The political history of the United States hasn’t always been pretty. But at its best, it has been the principled clashes of ideas and moments of national introspection when we had to ask whether we were living up to the ideals of our Founders.
Unfortunately, the 2016 campaign isn’t like that. It is likely to be remembered as a moment when the American people became so tired of politics as usual that they mistook unabashed boorishness for refreshing candor.
Some of us who have been around awhile find it difficult to watch Donald Trump without a flashback to the late 1950s. Back in those days, kids with televisions watched Tom Terrific, a cartoon character who opened each episode with this song:
I’m Tom Terrific, the greatest hero ever. Terrific is the name for me ‘cause I’m so clever. I can be what I want to be and if you’d like to see, follow, follow me.
The episode unfolding in this year’s presidential campaign is not a cartoon, of course. It’s the real thing with real contrasts and consequences. On the one hand, we have a one-percenter who claims to be a champion of the 99% and a towering ego who seems to know little of what a president must know but thinks that a person doesn’t need to when he has a “very good brain”and a “very good instinct for this stuff”
On the other hand, we have a candidate who is more qualified than any in memory, perhaps any in history, and who has climbed the ladder of leadership rung by difficult rung. But she has not shown herself to be a revolutionary and, ironically, she has arrived at the top just as many Americans seem so sick of the political system that they don’t care about experience; they are willing to send an apprentice to the White House.
I am a political independent who leads a bipartisan project. But while I should not favor one candidate over another, I can comment on the quality of the campaign and what it may tell us about ourselves.
For example, Mr. Trump’s negativity may be appealing because it confirms what many Americans fear: The United States will soon cease to be a country dominated by people of Western European heritage. We are rapidly becoming a nation whose majority speaks different languages and is of different colors, cultures and creeds. The America of the past 200 years will not be the same; the minorities will become the majority. We’re all for the melting pot, so long as we’re the main ingredient. The predictable response is to want to turn the United States into a gated community.
We used to be a nation in charge of its own destiny, but the world has shifted. It is no longer many sovereign nations; it is a globalized conglomerate where one nation’s economic failure becomes everyone’s economic trauma; one nation’s disease outbreak can quickly become a global pandemic; every nation’s pollution affects the health and future of every other nation; we all, for good or evil, have the power to project our propaganda instantly and universally to people old enough to know better and people who are not; regional wars metastasize into global refugee crises; we are virtually helpless against radicals who believe that terrorism is a sacrament; and any one of several foreign leaders can push buttons that effectively end civilization. The predictable response is to try to turn back time with nationalism, protectionism and exceptionalism. But we can’t. The old order is gone. We are no longer the independent self-determining nation we spilled blood to become more than two centuries ago. To a greater degree than we want to accept, we are subject to forces we cannot control.
It would be comforting to find a Tom Terrific to save us from these changes. But we have seen before what can happen when a people feels so frightened that they turn their destinies over to despots. We know from history how easy it is to allow democracy to degenerate into demagoguery.
The thing is, we have always had the power of our votes to kick out the politicians who put their rigid ideologies ahead of the national interest, who have sold their souls to special interests, who have succumbed to the glamor of power, or who have rigged the game in favor of some Americans over others.
We cannot control many things anymore, but we can control who has the power to protect us and the humility to mobilize us all when we all must act together. What we cannot do this November is to delegate our destiny to any self-professed superhero. Superheroes exist only in cartoons, comic books, and Hollywood.
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There is one more thing to be aware of this year. Someone’s dominance in the media does not signify his or her dominance in character, intellect, wisdom or morality. A contest is underway between a formidable policy wonk whose detailed plans for the nation are not very entertaining, and a showman who knows how to grab media attention.
Unfortunately, much of our media are under the spell of the showman. Mr. Trump has a simple formula for dominating the media day after day: He creates the kind of soap opera the press corps cannot resist, like moths to a flame.
The New York Times reported that through February, Trump spent $10 million on campaign ads while the Clinton campaign spent nearly three times that amount. It was not because the Clinton team was better at fundraising, or because Mr. Trump spent his own money. It was because Mr. Trump did not have buy what he was getting for free. At that point in the campaign, Mr. Trump had received nearly $2 billion worth of free media while Secretary Clinton received $746 million.
Last December even before the primary elections began, Mr. Trump reportedly was getting 23 times more air time than Bernie Sanders. The Nation printed a column by John Nichols that deserves repeating now that the general election is underway:
- All Trump all the time media coverage let’s Trumped define the discussion. It denies voters a broader, better discourse…
- Network news coverage of Trump has been so overwhelming for so long that there are folks who argue that media outlets should simply press pause and dial down their coverage of Trump. That never works, and it shouldn’t…The key is not to neglect Trump, but rather to provide more and better coverage of the whole of the 2016 campaign...
- Even when Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is covered (and it is important to note that she is now getting a lot less coverage than Trump), the coverage is increasingly focused on her responses to the billionaire’s obnoxious and irresponsible statements. When the Democratic front-runner calls out the Republican front-runner’s crude scheming to bar Muslims from the United States, that’s a story, to be sure. But it should also be a story when Clinton proposes a National Infrastructure Bank and a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s transportation system…
Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that he will soon start acting more presidential. Better yet, he should show that he’s qualified to be president. It hasn’t happened yet, and he’s running out of time.