Pick Your Presidential Poison
This year’s presidential election gives a whole new meaning to the term, “Pick your poison.” On the one hand we have the incumbent, a septuagenarian of uncouth demeanor, odiously brutal rhetoric, and a tendency toward self-absorption that is nearly total. He has coarsened the nation’s political culture to an extent never before seen or even contemplated by most Americans. On the other hand we have the challenger, also a septuagenarian, steeped in the milieu of official Washington, a power-hungry and money-hungry capital that gets further removed from ordinary citizens by the year. His own many years are showing, and he demonstrates intermittent bouts of apparent disorientation.
As Daniel Henninger wrote the other day in The Wall Street Journal, voters are asking: “How has it come to this, a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea?” (He added that the Deep Blue Sea has always frightened him.)
Perhaps it’s not fair to focus on the age of these two candidates. We’re living longer these days and perhaps it can be said that we are staying younger longer, too. And I have nothing against septuagenarians, being one myself. But it seems reasonable to wonder if we aren’t playing the percentages with considerably more risk than usual in choosing a president well into his seventies, including one who will be eighty within two years of taking office.
But the age issue isn’t the crux of the problem with this electoral choice. We have two candidates who just don’t seem to be up to the job.
This is not the sort of thing Otto von Bismarck had in mind when he mused about the seeming invincibility of this rising power on our North American continent back in the 1890s: “God watches over drunks, small children, and the United States of America.” It’s easy to see why Bismarck felt that way about America (leaving aside the other two). Everything the country sought to do in the German statesman’s waning years seemed to work out beautifully. The industrial surge, the generally consistent economic growth, the thrust into empire with the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, the Central American canal project, the big naval buildup, the general civic stability of the post-Civil War decades: America was on the move, and its rise appeared irrepressible.
God doesn’t seem to be looking out for America these days. That’s apparent in a host of ways, but it is certainly reflected in the binary choice Americans face in this election. Donald Trump is one of the most polarizing figures ever to occupy the White House. Leaving aside his views, some of which are sound, his leadership has rattled the nation, and his reelection will rattle it further. He is a historically significant figure in that he carved out for himself a political role as leader of what historian Walter Russell Mead has called the “Jacksonian” elements in American society—nationalist in outlook and concerned about such things as the identity of their country as a common enterprise with a unique culture, a sense of sacred territory, and a devotion to the idea of American sovereignty.
As the leader of these people, Trump has led a crusade against the relatively new meritocratic elites of the country who have set themselves against Jacksonian America. The aim is to reduce it to political irrelevance through the tools of political correctness, cancel culture, and moral superiority. They are globalist in outlook, ardently anti-nationalist, fixated on identity politics, cultural atomization, open borders, and supranational institutions.
Thus do we see an epic struggle in today’s America between two broad views of the country and its future. But the battle can’t really be joined because the leaders of the two parties can’t get beyond their flaws. Trump sees the struggle for what it is but throughout his presidency has demonstrated that he lacks the tools for building a governing coalition around the Jacksonian philosophy. He deigns to talk only to those already in his camp and hence can’t expand his core constituency. Even if he’s reelected, that fatal political flaw will chase after him, tripping him up and undermining any prospect that he could move the nation in a new direction based on the Jacksonian model.
Joe Biden, meanwhile, seems likely to embrace a brand of far-left politics that will generate its own kind of civic ripping and tearing. He seeks to pass himself off as a unifying figure for polarized times, as if we’re living in the 1950s or the 1990s. It’s all phony. It ignores one of the signal political developments in America of the past two decades–the emergence of the Democratic Party as a truly leftist institution, socialist in its economic outlook, guided by an anti-nationalist fervor, bent on ripping America from the cultural moorings that have defined the country since the beginning. And it is hostile to those citizens who have gravitated to Trump.
Is this going to be the guiding force for America if Joe Biden is elected? We don’t know. He won’t say.
For good or ill, we live in a presidential governing system, framed by the Founders as part of their effort to prevent the emergence of unchecked power. In our system the president sets the agenda, and that means that major national crises and epic struggles of the nation must be managed, if they are to be managed at all, by presidential leadership. Can this election yield that kind of leadership? It doesn’t seem likely.
Either way, prospects seem thin that this week’s balloting will pull the country out of the Slough of Despond that has been its habitat for many years now.
America has always been a resiliant country. But not since the 1850s have we had a presidential election with so little prospect that the outcome can successfully address the profound crises of our time. And that raises some questions:
Is this just happenstance, an aberrational twist of fate in which both parties put forth men so lacking in confidence-building attributes?
Or is this a reflection of some fundamental decay in the fabric of the nation?
And, if the latter, how do we arrest the decay and get the country back to its old winning ways?
Questions without ready answers, at least for now.
Robert W. Merry, former Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.