The myriad ways in which the president’s haphazard policy prescriptions and capricious and inflammatory rhetoric have undermined the foundations of Madisonian democracy are well documented. But the populist and virulently anti-American ideals that propelled this shameful conman to the most powerful office on the planet are now manifesting themselves in slightly different ways in the entity with the best chance to halt Trumpism in its tracks: the Democratic Party.
Since the early days of the Trump phenomenon, the Republican Party has slowly but assuredly succumbed to a personality cult and set of policy prescriptions that would have made Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower laugh with righteous condescension. To put it in succinct economic terms, the Republican Party may now be one tragic sunk cost in its entirety. But after the recent Democratic debates, it appears that some in the race to succeed inarguably the worst president in American history (somewhere George W. Bush is quietly celebrating) are determined to tell the electorate, “You think this guy is bad? Hold my beer.”
For a party that is purportedly about choice, I watched multiple front-running candidates proudly admit to being proponents of eliminating the private health insurance of tens of millions of Americans. For a party that is purportedly about diversity in appearance and perspective, I watched one candidate propel spurious claims of racial transgressions at the only vice president to serve beside a black commander in chief (per a 1973 Gallup poll, 91% of black Americans joined Joe Biden in opposition to busing as the best means to school integration). For a party attempting to reclaim patriotism from much of the right that has fetishized wars and toxic nationalism, it was disquieting to hear multiple candidates calmly allude to doing away with borders in their entirety. As the Republican Party creates multi-trillion-dollar deficits on purpose — providing the Democrats a massive opportunity to reclaim the role as the party of financial advocates for future generations — many Democrats are unabashedly campaigning on the wildly expensive, reckless and quasi-Soviet idea of a utopian society where everything is free and national borders are a thing of the past. None of these concepts are perhaps as blatantly anti-American as those ascendant in Trumpism — isolationism, xenophobia, etc. But rest assured, the platforms of candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and their ilk are depressingly anti-American, too.
What has made our nation the envy of the world is not the assurance of happiness as Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders might have us believe, but the protection of its pursuit. This is an oft-overlooked yet critical distinction. While candidates rage about the “evil” drug companies and corporate overlords (about some of which they are undoubtedly correct), they promulgate, intentionally or otherwise, what’s come to be known as the soft bigotry of low expectations. Yes, we need to address unsustainable income inequality, the lack of access to quality health care for all Americans and the impending automation of millions of more jobs. But we need to do so via partnerships with government, corporations, non-profits, and an electorate that is not condescendingly told they are incapable of achieving happiness without dictates from on high. Where is the call for the categorically American ideal of self-determination that defined JFK’s Democratic legacy? “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is seemingly antithetical to many in the post-Trump Democratic Party.
The uniquely American proposition, one which virtually all other world democracies have attempted to imitate, is that the individual is granted agency to pursue a life that coincides with his or her definition of happiness. Do we need a federal government that is capable of providing appropriate safety nets and programming for our citizens? Of course! But if we as a nation are to reclaim the American ideal from Trump & Co., we can’t insist that the government to do it all for us. To do so would not only be anti-American, but it very well could give us another four (or eight or 16) years of the most anti-American and destructive president one could imagine.
The Democrats made a potentially existential mistake in 2016. Let’s hope, for the sake of us all, they don’t manage to do it again in 2020.