What an unbelievable mess! The insurgency within the Republican Party has succeeded and the outsider has won. The insurgency within the Democratic Party has failed and the (relative) outsider has lost. Oh, he’s still making noise but he clearly has lost. Barring divine intervention or a Justice Department indictment, neither of which seems likely any time soon, Americans will have to choose between two individuals, neither of whom should – or, in a sane society, would – be allowed anywhere near the presidency.
There’s Hillary Clinton, witch-queen of the Democratic establishment and widely viewed as an untrustworthy liar who really should be in jail for endangering American security with her incredibly (and perhaps deliberately) careless handling of classified information, never mind the rest of her scandal-plagued career. Then there’s Donald Trump, the con artist carnival barker, who has been called obnoxious, crass, a bully, and a back-stabber among other things.
The Republicans had 16 better alternatives though, for various reasons and at various times, each one crashed and burned. The Democrats never had any better alternatives unless the definition of “better alternative” includes a goofy old Bolshevik who shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone over twelve.
Choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, someone wrote, is like choosing which of two venereal diseases you would rather have. All you can do is pick the one that you think would have the least bad effects and be the easiest and quickest to get rid of.
And yet, this situation is not historically unique. Though it may be just grasping at straws, we might actually take some comfort, perhaps even some hope, from the fact that this is not the first time that we’ve had a thoroughly nasty and apparently incoherent election campaign or one that featured “outsiders” of one type or another. It’s more immediate because it’s happening now and because of the multiplier effects of social media but Americans have been here before.
Reagan was an outsider, as was Eisenhower. So was Teddy Roosevelt in a manner of speaking and, of course, Lincoln before him.
But the ultimate outsider in American presidential election history prior to Donald Trump was Andrew Jackson. This is not to personally compare him to, much less equate him with, Trump. For better or worse, Trump is not Jackson. But the perceptions of both men by their political enemies were much the same. Those perceptions led then, and lead now, to expectations of disaster as their opponents saw each man as being vulgar, ignorant, uncouth, unsophisticated, and utterly unprepared for the office. As Jackson was “the wild man of the woods,” so Trump is a kind of wild man of the city. Both, however, proved to be rather more clever and nuanced in their approaches to politics than they were given credit for.
Andrew Jackson was, and Donald Trump is, thoroughly hated and feared by the Washington establishment which viewed a Jackson presidency and views a Trump presidency, in the words of one Jackson biographer, as “the end of their reign.” In Jackson’s case, this fear proved, at least temporarily, to be true. We’ll have to wait and see about Trump.
As to nasty campaigns, neither the Republicans’ intra-party broadsides, nor the increasingly barbed arrows being fired at each other by Hillary and Sanders, have been any worse than the fight between Jackson and the Henry Clay-John Quincy Adams tandem. Vicious name-calling, behind the scenes wheeling-and-dealing, and even attacks on Jackson’s wife became the norm. Clay changed his positions on some issues based on Jackson’s positions just so that he could criticize him.
Had Twitter existed then, there would have been a full-fledged #NeverAndrewJackson campaign. And once Jackson was elected, Clay called the result “mortifying,” “sickening,” and “a calamity.”
So take heart, patriots. Perhaps this is a national wake-up call. America has faced this sort of assault before and survived.