This year’s presidential campaign has tossed historical precedents and conventional standards out the window. To predict anything about the outcome of the election seems futile. Our situation, however, provides an opportunity to reflect and ask: “In a country of 320 million, how did the choice come down to these two?”
In an essay titled “Donald Trump and the American Crisis,” political scientist John Marini argues: “Since the end of the Cold War, American leaders have understood their offices in terms of global and administrative rule, rather than political rule on behalf of the American people.” By “administrative rule,” Marini means governance by bureaucrats and judges rather than by laws passed by legislators (and approved by a president) responsible to the voters.
What do the results of such a shift in government show? Two-thirds of Americans believe their current leaders are doing more harm than good, taking the country in the wrong direction. Dissatisfaction and disillusionment are rampant: many have argued that establishment politicians have eroded voters’ trust over several decades to a point where they are close to rejecting our current political system.
In no other year has a candidate like Trump ⎯who actually touts his limited policy knowledge ⎯gotten this far in a presidential race. Consider, for instance, Trump’s remarkable looseness with language: his cursing and lewd references are un-presidential and yet excite his supporters nonetheless. It’s as if all Trump needs to say is: “I am the change” for Americans to flock to his support.
This heightened sense of political alienation is especially powerful in the current climate of cultural disarray. Indeed, another political scientist, Angelo M. Codevilla, has written in “After the Republic,” a recent Claremont Review of Books essay: “We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult [to the American people], brought it about.”
Whatever we may think of either Trump or Clinton, it’s clear that our country faces a crisis of morale. TV screens show scenes of mass shootings and riots. Drug overdoses plague rural communities. Illegitimacy rates remain alarmingly high. Government bureaucracies reek of corruption and influence peddling. More businesses perish every year than are started. Politics remain as polarized as ever.
It’s worth reflecting that these challenges are not unique to the United States. We see similar turmoil in other Western countries. The European Union faces an identity crisis, with the Brexit vote, among other things, posing questions about its stability. World leaders debate how to respond to, and prevent, the continued proliferation of horrifying terror attacks.
Many of these are problems that no one leader can fix ⎯or be considered responsible for. A leader can, however, set the tone for change.
During the growing world crisis of the 1930s, there were outstanding leaders available to respond: Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and de Gaulle. In the 1980s, similarly, Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II dealt with problems including what turned out to be the final stages of the Cold War. Well into the 21st century, we still await anyone who looks this large. Mao Zedong⎯who at least got this right⎯once remarked: “The fish begins to rot at the head.”
Whoever wins the presidency in November must accomplish a substantial healing of the public mood and a considerable restoration of trust in our government. The stakes could not be higher.