One of the many long-term side effects of the Watergate fiasco was the sudden demystification of the American presidency. Not only did this spark the idea that the office can be held by anyone, regardless of expertise or accomplishment, but it also helped to manufacture the ill-conceived notion that presidents should be just like us.
From there, cable-news kingpins like Roger Ailes and political operatives like Karl Rove sold politicians to voters by packaging them for "the folks" — as "guys we'd like to have a beer with." We've been instructed for too many years that plainspoken leaders are better than well-educated, well-qualified ones.
It's a shallow, comfort-food selling point that never should have existed. Our priority should not be to elect someone just like you or me. We should demand, if not utterly fight for, leaders who are far superior and exponentially more disciplined than we are.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has done serious damage to our presidential ideals.
From the beginning, Trump's most treacherous feature was never his policy proposals, as limited and superficial as they are. Deporting millions of immigrants, building walls, criminalizing abortion, going to war against Iran over finger gestures — these are colossally bad ideas, worthy of vigorous opposition. But the most egregious of Trump's downsides has been his personal behavior, both on the stump, in interviews, in debates and on social media.
Trump packaged himself as a candidate with low class and no taste. He's willfully ignorant while exploiting the lack of education and general ignorance of his most loyal supporters. He deals in superlatives ("I have the best words!" and "We'll have so much winning!" and "I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created!") rather than specifics, perhaps illustrating how he and his people are incapable of understanding or verbalizing complicated ideas.
His absolutely vulgar displays of wealth, including his garish 87th-floor penthouse or his private jet — his McMansion with wings — define a man who is completely disengaged with everyday Americans. Remarkably, despite his conspicuous consumption, his people believe he's just like them. The fact that he doesn't mind flaunting his wealth by tastelessly wrapping all his possessions in gold while shoehorning his last name onto the facade of his buildings shows a man who clearly doesn't know what it means to be modest, humble or self-deprecating.
Trump proves that trashiness comes in many forms and his brand of it is illustrated by his defiant lack of decency and complete rejection of presidential behavior.
This isn't to suggest that all previous presidential candidates have been morally upstanding. They obviously have not been so. Most of the successful ones, however, have resisted the tendency to humiliate all of us in order to win the votes of half of us, like Trump has. In other words, even the most ethically deplorable would-be presidents have at least carried themselves with a level of noble respectability. We might be thoroughly repulsed by their platforms or their involvement with a scandal or two, but rarely have we been too mortified to call them fellow Americans.
Only those of us with supremely low standards of personal behavior, discipline and intellect — who possess a wistful longing for racial pejoratives and segregation and for a time when white men exclusively controlled the world — are capable of boasting about Trump's character without feeling the queasy sense of embarrassment gurgling to the surface.
The longing for a return to a white male golden age via a "Make America Great Again" slogan isn't an admirable or commendable posture. Trump, along with the conservative media before him, have worked tirelessly to make it seem that way, but it's simply not. That is unless we've collided with an alternative universe where racial persecution is encouraged.
Trump’s argument against political correctness would be more acceptable if it were based upon promoting a free exchange of ideas rather than it being tacit permission to wear "Trump That Bitch" T-shirts or circulate #RepealThe19th hashtags. The Trump platform is predicated by an acceptance of old-school, white male dominance and sold by generally pandering to the worst instincts of a specific voting demographic. It's the Southern strategy without the dog whistles.
Trump successfully pitched himself as a viable leader who welcomed the shrieking hatred of a dwindling voter bloc: aggrieved non-college-educated whites. But that tells only part of the story. It's not just about white men. It's about white men behaving badly. Trump's rallies are safe spaces for starstruck rage junkies who don't prioritize dignity or adherence to political traditions as qualifying presidential characteristics.
His rallies have been anger conventions — hate cons where Trump cosplayers recklessly acted out in ways that are generally regarded as unacceptable in real life. Everyone from fist-pumping bros to well-dressed baby-boomer retirees has been observed behaving like bug-eyed drones, screaming obscenities at reporters while chanting like preprogrammed automatons in support of incarcerating political opponents for crimes they can barely describe outside of the well-worn Fox News shibboleths: "Benghazi!" "Emails!" "Podesta!" "Rigged!" This isn't just encouraged by their political messiah; it's reflected back upon them by a man who literally basks in the awfulness.
Since when is this behavior tolerated in an allegedly exceptional society?
Seventeen months ago, this style of campaigning was unheard of. And then Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower into a universe of subterranean shit. Now 45 percent of American voters are conditioned to accept behavior normally reserved for Twitter trolls. They've accepted that it's more or less tolerable for presidential hopefuls to scream "No puppet, no puppet, you're the puppet!" at their opponents. They've learned to brush off his lashing out during the debates, employing personal insults and other undisciplined interjections with the same fluidity that all other candidates throughout American history have employed general statistics and talking points.
Presidents require massive discipline as a bulwark against making catastrophic decisions. Trump has none. By the way, The New York Times reported over the weekend that Trump is so undisciplined that his staffers had to take away his Twitter access as if he's a child who's forced to have a "time out." Most stories about Trump's absence of self-control are, naturally, ignored by members of his base who think it's fine because he's just like them.
More important, Trump's total lack of statesmanlike protocol is so completely destructive because, without it, it's nearly impossible for any other world leaders, save for maybe Vladimir Putin, to take him seriously. From there, Trump's only remaining asset on the international stage will be, of course, the unthinkable use of conventional or nuclear weapons. Does anyone really believe he'll suddenly attain the discipline to not go completely off the deep end with either?
Trump is a cartoon villain. He's risen to this level because too many Americans have settled for mediocrity packaged in gold lamé. They've settled for a reality show star, while deluding themselves into believing reality show stars aren't carefully scripted by teams of writers and producers who sculpt every move for ratings. (The same has occurred with Trump's advisers. See also The New York Times.)
In this regard, anything goes. They'll go with whatever tabloid sensationalism, whatever degree of poorly informed narcissism is required to win the time slot. The dumber the better, and too many Americans can't stop pumping it into their veins like heroin. The question of the day is whether this addiction will win, and if it doesn't, how badly will they handle the withdrawal symptoms? My hunch is that the detox will be louder than than the addiction itself.
It might take four or eight more years to fully realize the extent of Trump's debris field. But it's galactically important that we acquire the fullest possible perspective in order to never again allow another episode like the election of 2016. This includes closely scrutinizing everyone who emerges to fill Trump's red baseball hat. Just because those candidates' names aren't "Trump" won't mean they'll be less dangerous in terms of policy, if not behavior. After all, it was a nearly catastrophic lack of political vigilance, joined by decaying standards for leadership, that allowed Trump to glide this close to the Oval Office in the first place.