I have written before that Barack Obama is like a Bizarro version of Richard Nixon.
By that reckoning, knowing that we are now playing the 1976 game, 8 years removed from a crisis election, then Donald Trump must be the Bizarro version of Jimmy Carter.
Before you reject what I have to say because you can’t stand people you like compared to those you hate (regardless of your politics) hear me out.
I know, Trump is a truly despicable human being, while Jimmy Carter is probably the nicest, most decent human being ever to live in the White House, evidenced by all the things he has done since leaving it. But that’s the point of someone being “bizarro” something – they are the opposite. That’s why the analogy fits.
But there are other ways in which a comparison between Trump and Carter makes sense. For one thing, there is the way they won their nominations.
I remember this well, because it was my first Presidential election, but Jimmy Carter ran to the right of his party’s orthodoxy, which at that point was represented by George McGovern. There were both substantive and stylistic differences. While McGovernism had feminists, black nationalists, environmentalists and anti-war people, all convinced that their issue transcended and that nothing else mattered, Jimmy Carter ran as a “one nation” Democrat. He said the South was important, at a time when George Wallace was still a thing. He said the idea of human rights was something that could unite, as an aspiration, rather than divide his party. He was a southern-fried Kennedy at a time when the old, New Frontier version of JFK was in a very bad odor.
Trump has run to the left of his party. He has defied the Tea Party orthodoxy of people like Paul Ryan, who insist on calling themselves thinkers, with a knee-jerk antipathy to all sorts of people, expressing much of it personally through Twitter. He supports Medicare and Medicaid, he has talked about raising taxes on rich people, he insists that the neo-cons were wrong about Iraq and so much else, and he’s spectacularly irreligious in defiance of the Religious Right.
All these stands are taken in defiance of his party, just as Carter’s stands were taken in defiance of his party. But these stands have resonated with a substantial portion of the grassroots, just as Carter won his nomination in defiance of the party establishment.
None of this means Donald Trump is ever going to be President.
While the reasons for Carter’s nomination and that of Trump match up let’s remember that Barack Obama is a Bizarro Nixon, not a real one. He is leaving office more popular than when he went in – one recent poll had him at a 53% approval rating. There has been no Watergate, despite Republican attempts to find one, on his watch. All the factors that bedeviled the country in 1976 – stagflation, high oil prices – have been reversed on his watch. If Barack Obama were permitted to run for a third term, he would win going away.
On issue after issue, Democrats now hold the high ground. Most people don’t care about transsexuals in bathrooms, or about whether gays get married. Most people don’t want another land war in Asia, and Obama’s moves toward one are among the least popular things about him right now. Obama has defused the deficit as an issue for most people, and his decision to become “fearless” since the Charleston shootings has made him a hero. Once out of office his star is only going to rise, and I’ve written that he will be remembered by history as among our four greatest Presidents.
How, then, is someone who is completely the opposite of Barack Obama, who goes out of his way to antagonize a coalition that elected him twice, going to be elected to follow him?
The election of 1976 turned on Watergate, and stands before history as the only “validation” election to be lost by the party of the new thesis. By that I mean that once a new set of myths and values overcome a generational crisis, they retain power even in the absence of the person who brought them forward.
Harry Truman won in 1948 even while his party splintered beneath him. William Howard Taft won easily. So did U.S. Grant, Martin Van Buren and James Madison. Once we become accustomed to a new set of Myths and Values, power follows. A crisis leader, like Barack Obama, shifts those assumptions, bringing forth a new key media (the Internet), a new key industry (technology), and a new governing thesis (consensus) to the fore.
It is in the business interest of the media not to tell us how this story ends. It is the job of the media to consider alternate realities constantly, to look at where new paths might take people. It sells newspapers to consider what the country might look like under a President Trump, and it always creates a frisson of fear among those Hillary Clinton needs in order to beat him.
As I have said many times before, Hillary Clinton is not Ronald Reagan. She’s more like Nixon. If you want a more attractive analogy, think Harry Truman. She is a product of her party, not someone who is going to change the direction of the ship, but someone who can steer it competently, at least until an electable anti-thesis to the Obama Thesis is developed.
That anti-thesis will, like Trump, accept some premises of the Obama Thesis. It will, like Eisenhower Republicanism, accept the proposition that health care should be a right, that minimum wages and standards of living are American values, and that the United States should not try to dominate the world, but lead it. It will insist that its leaders can do this for less than Democrats, that its leaders are more honest, more ready for leadership than the long-in-the-tooth Obama Democratic Party.
But now I’m doing the unthinkable, and telling you where the story goes from here. I can’t tell you who will be the next Republican President, and I can’t tell you what will cause the Democratic Party to fall from power. I only know that history tells me someone will rise, and something will cause a fall.
It may just take some time, to absorb the lessons of Trump into a coherent platform, and build from that something responsible. But I know that Republicans have done it before, as have Democrats. The party will not collapse, it will adjust, it will change, and when it does I hope it will be something America can vote for.
But not this party. Not this candidate. Not this year.