There is plenty of reason to be concerned about the state of politics in the United States. Long before the arrival of Donald Trump, we’ve experienced a breakdown of civil discourse and functional government. There are many valid explanations for our current drift toward polarization and hyper-partisanship – the balkanization of information sources, the obscene and unchecked influence of money in politics, and a Congress that is virtually unaccountable due to shameless gerrymandering. In many respects, Donald Trump is the inevitable conclusion of a political system that has lost its way.
And yet there’s something particularly alarming about the behavior of our 45th president, not only because of the chaos he has sown during his first thirty days in office, but because of the lasting impact he could have on our politics for many years to come.
For the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of working to cultivate the next generation of political leaders across the country. I served two terms as president of the Young Democrats of America and have met countless young candidates and political activists who are inspired to make a positive difference in their communities and states.
However, up-and-coming leaders from both parties are closely watching this moment in history, and I’m worried about the lessons they are learning. I’m concerned about the type of candidate this new brand of politics will attract and, conversely, the good people who will flee altogether.
Throughout his rise to power, Trump has rarely appealed to our better angels. His rhetoric is defined by bullying, fear, and divisiveness. Whether it’s a midnight Twitter rant, a combative press conference, or a caustic debate performance, Trump has proven that the American electorate is willing to embrace, or at least overlook, his most acerbic tones. He rarely misses an opportunity to villainize his political opponents and yet hasn’t found time to repudiate the white supremacists and anti-Semites that have been galvanized by his presidency.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” In 2017, I’m afraid the lesson we’ve learned is that you campaign and govern in vitriol.
Perhaps even more alarming is Trump’s hostile relationship with the truth. Never has a president been so compelled to lie about things that can so easily be disproven – crowd sizes, electoral margins, and murder statistics. Politicians have always had a penchant for obfuscation; however, Trump seems unmoored from even the most basic facts.
In the past, voters were incensed by politicians using positions of power for personal financial gain. Numerous elected officials have fallen from grace or even spent time in jail for using their influence to line their own pockets. And yet, Trump has managed to evade even the most basic form of financial scrutiny, all the while eschewing ethics guidelines and important historic precedent for the office of the president.
In the end, Trump’s lasting legacy may extend well beyond any particular policy achievement, executive order, or judicial appointment. He is changing the rules of politics, cheapening our discourse, and paving the way for a new breed of politicians who could be convinced that bullying, lying, and self-aggrandizement is a formula for success.
If the only consequence of bad behavior is ascendancy to the highest office in the land, then I’m afraid we will see many more Donald Trumps. We can hope that the current president is an outlier in American history, or he could be writing a blueprint for how we conduct our politics for generations to come.