It is fashionable for Americans and Europeans alike to think of Donald Trump as an aberration—a fluke thrown up by the obtuseness of an insulated ruling class for sponsoring an unattractive candidate like Hillary Clinton. Many believe that once the lessons of Trump are absorbed by the Democrats, there will be a return to a more normal presidency.
But Trump will not be the last president of his type. The erosion of “filtering,” party responsibility, and congressional authority since 1960 has seen to that. For Trump, at least from the perspective of world history, is a typical ruler, straight out of the pages of Plutarch and Suetonius.
The framers of our Constitution, who knew their Greek and Roman history, shrank from choosing presidents by popular vote, preferring instead “filtering” by an Electoral College of party regulars. Senators, in turn, were to be “filtered” by state legislatures, whose members personally knew the men they were choosing. Two instances of deadlock in 1800 and 1824 were broken by the choice of America’s two most intellectually gifted presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.
The advent of direct primaries and the selection of senators by popular vote brought an end to the “filtering” system. When only a minority of states held presidential primaries, many of them advisory, party officeholders could still work their wills, choosing William Howard Taft over the increasingly demagogic Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, for instance, and Adlai Stevenson over the notoriously bibulous Estes Kefauver in 1952 and 1956. The purchased victory of the novice John F. Kennedy over the more experienced Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey in 1960 was the watershed. Since then, populist nominees have been the rule, not the exception: Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972, Carter in 1976, Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2008, and Trump in 2016. Several of the presidents, on attaining office without serious commitments or party ties, manifested what might be called “what the hell do I do now?” syndrome because they’d never developed serious agendas.
Similar tendencies prevailed in state elections. More and more nominees were pop culture celebrities or self-financed millionaires. California Republicans alone gave us George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Michael Huffington, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, while the Democrats specialized in well-heeled but mediocre senators like Herbert Kohl, Mark Dayton, Claibourne Pell, John Tunney, and Daniel Brewster. Our political leaders, in the memorable words of Judge Learned Hand, no longer “find their place in the community through those who have personal knowledge of them…publicity is an evil substitute, and the arts of publicity are black arts.”
Campaign finance “reform,” with its individual contribution limits and its judicially created exception for the self-financed, made it impossible for campaigns to be launched by a few well-heeled friends of the nominee. Candidates instead were delivered into the hands of “bundlers” assembling contributions from interest groups, leading to the nationalization of congressional and even gubernatorial elections. Reapportionment dissolved local allegiances and encouraged partisan gerrymandering, aggravated further by the racial gerrymandering fostered by the second voting rights act.
In decrying the direct primary, William Howard Taft said in 1918 that “a convention will take the more moderate man [appealing to] independent voters, [not] men of wealth and of activity and of little modesty…without real qualifications for office.” Today, moderate congressmen can look forward to being “primaried” if they defy AIPAC, the Club for Growth, or feminist lefties. The cure for this is in the hands of the political parties, who could compose their conventions of ex officio serving office-holders without need of an act of Congress or constitutional amendment. But Democrats have instead further depreciated the role of “superdelegates” while introducing proportional representation in their primaries, the bane of the Israeli Knesset and the Third and Fourth French republics before it.
Thus we can look forward to many more Trumps. As George Kennan observed, “Something resembling [representative government] may long be maintained in the European governments with their responsible parliamentary majorities and ministerial governments. But in the U.S., I fear, the trends are in the other direction.”
George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of a number of works on law and history, most recently America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury, 2019).