Op-eds and Articles

Marshall for The American Interest: The (Bad) Ideas Election

By / 10.17.2016

Hillary’s answer to American discontent is a familiar litany of left-liberalism, while conservative scholars outline a post-Trump intellectual revival.

Sometimes U.S. presidential elections confront Americans with a choice between starkly different political visions, not just leaders and parties. The elections of 1800, 1860, 1912, and 1932, for example, were truly pivotal contests that altered the nation’s democratic trajectory.

The 2016 election doesn’t fall into that category. It’s more a clash of personalities than ideas. That mainly reflects Donald Trump’s grab-bag demagoguery and inability to offer voters anything like a coherent governing agenda. But it also stems from Hillary Clinton’s lack of policy ambition and dogged incrementalism. The result is a not-so-great debate that turns on the candidates’ personal foibles rather than the urgent issues before the country.

That’s not to say the race lacks big ideas. Indeed, there are plenty of them—but they tend to be epically bad ideas. Here again Trump is the prime offender, with his calls for a “beautiful” border wall, mass deportations, the use of torture, bans on Muslim refugees, and a trade war with China. Trump is exploiting white working-class grievances and prejudices with all the subtlety of a hammerhead shark, in the process resurrecting such long-discredited concepts as nativism, protectionism, and “America First” isolationism.

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