Can We Return to the Battle of Ideas Instead of the Past?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

I would first of all like to apologize. This is definitely another “Where are we going from here?” column, and while I wish we could step away from that and talk about actual political events as they happen, I feel as though we are trapped in the recent past.

On September 8, 1974, Gerald Ford granted Richard Nixon a full pardon following the events of the Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation. Most historians tend to agree that this was one of the pivotal events that led to Ford losing his re-election bid to Jimmy Carter, but evidence suggests Ford pardoned Nixon not out of some sense of party loyalty or as part of some previously-struck deal that allowed Ford to ascend to the presidency in the first place, but because he felt it was time for America to move on from that moment.

Moving on, however, is not something we do well. Ford was right in that the business of America had to continue and couldn’t do so without removing the distraction that was Nixon, but the American people were very upset. Ford lost to Carter and America moved on.

If anything could be considered a drawback of the democratic process, the emotional state of mankind would probably be it. We are focused oftentimes on how we feel about things rather than how those things actually affect us. One of the loudest complaints about the Donald Trump presidency was the unprofessional character of the man, his behavior, and his treatment of others. There were more serious complaints, but how his words and policies made people feel were the ones that received the largest outcry.

In truth, there was very little that Trump did that affected our day-to-day lives, and there were good things that came from his time in office. I have argued in the past that there were three Trumps: Trump the Twitter account, Trump the President, and Trump the Administration. It was Trump the Administration that many Americans believed in because the administration did do some really good things. Trump the Twitter account was the distraction, while Trump the President was somewhere in between.

But we frequently fell into the trap of focusing on the very loud Trump, the one who insulted media, Democrats, and Republicans alike, who maintained the election was stolen despite losing case after case, etc. We are still falling into that trap as he releases statements attacking Georgia governor Brian Kemp, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans. We still fall into that trap as we give him prime space on CPAC’s stage where he is expected to declare himself the “presumptive 2024 nominee” in the Republican primary.

But Trump’s primary objective in 2024 is payback, not politics. He is attacking Republicans as well as Democrats (and, in fact, his statements have trashed more Republicans than Democrats), and it’s clear that he wants to gather his loyalists and burn the rest of the party down. In the short term, it seems like a great way to get back at the party led by people who are trying to move beyond him. In the long term, it leaves conservatives with few avenues to challenge the Democrats in the future.

Trump is not the only one with a cult of personality keeping him afloat, however. The “Trump phenomenon” started as a media creation meant to make who they considered the weakest 2016 candidate the nominee. Then, he turned around and beat Hillary Clinton, a woman wholly unprepared for the job of President of the United States, and whose personality and character — not her gender! — drove voters to Trump. Before her, the media was obsessed with Barack Obama and did everything they could to insulate him from Republican attacks. They amplified racist rhetoric and applied it to all Republican critiques, while given virtually no challenge to some of his executive abuses and lack of experience prior to being President.

The cult of personality is not new in politics (charisma put plenty of dictators into power all throughout history, for example), but it is finding popularity in American culture again. Prior to Obama, American voters reacted more in response to parties and ideas than individuals. Voters were tired of hearing about Clinton and his scandals, and part of that gave George W. Bush his win in 2000. Clinton was a direct response to George H.W. Bush promising no new taxes and then raising taxes (that and assuming people originally voted for him and not a third term of Ronald Reagan).

Reagan was a direct response to the utter collapse of Jimmy Carter’s authority and credibility. Carter was a response to the pardoning of Nixon. We have flipped parties as one party irritated us and the other offered ideas that could fix what the party in power broke (whether they actually broke something or not is hotly debated on both sides).

2020, more than being a stolen election or a fraudulent outcome, is all about Trump the person exhausting the people of the United States with his antics. Part of that is the fault of Trump himself and part is the fault of excessive media coverage of it. Regardless of where the fault will ultimately lay, the fact is that the American people rejected the cult of personality and went with what they were hoping to see change: the economic collapse and the fight against a pandemic. Biden promised to solve both problems while Trump didn’t really have a plan for either.

It should signal to politicians that the majority of Americans want to return to ideas and issues rather than figureheads, but it seems Republicans are learning the opposite lesson. They are positioning themselves as inheritors of Trump’s legacy, base, and (in some cases) personality. Rather, Republicans have to move ahead on the issues, pointing out the dangers of what Joe Biden’s administration is doing. Some are trying, but it’s being drowned out by the constant elevation of Trump. That is hurting the Republicans’ messaging, and they need to break through somehow if they want to win.

We constantly talk about the “middle” — that large percentage of voters who are not very far on either side of the aisle. They are the ones who constantly need to be talked to and swayed. Trump represents the far-right base, and Biden is being held captive by those seeking to appease the far-left base. There is no one trying very hard to win the middle. There is ample opportunity for the Republicans to do that, but they have to move past 2020. If that means moving past Trump, who is making moves solely to burn down everyone against him (no matter what party), then they will continue to fail in reaching the middle as they did four years ago.