There was a reason those who negotiated the founding of the United States of America limited the vote to those men who owned land- they didn’t trust those who didn’t, to say nothing of women and slaves. Their biggest fear was some pamphleteering rabble-rousers who threatened them and their wealth accessing power. But it was more than just a threat to their material wealth, they also believed that the common people lacked the sophistication to understand the issues of the day, and were the last people that should have decision making power. In the two hundred and fifty plus years since the nation’s founding there have been many who have continued to echo that sentiment. But had you suggested to members of the Constitutional Congress that an actor might capture the imaginations of the public and the voters, such was the low general regard for the acting profession, they would certainly have laughed. It was writers they worried about because writers are thinkers and pamphlets were the media of the day.
But that is exactly what happened in the California governor’s race in 1966. An actor named Ronald Reagan with no political experience at all used his celebrity, the generous backing of the many corporate interests whose favor he ingratiated, and most importantly his visual media skills to become the governor of the state. He came to the job equipped with a few rough outlines of ideology and years of practice in front of a camera and microphone and from day one on the job, he had no idea at all what he was doing. Actual public policy was not just far beyond his intellectual grasp, but also his interest. He rarely read anything and happily delegated the part of the job that required thought and study, but always had his scissors ready for the ribbon cutting photo op.
Fourteen years later he was ready for the biggest stage of all, the presidency of the United States, and he brought his well honed skill set to the race- he memorized his lines and pithy one-liners and acted the simple but convicted tough guy in front of flags and balloons. But in the years as governor of California, he had learned almost nothing about the dry business of actual governing and public policy. He promised to make America “Great again,” but not surprisingly, with no understanding of the actual systems of governing, he had no idea what to do. Instead, his self-interested backers took over and ordered billions of dollars worth of military equipment the country didn’t need, paying themselves handsomely, and even going so far as to con him with a cartoon about a futuristic “Star Wars” missile defense system that was pure fantasy. They then borrowed from the Social Security fund to subsidize dramatically cutting their own tax burden. The deficit, predictably, skyrocketed. Without a manager cat at the top of the organizational chart, corruption blossomed as the mice began financial, ideological and illegal rogue operations that defied the law to launder money, and among other things, trade arms to Iran in return for hostages and illegally fund the Contra rebels. All of this resulted in the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials, the largest number for any US president. But, of course, he is not remembered by the American public for his blank stares and fumbling for words or the epic corruption and graft, he is remembered for the flags and the balloons. That is his great legacy, and this willful negligence is what paved the way for worse.
Fast forward to 2016 and now the bar is being lowering still further from a dimwitted actor who had at least occupied a governor’s mansion to a game show host who wants to stride directly from the sound studio into the Oval Office like a colossus. Like Reagan, Donald Trump brings his media skills and a simplistic view of governance to the presidential contest. Modeling himself on Reagan, Trump claims to be a strong “I’ll show ’em who’s the boss” style leader who can “make America great again,” but offers only the vaguest of generalities for not only how to achieve that goal, but what that goal even is. What “greatness” has America lost? What “great things” would he bring, and how would he bring them? Trump complains about “trade deals” endlessly, for example, but has yet to propose any solutions or changes. Like Reagan, Trump doesn’t see the need to actually understand public policy, that’s the sort of tedious work you hire people like tax accountants and plumbers to do.
Like Reagan, only with even less subtlety, Trump expresses the vile idea that what made America “great” in the past was its domination by “white” people of European descent in a mythical land of two car garages and milk and cookies after school. America was “great” when people of color lived on their own sides of town and were only seen carrying trays and railroad luggage- or not seen at all as they labored in the fields and orchards. Where Reagan used coded terms like “welfare queen,” to express his racism, Trump comes right out and claims Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and literally “rapists.” Trump either has zero shame, or he is a very shrewd judge of the character of much of the American electorate. An exceedingly ugly proposition either way given his astonishing success.
But unlike Reagan, who was not only a pedestrian intellect to start with but was almost certainly suffering symptoms from Alzheimer’s virtually throughout his presidency, Trump is a shrewd operator and a control freak. Where Reagan’s administration, and life, was heavily and infamously managed by his controlling and domineering wife, Trump runs his own show like a mafia don. Where Reagan rarely read any briefing materials and paid little attention during policy discussions, and relished his more ceremonial roles, Trump actually believes in his own intelligence and likely his own infallibility. This should scare people, and scare them deeply.
While it is highly unlikely that Trump will prevail in November, if he does, America may learn a very hard, perhaps even tragic, lesson in democracy and the increasingly widening gap between what it takes to become president versus what it takes to actually be president.