Donald Trump Isn't Making A Mockery Of The Election Process, He's Just An Exaggerated Example Of Its Biggest Problems
Over the last couple of months, I've seen a bunch of Facebook statuses and comments about the decline of respectability in American politics, all connected to Donald Trump's presidential campaign. It's been posited that his cartoonish and rather tactless manner of speech, coupled with his total lack of political experience, is marking the downfall of the electoral process, and that this indicates that the office of the president no longer means anything.
I'll agree that the election process in the U.S. (especially for the presidency) has become significantly less dignified, and I'll also agree that much of what we see of elections is political spectacle. But I don't think Trump is the cause. He's certainly one of the most exaggerated examples of these problems, but people on both sides of the aisle (in D.C. as well as on Facebook and Twitter, and later at the polls) need to appreciate the fact that the state of politics in the U.S. has been bordering on the absurd for a while.
First, let's talk about debates. Take, for example, the first Republican debate, which aired on Thursday. Yes, Trump acted like a clown. But going back earlier in time, I remember watching the debates between Al Gore was and George W. Bush, in which both of them exchanged ad hominem attacks. Gore ended one debate by poking fun at Bush stumbling over his words.
It's been posited that when presidential debates began airing on television, with the race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, a candidate's looks suddenly became very important, whereas previously they couldn't really have mattered. After all, until then, the public only saw candidates in still photographs or, rarely, in person. Ronald Reagan's success has been attributed to his charismatic appeal, and the same has been said about presidents Clinton and Obama. Trump doesn't have this same polished presentation and grace, but he has an attitude that appeals to voters. To suggest that he's the first candidate to utilize the power of his personality to woo voters is to ignore at least the last 60 years of presidential campaigns.
This of course relates to the fact that presidential elections are very often framed as entertainment, rather than as serious events leading up to election night that serve to inform voters. Debates are televised, often on network or cable television, during prime time (when the costs of ad sales run very high), and in front of huge crowds, so candidates can pander to an audience and go for laughs. They spout off keywords (i.e. they usually say little of substance, even when answering direct questions) and play to the crowd. The audience was eating it up at the first Republican debate, laughing riotously on multiple occasions. It could have been mistaken for a comedy club (albeit a very niche one ...) at certain moments, with quips flying much faster than innovative policy ideas.
Even further, think about election night itself. The major cable news stations have a field day, pulling out all the stops with logos, fancy map technology, wild speculations and predictions, and a race to see who can call the election first. If you replaced everything with footballs and plastered "NFL" over "Election," it would look virtually identical to Super Bowl Sunday.
Did you watch election coverage in 2008? In Times Square, there were two giant banners, one red (for President Bush) and one blue (for John Kerry), hanging from a building. Every time more results would come in, the banner corresponding with the candidate gaining points would be raised to show, well, the score of the election. Looking at the crowd, it doesn't seem like the "dignified" event that liberals are accusing Trump of desecrating in our election process.
It's also important to note that, while Trump's delivery is often blunt and over-the-top rude, every presidential candidate (and president, for that matter) is capable of being brutish, out-of-touch, and entitled, regardless of their party. Think about late June, when president Obama was praised for the way he "shut down" a trans* activist who came to protest his speech about all the great work he's done for the LGBTQ community. He was pretty happy to smugly pat himself on the back while silencing a person who belongs to the dangerously marginalized group he was speaking about. That's not exactly classy, sensitive, or progressive.
Yes, Trump is a clown, but he's not a circus of one. For decades, the presidential election process has been reduced to little more than a commercialized spectacle, one in which voters have much less to gain than CNN and MSNBC on election night. Trump does nothing to hide his bombast, whereas other candidates play the political game and market themselves as something more palatable to the American public.
Perhaps some of the other presidential candidates are angry because Trump is the magician who shows how all the tricks are done. Perhaps pundits focus on him more than others running for office because they can't bear the thought that their precious favorites are guilty of many of the same problems. Trump is not the problem itself. If anything, we need to read his actions as proof that we can no longer deny the incredibly longstanding flaws in our election processes. Blaming Trump and Trump alone won't change anything, because frankly, he didn't start the fire. But demanding better of all candidates might work.
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