On the 4th of July, 1801, President Thomas Jefferson first opened the White House—dubbed “the People’s House”—for a public reception celebrating the nation’s birth. All the dignity and grace with which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence was on display. The president and White House were both sources of immense national pride for the American people. How tragically far we’ve fallen since those honorable days.
Before laying the blame entirely on the shoulders of the current occupant of the Oval Office, however, we would do well to examine some other contributing factors. As it turns out, President Trump—who is, by the way, solely responsible for his singularly irresponsible behavior—is nevertheless more a symptom than the core problem.
In just the latest of scores of such displays since his inauguration, President Trump recently reached two new lows in staining the office of the presidency. On June 29, he tweeted that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and “psycho Joe.” Just days later, the president tweeted a caricature of himself body-slamming a fictionalized CNN reporter.
In the most charitable rendering possible, such behavior is akin to an immature high school sophomore; it is so far beneath what used to be the dignity of the White House, that it is without modern precedent. The question is, how did such a juvenile person get elected to the nation’s highest office? The answer is instructive and should serve as a warning for both the coming midterms and the 2020 presidential election.
In the early days of the 2016 cycle, Donald Trump was one of only 17 major contenders for the GOP nomination. It was clear from the beginning that the Republican party leadership was hoping for any of maybe five candidates to win—and virtually united in working to defeat one: Trump. As the field was whittled down to three in March 2016, the GOP did all it could to derail Trump and work to elect either Senators John Kasich or Ted Cruz. What the Republican leaders failed to recognize, however, is how far they had become detached from their base.
A full eight months before the election, the New York Times reported that from states all across the country, “rank-and-file Republicans expressed mystification, dismissal and contempt over the instructions that their party’s most high-profile leaders were urgently handing down to them: Reject and defeat Donald J. Trump.” By June, a Rasmussen Poll quantified just how far the party was from its supporters: fully 73 percent believed “their party leaders are out of step with the rank-and-file.”
Instead of acknowledging this growing angst and changing their ways to reflect the will of the people, GOP leaders instead continued to push forward, apparently believing they could ignore the voters and could support only candidates who mirrored the party’s agenda irrespective of what the people wanted. What they discovered to their pain is that when the people are pushed too far they will finally assert their power in the voting booths over even party elites. The Democratic Party, however, was equally disconnected with their base—and remains so.
This past April, the Washington Post wrote that, “The Democratic Party is viewed as more out of touch than either Trump or the party’s political opponents. Two-thirds of Americans think the Democrats are out of touch—including nearly half of Democrats themselves.”
One of the major reasons Donald Trump is president today is because both the GOP and Democratic Party elites ignored what the voters wanted and only supported candidates that would endorse a party-approved agenda. Trump was an outsider, bombastic, and decidedly not a standard politician. Many people voted for him in hopes that he would “stick it to” the elites from both parties and fix Washington’s dysfunction. Many who voted for Trump, however, now have buyer’s remorse because most never imagined he would be quite this petulant.
Democratic leaders seem to believe that they will be able to take advantage of this foul mood and sweep into control of both the House and Senate in 2018 and back into the White House in 2020 with their chosen candidates. Many in the GOP are rightfully worried about both elections, but appear hopelessly divided among themselves and unable to effectively govern. The party elites of neither party get it: America is sick of the status quo.
They want to elect a quality man or woman who genuinely understands and cares for the needs of the people. They want someone who is first and foremost a servant, not someone who believes it’s “their turn” or believes they’re entitled. Americans desire and deserve a president who has integrity, honor, respect, and possess genuine humility. Yet they also want a Commander-in-Chief who is tough, will fiercely defend the nation’s interests and security, and is unquestionably qualified for the job. Some voters will want that candidate to be a Democrat and others a Republican, but everyone wants a candidate that places the needs of the nation above the desires of the party.
Let the party elites continue to slug out partisan fights in Congress if they must. But for the sake of the nation, the Republican and Democratic Party leaders must belatedly recognize it’s not about them. They must discover the courage and humility to field candidates who will break from the status quo of dysfunction and support policies that strengthen the nation’s defense, economy, and moral foundation. Fail to learn this lesson, and something worse than Trump may not be out of the question.
Daniel L. Davis is a frequent contributor to The American Conservative and military fellow at Defense Priorities. Frances L. Garcia has a BS in Government and International Politics from George Mason and is pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration and Public Policy from American University. The views in this article are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the opinions of Defense Priorities. Davis can be followed @DanielLDavis1.