“Two roads diverged in a wood” as Robert Frost wrote, and we certainly find ourselves on the one less traveled by. In fact, this road has never been traveled before in the two and a half centuries of our republic.
We have had, in the course of our eventful history, a great many different kinds of presidents. We have had drunks, like Andrew Johnson, a prissy old queen (Buchanan,) a genocidal monster (Andrew Jackson,) an arid, pompous, racist who considered himself an intellectual but who had utterly failed to master the first lesson of wisdom — realizing one’s own ignorance (Woodrow Wilson). We have had nonentities such as Warren Harding and Chester A. Arthur. We have had truly great men and you know who they were. We have never however, had a president who was so utterly unqualified, so totally without relevant experience, so poorly educated and whose views were so at variance with the principals of the U.S. Constitution as Donald Trump. As regards the presidency itself, this is an entirely new phenomenon.
Trump is the quintessential outsider — the parvenu, the vulgarian, the nouveau riche. He is known in the circles of business and finance as a con artist, a promoter and a manipulator. He does not move in the circles of the highest society. No one ever nominated him to the Union Club. He has never been invited to Davos or Bohemian grove or Bilderburg. He is not on the Christmas card list of people with names like Astor, Vanderbilt, Phipps or Cabot.
At some point he will no doubt be given a state dinner by the Queen of England but it won’t be a love fest. Her Majesty will glance Heavenward, sigh and chalk it up to one more cross to bear in a lifetime of doing her duty.
It is this very quality of outsiderness that got him elected. Trump represents the seemingly eternal strain of “Know Nothingness” that has persisted in American political/social life ever since it first violently erupted in the infamous Know Nothing riots in Philadelphia in 1844, directed against Irish. Catholic immigrants by hooligan adherents of the American Republican Nativist Party.
In this larger sense, we are not on a new road at all but rather one that is all too familiar. The Know Nothings were people with a perverse pride in knowing nothing but what they believed. Anti-intellectual, antithical to the arts, solidly racist, viewing education as at best a means to learn a trade and morbidly suspicious of anyone even a little different. These slack jawed, beer swilling, howlers imprinted a legacy on this nation that remains very much the defining character of a significant part of the population.
It was to counteract the influence of the mob of fools that the highly educated and largely aristocratic Founding Fathers devised a complex system for the selection of the nation’s chief magistrate. State senates would be elected by property owners of substance. The senates would then choose electors who would meet collegially to vote for the president. Popular election of the president is not provided for in the constitution, which says “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors…” who will then meet to vote for the president.
There has been considerable attention lately paid to the electoral college’s origins as a compromise to provide more political clout for the slave states. Representation was based on population and the census counted slaves (as 3/5 of a human). Slaves however, did not vote, putting slave states at a disadvantage. The Electoral Collage was a compromise that resolved that problem and one that was embraced by the leadership of non-slave states as well, since it effectively moved the choice of president well away from the unwashed hands of the rabble. It was a brilliant solution agreed to by two sets of entrenched elites, each for its own reasons.
The slave owning elite was condemned by many in its own time and has been rightly excoriated ever since. We need spend no time discussing the justification of its position since there is none whatever. The elite of the North however is a different matter and the idea of a restricted franchise can not be dismissed so casually.
Winston Churchill once said , “the strongest argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.”
Walter Bagehot in his classic 1867 text on the English constitution pointed out that the typical working class voter is incompetent to decide anything other than local issues. This is an uncomfortable political truth that we do not like to mention and which indeed is politically incorrect but which is as unarguably as true today as it was in 1867 or any previous time in recorded history.
I state this as a general rule which of course means there are exceptions. When the average, working class voter of limited formal education is presented with a clear cut choice regarding a simple issue, he or she can be quite capable of making an intelligent decision. We can see this in the era of our Civil War, when the motivating issue was slavery. There is nothing complicated about the fundamental question of whether anyone can have the “right” to own someone else and it was not seen as complicated by the tens of thousands of union volunteers who went to war, following the exhortation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;” words that can still make the heart beat faster and bring a lump to the throat — as well they should in memory of thousands of working class boys — farm boys — who did die to make men free.
Unfortunately most issues of governance are not that simple. Climate change, corporate tax structure, infrastructure renewal, political redistricting, energy solutions, international relations and so on, and on, require considerable education to comprehend.
There is no use in pretending the typical voter of only a high school education is anywhere close to being up to the task. A high percentage of voters don’t understand, say, our trade relationship with China any more than their predecessors understood the issues behind the War of 1812.
The inevitable downside of democracy has been the placing of the vote in the hands of the ignorant, the foolish, the stupid and the utterly unqualified. From this arises the dark side of U.S. politics — the side that produced the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Know Nothings, the Nativists, the Anti-Catholic, Anti-Irish rioters, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the KKK, slavery, Jim Crow, the Palmer raids, the turning away of the S.S. St. Louis, the countless crimes against LGBT citizens, the House Un-American Activities hearings, Sen. Joe McCarthy, the Japanese internment, white supremacists and much more. It has culminated with the election of a racist, serial abuser of woman, perpetual liar and notorious cheat as president. The plain fact is that Donald Trump is as American as apple pie. He is the apotheosis of our dark side.
While it was the foolish and the ignorant who formed Trump’s visible cheering section, they were not alone in putting him in power. Many well educated people joined them — some for venal reasons and others for ideological ones. All however were people who had to decide that facts did not matter.
Evangelical religious conservatives, for example, flocked to a man who hadn’t gone to church except for a wedding or a funeral in his life, who plainly said he did not need God’s forgiveness and who couldn’t tell you the difference between predestination and transubstantiation if his life depended on it. Such facts didn’t matter compared with what the evangelicals saw as their best shot at tearing down gay rights and a woman’s right to chose.
The evangelicals have made a deal with the Devil. We’ll see how that works for them.
Where then is that wise, responsible, educated, property owning oligarchy the founders intended to entrust with the nation’s destiny? Evidently it existed only in their imagination. Our entire history has been a constant struggle of the forces of intelligent humanism against those of ignorance and bigotry. When you think of it, it is amazing we’ve done as well as we have.
Donald Trump then is not the end of American democracy. He is its evil twin and an integral part of our whole history. Throughout that history, brave men and women have, time and again, struggled and sacrificed to stop each new assault from those dark forces and now must do so yet again. It’s nothing new. It’s very American and the centuries long fight has defined us as a culture and a people.
Though we have not previously had as president a man so ignorant or so flagrantly dishonest, it is not the first time real evil has entered the White House. In 1830 Davy Crockett, a member of the House of Representatives, stood in the Oval Office and called Andrew Jackson a murderer to his face, because of the Cherokee Removal Act — the infamous “Trail of Tears.” He confronted the dark side.
The confrontation has never stopped and now we must look to the examples of the past and do it yet again. There is no choice. If there is any such thing as a nation having a “destiny,” this struggle is ours and will be as long as the nation exists.