Our Founders created a unique system of republican democracy based upon a fear and disdain of absolute power in government being held by any single person, or even any branch of government. These were well-read and learned men who had studied the democracy of Greece, the republican form of government in Rome and its demise, and the rejection of the Divine Right of Kings and Queens which dominated European politics at the time.
Their biggest fear was the concentration of power in one person. Hours were spent coming up with an appropriate name for the chief executive of the country lest it scare supporters away by conjuring up images of nobility and (God forbid!) a king. Perhaps they were too idealistic in this regard, but this writer doubts it. At the time, there was a culture that respected a certain polity. The Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison are replete with words like “virtuous,” “merit,” “esteem” and “confidence of the whole Union” to describe the ideal leader they had in mind. Obviously, our first President, George Washington, fit those descriptions and perhaps it was he who they had in mind when they wrote these words.
To be sure, this country has seen ugly campaigns, dirty tricks, backroom shenanigans, and insult-throwing after George Washington left office. In the 1800 election, Alexander Hamilton warned against the election of Aaron Burr describing him thus: he “loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement.” Who does that sound like in 2016?
In short, personal restraint and a certain degree of humility were expected in a President, even if they really did not mean it. As late as 2007, even Barack Obama sounded these sentiments when he addressed the crowd with: “I know you didn’t come here just for me; you came here because you believe in what this country could be.”
Richard Nixon in 1969 said that Eisenhower exemplified the best in America and what every parent wishes their son to become- strong, courageous, honest, and compassionate. There is a long history of the polity despite the sometimes contentiousness evident in campaigns of the past. There have been aberrations such as the negative descriptions of Hamilton in newspapers, or accusations that Andrew Jackson participated in cannibalism. But these were usually oddities on the fringes.
Regardless, never before in US presidential campaigns has a presumptive nominee of a major party so taken these to an extreme as has Donald Trump. Of course, things are amplified today and available at the press of a finger rather than the written press of the 18th and 19th centuries. But that simply makes the matter that much worse. We can point the finger of blame at various individuals or institutions, but something has changed in the definition of acceptable behaviors we now expect from our want-to-be leaders.
Almost from the start of his campaign, Trump has violated the greatest aspirations of our Founders. He opened the salvo by saying that Mexico was sending rapists and killers across the border. He disparagingly referred to Carly Fiorina’s looks, Rand Paul’s hair and face and Marco Rubio’s height. He has also on at least two occasions referred to the size of his penis in the context of this campaign, once in a nationally televised debate.
Is this what our Founders had in mind? How often do we hear this from Trump supporters: “We support him because he speaks his mind” or “He only says what people are thinking and are afraid to say?” In exit poll after exit poll conducted in states with competitive GOP primaries, Trump dominated that segment of the Republican electorate who said “He speaks his mind” as the reason for voting for him. Yet in those same exit polls, people who said they voted for the candidate they did because “They share my values,” Trump performed miserably- often well below Cruz, Rubio, Bush and even Kasich. It was the raw emotion and guts of voters talking, not their brains. This is evident in the fact that if electability was the reason to choose a candidate, Trump never finished on top in those exit polls.
What is equally disturbing is the automaton-nature of Trump supporters. In one case where he probably did not lie or exaggerate on the campaign trail, Trump was correct that his supporters would probably still vote for him if he shot someone in Times Square. This is the mindset that has taken root in a segment of the Republican Party and it is scary that voters in a party can be so easily led by a narcissistic, know-nothing, lying demagogue like Trump.
The Democratic Party and the Left along with their allies in the media are using Trump as something indicative and representative of the Republican Party and conservatism- all his hateful, xenophobic, racist, misogynistic rhetoric is what the GOP and conservatism was about all the time; “He’s just saying what those conservatives really think.” For this, some of the blame has to be placed on the GOP itself and conservatism for allowing the opposition to define us. Some of it is political disunity and some is ineptitude. There is also a dose of incoherence at times driven by the lack of either a committed or articulate spokesman.
Trump weaseled his way through the cracks and these deficiencies. We have seen candidates this cycle infinitely more qualified with better temperament than Trump brutalized not only by Trump, but by each other or by pundits. Whether it was the rejection of political family dynasties, membership in the Gang of Eight, or blame for partial government shut downs, the level of finger pointing and evisceration of opponents increased as the level of civil discourse decreased.
The great policy debate after eight years of Democratic rule under Obama and drawing the distinctions between Democratic Party and Republican Party ideology, policy and solution to problems never materialized. Instead, it descended into controversy over the size of one’s hands and male genitals. This is hardly the intelligent and reasoned debate our Founders had in mind when they convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to “form a more perfect Union.”