Americans view the election of a president the same way the world once looked upon the coronation of a British monarch. The king or queen who carried the crown was believed to embody the character of the empire he or she ruled. Just as the Victorian Age represented British supremacy and personal refinement, most opinion leaders I know convinced themselves that the election of Barack Obama signaled the triumph of multiculturalism over tribalism, multilateralism over American exceptionalism and cool rationalism over red-hot fundamentalism.
They were wrong.
Less than two years after Obama’s inauguration, the tea party was swept into power. Voters even checked the president’s 2012 reelection win a few years later with the largest congressional majority for Republicans since 1928. With such jagged voting patterns, Americans proved themselves worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a “first-rate intelligence”: Somehow functioning while holding “two opposed ideas in mind at the same time.” But even Fitzgerald would be flummoxed by Midwest voters pulling the lever for Obama twice and then Donald Trump last month.
Yet they did, and in so doing confirmed once again that the urge for political change usually has less to do with our nation’s character than with disgust toward Washington. In the past 40 years, this phenomenon repeated itself time and again with candidates as ideologically diverse as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Obama and Trump.
But safely removed from the pitched political battles of past decades, did the election of those candidates reveal something deeper about America’s soul? Did Carter’s victory in 1976 point to something that his landslide defeat four years later did not? And all these years later, did voters who elected a black president in 2012 suddenly become xenophobic bigots in 2016?
Of course not.
Instead, voters in 1976 reacted to Vietnam and Watergate by electing an unknown Georgia governor who promised to never tell a lie. In 1980, millions who voted for him the first time around concluded that he was overmatched by the job. They threw Carter out and chose a president who promised to stare down Islamic extremism and and make America great again.
If that sounds all-too-familiar on the last day of 2016, it may be because history is rhyming with itself once again.
Trump is not Reagan. But he is the the latest and most extreme version of a long line of disrupters who fed off of voters’ discontent. And while Trump has dominated this year’s political debate, the story that will have a more lasting impact on the character of America’s political soul is the collapse of the Democratic Party.
History will show that the Republican’s presidential nominee won because he peaked at the perfect time. He drew the inside straight that analysts said he needed to beat Hillary Clinton. If the election were held a week earlier or a few days later, Clinton probably would have won. But she didn’t. Uncovering the causes of her shocking loss may be easier than explaining her party’s collapse over the past decade. But getting to the bottom of that mystery will do more to reveal what America has become than the results of a presidential race that still has experts reeling as our country heads into a new year.