by Bruce Dunlavy
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The election-campaign-from-hell is finally over. The attacks, the smears, the lies, the cover-ups, the frustration —- all are behind us now. The people have spoken, and they have reiterated the slogan of Howard Beale from the remarkably prescient 1976 film Network: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It is indeed a sad commentary that this flawed method of selection between two flawed candidates was apparently the best we could muster this election cycle, and the fact that we did no better than nominate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton resulted in a mass evocation of rage.
Given the weak slate of presidential candidates, I suppose we should have known from the results of this year’s Austrian presidential election, United Kingdom “Brexit” vote, and Colombian peace ballot (to name just the most salient examples) that there would be a manifestation of dissatisfaction with the whole system. We should have been aware that an explosion of the disaffected was coming. We should have been able to predict that there would be a great gesture from them, and that the gesture would be a giant upraised middle finger.
Image credit: http://www.cbc.ca
We look ahead to four years of an administration headed by Trump, a man who has never held political office at any level. What can we expect from the ultimate Washington outsider? It’s not unprecedented. Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in not just the first election he ever ran in, but also the first election he ever voted in. Like Trump, he was both a famous man and an outsider who did not seem to fit in either political party. Like Trump, his policies seemed vague, inchoate, and platitudinous. Many thought he might be manhandled by the insiders, steamrolled by Congress. Yet he managed to steer the country through perilous times and lay the groundwork for a better future.
What about the insider presidents? Perhaps no presidents had better qualifications on paper than James Buchanan (war veteran, former House member, former Senator, former Ambassador to Britain and to Russia, and former Secretary of State) and Richard Nixon (war veteran, former House member, former Senator, and former two-term vice-president), yet they were the two worst presidents the United States has ever had.
Thus we looked to the outsider – the one uncorrupted by the system, the one not beholden to anyone, the one who listened to and spoke to those who felt disrespected, dis-empowered, and dismissed. There is no question that what turned the tide in the election was Trump’s ability to connect with the Rust Belt workers and former workers, ignored by the political insiders who were supposed to be on their side but whom they blamed for their declining economic and social standing. The system, the establishment, the insiders had stepped over them or on them. Now, mad as hell, these voters weren’t going to take it anymore. They rejected “more of the same” and elected “the outsider.”
Or did they? Could it be they got both? Could it be that, in installing “the outsider” in office, the electorate had actually voted for “more of the same”?
The presidency of Richard Nixon was transformative. Elected twice as the man with a plan and the connections, skills, and – above all – experience to implement it, Nixon turned out to be a wretched scoundrel. Less than halfway through his second term, he resigned in disgrace and skipped town one step ahead of an impeachment trial that surely would have convicted him. The ultimate insider had betrayed us.
The next time around, in 1976, the electorate turned to an outsider, Jimmy Carter. The former governor of Georgia had never held a Washington office. He was untainted by the corruption that makes insiders into schemers and crooks. Carter told us, “I will never lie to you.” Imagine – he would never lie. The ne plus ultra of the uncorrupted outsider who would change the way business is done in Washington.
We all know what became of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The outsider became the incapable tool, the inept plaything of Fate, the hapless purveyor of “malaise.” But did Carter’s failure result in the electorate’s turning away from the outsider? Not at all. He was defeated for re-election by another Washington outsider, Ronald Reagan. Reagan had also been a governor, and he had also never held a job in Washington. As the fresh wind blowing in from far away from the halls of Washington, D.C., he easily plucked the presidency from Carter and never looked back.
As the old saying goes, “Pioneers get killed; settlers get rich.” Carter established the new standard, and Reagan exploited it. Outsider? Breath of fresh air to blast the stink out of Washington? The man to shake things up?
Looking back, it seems that nearly every successful presidential candidate since Nixon has billed himself as the outsider uncorrupted by Washington and untouchable in his zeal to overthrow the power structure. The sole exception was George Bush the Elder, a consummate Washington insider, who was elected not to shake things up but to stand in for the third term Constitutionally denied to Reagan.
At the end of Bush’s first term he was soundly dumped out of office by – yes – an outsider. Bill Clinton had never held office in Washington and was just the breath of fresh air needed to root out the self-serving corruption of the center of power. After two terms, Clinton retired expecting to hand over the reins to an insider, Al Gore (war veteran, former Congressman, former Senator, two-term vice-president). Gore lost, to yet another candidate who had never held a position in Washington and blew in from the wild, self-reliant West.
Two terms later, another outsider ran successfully. Barack Obama had less than two years in the Senate as his only experience in the Capital, and came from an ethnic group that had scarcely ever been recognized as insiders. His opponent was a long-time Senator who touted his experience, John McCain. The outsider won again.
Since Nixon (with the sole exception noted above) outsiders have been the winners in presidential contests, and the insiders (Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, John Kerry) have been the losers. So Trump is not so much a historical anomaly as the historical norm. The outsider is not the antidote to “more of the same.” The outsider is “more of the same.”
It seems that most of the time we are mad as hell and unwilling to take this anymore. That was certainly the case in 2016. Will this outsider be different? Or will he become the insider next time around? Perhaps he is the real deal, perhaps not. Let us give him a chance to show what he can do.