Even if he loses today, Donald Trump already has vandalized American democracy. That someone so plainly unfit for public office could come anywhere close to winning the highest one in the land shows that our experiment in self-government has veered badly off course.
Forget about ideology or party for a moment. There’s a lot more at stake than whether our county moves left or right, or which tribe of partisans wins the election, or who gets to make the next Supreme Court pick. America’s success ultimately depends on effective governance – our collective ability to solve common problems and adapt to change – which in turn depends on the moral qualities and character of the people we choose to govern us.
As a Virginian reared on Jeffersonian tenets, I’ve always shared his faith that the people are a safer repository of our liberties than monarchs, aristocrats or technocrats. That nearly half of U.S. voters seem willing to put a shameless demagogue like Trump in the White House, however, suggests that “we the people” are losing the ability to recognize and pick good leaders.
Apart from some holier-than-thou lefties who want to kick Jefferson himself out of the national pantheon, Americans don’t expect their political leaders to be plaster saints. But we do expect them to possess some basic traits that are essential to making our democracy work: thoughtfulness, pragmatism, empathy, an even temper, sound judgment and simple human decency.
Trump fails on every count. A textbook sociopath, he cares nothing for others and views the world solely through the prism of his wants and insatiable need for attention. He constantly makes things up and keeps lying even he’s been found out and corrected. He insults and taunts, playground style, anyone who criticizes or disagrees with him. His towering self-regard is matched only by his ignorance of the issues he’d have to deal with as president. And far from surrounding himself with the “best people,” as he’s promised, Trump takes counsel from a motley entourage of toadies, conspiracy theorists and “alt-right” bigots.
Trump, in short, is the antithesis of an effective political leader. In fact, he’s made his contempt for democratic politics perfectly clear, denouncing the nation’s elected leaders as uniformly corrupt and incompetent and informing the Republican National Convention that “I alone can fix it.”
That so many white, working class voters have accepted this invitation to strongman rule is shocking. It shows how deeply estranged they are from the multi-ethnic democracy America is becoming. Trump’s appeal to these voters lies in his willingness to offend liberal sensibilities – mocking the disabled, vowing to ban Muslims, conflating immigrants with “criminal aliens,” dismissing his bragging about sexual assault as harmless locker room talk, etc. – as well as his fanciful promise to recreate the relatively closed U.S. economy and social hierarchies of the 1950s. It’s a radically reactionary outlook that threatens to move an already polarized society toward civil strife.
There is certainly nothing conservative about Trump’s wanton violation of the normal rules of electoral competition, which have evolved over more than two centuries of U.S. democracy. Unable to engage his opponents in civil debate on the issues, he slurs and tries to delegitimize them. Deeply unpopular himself, Trump’s campaign “strategy” is to demonize Hillary Clinton. This plays out in the Nuremberg-style rallies where the maestro leads his rapt followers in chanting “lock her up” (while also inviting them to spew venom at political reporters). These ugly scenes are chillingly evocative of the “Two Minutes Hate” sessions organized by Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984.
Criminalizing political differences, treating political opponents as enemies rather than competitors, and attacking a free press are hallmarks of dictators and one-party states, not democracies. Our system of government, with its many checks and balances, was built for bargaining and compromise. What lawmaker wants to do business with ideologues that think they are evil and see politics as a holy war? Beyond destroying comity and good will between the parties, Trump’s paranoid style of politics – including alibiing his likely defeat by claiming that elites are rigging the election against him – corrodes public confidence in the legitimacy of our Constitutional order.
If Trump wins, he’s threatened to use his power as president to prosecute his defeated presidential rival. If he loses, millions of his followers will be left thinking their new President is a crook. Either way, U.S. democracy loses.
There’s a word for this kind of behavior: unpatriotic. But it’s just an extreme version of what we have already seen from the Republican Party as the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus arose during the Obama years – the “birther” lie, the blind obstructionism, the government shutdowns and refusal to fill court vacancies, and the neverending Congressional inquisitions. Even now, some House conservatives are talking about impeaching Clinton if she wins.
This is not the kind of politics that made America great. More than the usual partisan choices, the healthy functioning of our system of self-government is on the ballot today. Now it’s time for the voters to rise to their responsibility to protect and strengthen American democracy.