With two months to go before Election Day, one of the many unusual features of the 2016 election is that surprisingly few people are even trying to pretend it isn’t awful.
Hillary Clinton has her fans, to be sure, and there has been a concerted effort (which came to a head on the second night of the Democratic convention) to get excited about the prospect of the first woman president. But generally speaking, it seems that even many Clinton voters understand that she is a mess of a candidate. Corruption and dishonesty at the unusual levels she exhibits are generally offset in politics by entertainment value, while her kind of lackluster tedium is generally the price you pay for earnestness and honesty. But Clinton manages to be corrupt and dull, dishonest and tedious, all at the same time.
She tries her best to embody the social spirit of her party but doesn’t seem to be genuinely sold on the illiberal identity politics sweeping up younger Democrats. And the programmatic progressivism she instinctively does channel is basically an exhausted Great Society mindset. There are surely more interesting ideas to be found in some corners of the Left now, but Clinton gravitates toward a “last hurrah of the Baby Boomers” liberalism instead. The Democrats are approaching the post-Obama era as a party with a 69 year-old presidential nominee (whose chief opponent in the primaries was 74) and two 76-year-old congressional leaders. They are certainly intent on beating the Republicans, but they are not an energized or enthusiastic party.
Donald Trump is also a septuagenarian, but he is not dull. You’ve got to give him that much. His party, however, is even less enthusiastic about its presidential nominee than the Democrats. In late August, YouGov asked Republican voters who they’d want to see win their party’s primaries if they could start the process over again, and only 29 percent said Trump. This was still more than any other candidate got (Cruz got 15 percent, Rubio 14 percent, a result that sent me back to the wall against which I banged my head all winter and spring), but it’s a pretty shabby plurality for the party’s nominee at the end of the summer—and a smaller one than he actually won in the primaries.
Most Republicans wish they had a different candidate (though those, like me, who will not vote for Trump and consider him simply unfit for the presidency are certainly a modest minority). And it’s already pretty hard to find people making affirmative arguments for him rather than merely explaining they’ll vote Trump because they think they have to vote for one of the two major-party candidates and Hillary is even worse. And no, I don’t think the people who send me cartoonishly anti-Semitic emails (a growing number of which actually contain cartoons, way to branch out guys!) are making affirmative arguments for Trump.
There are certainly arguments out there about what people wish Trump might be or mean, but very few of them (as their proponents are generally willing to acknowledge), have all that much to do with the actual Donald Trump. They are mostly about voters and issues that deserve a hearing or problems that have been too long ignored, or a sense (borne of a radical failure of imagination, it seems to me) that our politics should just be blown up since things could hardly get much worse. Some serious people have pointed to very real value in the sheer disruption of Trump having gotten this far, but they are at a loss to then justify actually making him president for four years. Conversations with Trump voters about the prospect of a President Trump generally conclude in the hope that he might be surrounded by people who will restrain his instincts or direct his energies—which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence.
It’s hard to ignore the hideous character failings at the core of the man, and for this purpose maybe especially his fundamental infidelity toward all who rely on his word, which makes it hard to take seriously any assurances. He has sometimes shown himself capable of sticking to script or obeying the teleprompter, and when he does that he raises the possibility that he may be containable. But when Trump is given a chance to reveal something of himself, he without fail reveals a terrifying emptiness. The idea that such a man would be improved by being handed immense power simply refuses to be believed. Even wishful thinking supercharged by a justified dread of what a Hillary Clinton administration could do to the American republic can only go so far—certainly far enough not to vote for her, but for this voter not nearly far enough to vote for him. Neither major-party option in this election is worthy of affirmation, and no amount of wishing it were otherwise is likely to change that. All we can do, it seems to me, is hope and work for a Congress able and inclined to counterbalance a dangerous executive.
And so we are left with an election campaign that has most people going through the familiar motions heading into autumn, but without much of the familiar energy and passion. The parties, the political press, and the part of the electorate that inclines to care all seem to be acting out of a kind of muscle memory, if only as a way of avoiding the unnerving strangeness of this election.
But no one can overlook it altogether. The unease and dissatisfaction of some of the most partisan voters in America heading into a general election will have consequences. One of those, it seems to me, is that, whatever our party, we will incline to look at this year and at the presidency that will commence next year as an ending more than a beginning in our politics. An ending is still monumental, this is a pivotal time. But an ending will not quite define the next phase of our politics as much as increase the urgency of its arrival. What we are seeing and learning this year will surely shape what follows in some very important ways, both good and bad. But whoever wins in November, this will not be the launch of a new political order in America. It will rather be the reason we decide it’s time for a change, and turn our politics into an argument about what that change must be. 2016 should leave Americans of all stripes thinking that our great nation can surely do much better than this.
That at least is my own brand of wishful thinking as the final stretch of the race approaches.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.