduced subservience to lobbyists, stopping the revolving door between government and business/advocacy groups, more collaborative treatment of allies, more focus on the improvement of the functions of government, setting aside the harmful rhetoric of racial divisiveness, etc. Solace betrayed.
And we don't have to go that far back in history to see the reverse example where low expectations were exceeded. Harry S. Truman was widely mocked and reviled in his time. Former farmer, failed haberdasher, machine politician and compromise VP candidate, he was largely unknown on the national stage, completely overshadowed by FDR. There were few reasons to expect much from him as president. He was so isolated from the inner circles that he was unaware of the atomic bomb until immediately after FDR's death and just before he had to make the decision to use the two weapons on Japan.
Expectations were low and his performance was much criticized at the time. However, with passing decades and subsidence of political passions, Truman is now viewed much more highly as both an ethical man and as an effective president in times of massive change, uncertainty and challenge. The integration, under his watch, of the armed forces, set the stage for later civil rights legislation in the sixties. The Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine (containment of communism over confrontation), creation of NATO and the UN, recognition of the new state of Israel, the Berlin airlift all occurred in his presidency. Truman dismissed the immensely popular General MacArthur at the height of the Korean War, reinforcing the fundamental doctrine of civilian control of the military. Politically unpopular at the time, it caused Truman immense trouble but is now seen as having been absolutely critical.
The upshot is that people are unpredictable. Some dramatically exceed expectations and some dramatically fail. And no one has a reliable mechanism for predicting either outcome. Trump looks like a bombastic opportunist of dubious integrity and validity. Members of the political establishment and the self-anointed better classes recoil in revulsion at his crudity. Fair enough. But their revulsion does not mean he will fail and indeed, their revulsion is some element of his popularity.
The political and business establishment that has brought us to our current pass of governmental ineffectiveness, intrusiveness, corruption, debt, operational incapacity, financial precariousness, etc. has shown the instincts and judgment that should be rejected. The more they flail at Trump, the more of an endorsement that seems to the ninety percent of the patient electorate who have been waiting for the establishment to reform itself.
Perhaps Trump will surprise in a positive way. He is concerning but the post-war track record gives us no confidence in our capacity to forecast who will be and who will not be an effective president.