Here’s a question we need to be thinking about.
Why did a Donald Trump arise now?
The answer at first glance is that he is sui generis. But this answer doesn’t get us very far. While Trump is a force of nature and has been his whole life apparently from my reading of his biography, we have had plenty of other people in American history who were his equal if not his superior. Remember P.T. Barnum? He too created a brand around his name and survived bankruptcy and became popular.
No, there’s something about our era that has given us this dreadful chaos-leader-in-chief. The question is what.
But before we get to that there’s a paradox to be dealt with. It holds the key to our conundrum. Here’s the paradox. Donald Trump, a man who appeals to the lowest common denominator and literally is most popular with those who know the least, has come to power in an age when we’ve never been better educated.
In 1940 a majority of Americans hadn’t gone past the eighth grade. Today a majority have attended college. And yet now is when we got a Donald Trump?
Now that’s a paradox.
But it’s not inexplicable and is easily unravelled. Back in 1940 and through most of American history before that political parties ran the show. Powerful party bosses decided who could run for office and who got elected. These gatekeepers made sure that only politicians who could be counted on to be loyal to the party were nominated. Under this system a Donald Trump could get nowhere.
Today, of course, we don’t have party bosses, at least not in the way we used to. There are no gatekeepers any longer. Politicians self-select.
A short history lesson is in order to understand why this happened.
In the early 1950s Estes Kefauver, the junior senator from Tennessee, held hearings to expose the criminal operations of the mob. The hearings were a phenomenon and became a television sensation just as television was taking off. Kefauver held his hearings around the country, giving them a wide audience.
In 1952 Kefauver, over the objections of the party bosses, decided to run for president of the United States. He entered 15 primaries and won 12. He lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, whom the bosses preferred. But his success in the primaries taught a lesson. The Television Primary would be the one that counted as time went on. And within a few short years a young senator from Massachusetts figured that out. In 1960 John Kennedy, like Kefauver, a self-selected candidate, threw his hat in the ring and won – over the opposition of many of the party’s most powerful bosses.
Donald Trump is a creature of television. In this regard he isn’t unique. He simply mastered the skills required in the television age better than others and vanquished them. And today there aren’t any party bosses powerful enough to stand in the way of somebody like him.
The moral of this story is that we either have to get smarter voters (who won’t be taken in by a politician who lies five times a day) or more powerful party bosses. Short of that there will be more Donald Trumps in our future.*
Getting smarter voters sounds like the easier of the two tasks. It isn’t. The reason is it’s not facts that they need, though I’m all for facts. As I explain in Political Animals, it’s self-awareness. Voters need to understand how our unconscious brain guides our responses and shapes our behavior at the ballot box. To be sure, our evolved psychological mechanisms – our instincts – drive everybody’s politics to a certain extent. But they drive low information voters the most.
The other solution is an affront to good democrats. Who wants political bosses telling us how to vote? But we still need gatekeepers and putting them in place at critical political junctures would be a small inconvenience compared with the awful alternative. We need to make sure we never put another Donald Trump anywhere near the levers of power available to the person who sits in the Oval Office.
*I don’t think Trump is likely to be immediately succeeded by another person like him. America will tire of his shenanigans and lies as we always tire of our presidents. That’s in part why a George W. Bush, a not too-smart or articulate politician, was followed by a Barack Obama, who was both. So there’s that. But we’re doomed to see another Trump eventually if we don’t address the problem of ignorant voters operating in a world without party bosses.