The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy
The American republic was long safeguarded by settled norms, now shattered by the rise of Donald Trump.
A long time ago, more than 20 years in fact, the Wall Street Journal published a powerful, eloquent editorial, simply headlined: “No Guardrails.”
In our time, the United States suffers every day of the week because there are now so many marginalized people among us who don't understand the rules, who don't think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.
Twenty years later, that same newspaper is edging toward open advocacy in favor of Donald Trump, the least self-controlled major-party candidate for high office in the history of the republic. And as Trump forged his path to the nomination, he snapped through seven different guardrails, revealing how brittle the norms that safeguard the American republic had grown.
Here’s the part of the 2016 story that will be hardest to explain after it’s all over: Trump did not deceive anyone. Unlike, say, Sarah Palin in 2008, Trump appeared before the electorate in his own clothes, speaking his own words. When he issued a promise, he instantly contradicted it. If you chose to accept the promise anyway, you did so with abundant notice of its worthlessness. For all the times Trump said believe me and trust me in his salesman patter, he communicated constantly and in every medium that there was only thing you could believe and trust: If you voted for Donald Trump, you’d get Donald Trump, in all his Trumpery and Trumpiness.
The television networks that promoted Trump; the primary voters who elevated him; the politicians who eventually surrendered to him; the intellectuals who argued for him, and the donors who, however grudgingly, wrote checks to him—all of them knew, by the time they made their decisions, that Trump lied all the time, about everything. They knew that Trump was ignorant, and coarse, and boastful, and cruel. They knew he habitually sympathized with dictators and kleptocrats—and that his instinct when confronted with criticism of himself was to attack, vilify, and suppress. They knew his disrespect for women, the disabled, and ethnic and religious minorities. They knew that he wished to unravel NATO and other U.S.-led alliances, and that he speculated aloud about partial default on American financial obligations. None of that dissuaded or deterred them.
And the “them” is growing. When I wrote about the Trump candidacy last fall, that candidacy was still backed only by one-third of Republicans, most typically the party’s least-affluent, least-educated, and least-churched supporters. Back then, I offered four guesses about the party’s response to Trump: beat him, steal his issues, ignore him, or change the rules to circumvent him. I under-estimated him—or possibly over-estimated his party. Trump steadily added to his support, moving up-market and up in the polls. In the Oregon Republican primary of May 17, the first after his last rivals conceded defeat, Trump won 66.6 percent of all votes cast. Polls in late May show 85 percent of Republicans now supporting Trump.
Those of us who live and socialize among conservatives every day discover that another friend has—with greater or lesser reluctance—accepted the leadership of the bombastic businessman and reality-television star. To those of us who still cannot imagine Trump as either a nominee or a president, this movement toward him among our friends, relatives, and colleagues is in varying degrees baffling and sinister. Yet it is happening: an inescapable and accelerating fact.
Whatever the outcome in November, conservatives and Republicans will have brought a catastrophe upon themselves, in violation of their own stated principles and best judgment. It’s often said that a good con is based upon the victim’s weaknesses. Why were fconservatives and Republicans so vulnerable? Are these vulnerabilities not specific to one side of the political spectrum—are they more broadly present in American culture? Could it befall liberals and Democrats next time? Where were the guardrails?
Let’s survey the breakage, from earliest to latest, and from least to most alarming.
The first guardrail to go missing was the old set of expectations about how a candidate for president of the United States should speak and act. Here’s Adlai Stevenson accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1952:
That I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, is not to say that I value it the less.
There was a certain quantum of malarkey here—but it wasn’t all malarkey. From the founding of the republic, Americans have looked to qualities of personal restraint as one of the first checks on the power of office. "The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” So argued James Madison in Federalist 57. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton promised more specifically: “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”
Through two-and-a-quarter centuries, conservative-minded Americans have worried that one change or another would obliterate the old ideals: the rise of parties in the 1800s, universal white-male suffrage in the 1830s, votes for women, television, etc. We can argue about the character of the various presidents elected along the way. Yet when Barack Obama sought the office in 2007, he sounded the familiar refrain: “I know you didn't come here just for me, you came here because you believe in what this country can be.”
To put it mildly, that’s not the tone of the Donald Trump campaign. President Nixon said in his 1969 eulogy of former President Eisenhower, “He exemplified what millions of parents hoped that their sons would be: strong and courageous and honest and compassionate. And with his own great qualities of heart, he personified the best in America.” Donald Trump, by contrast, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lamented, exemplifies what millions of parents would fear in their sons: “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.”
During the election of 1800, Hamilton warned his friend Harrison Gray Otis that Aaron Burr “loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement” and could not, consequently, be trusted to honor any agreement with his political opponents. Trump’s political allies have said the same and worse of him, while yet grudgingly pledging to support him in the end. Something’s obviously changed in the American definition of acceptable behavior in those who seek power. That guardrail is down.
The second broken guardrail is the expectation of some measure of trustworthiness in politicians.
The dark arts of politics include dissimulation, evasion, and misdirection. Days before the election of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt famously promised the mothers and fathers of America, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” He’d left himself a wide loophole, however, for as he explained to his speechwriter Robert Sherwood, “If somebody attacks us, then it isn’t a foreign war, is it?”
Outright lying, however, happens more rarely than you think in politics, especially in high and visible offices like the presidency. Political scientists estimate that presidents keep about three-quarters of their campaign promises. When presidents break their word, the reason is far more likely to be congressional opposition than the president’s own flip-flopping. If politicians really did lie all the time, voters would not be so outraged on those occasions where a politician is indubitably caught in untruth—and yet voters are outraged. Even where the politician did not intentionally lie, as George W. Bush did not intentionally lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, important statements exposed as untrue will inflict untold political damage.
Donald Trump’s dishonesty, however, is qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee. The stack of lies teeters so tall that one obscures another: lies about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11, lies about his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan war, lies about his wealth, lies about the size of his crowds, lies about women he’s dated, lies about his donations to charity, lies about self-funding his campaign. “Whatever lie he’s telling, in that minute he believes it,” Senator Ted Cruz said of Trump in May 2016. "But the man is utterly amoral. Morality does not exist for him.”
As late as March, 2016, more than half of Republicans and Republican leaders described Trump as “dishonest” in a Washington Post survey. They voted for him in the primaries all the same, and by rising pluralities even as the lies accumulated.
Trump’s lies weren’t overlooked—and they weren’t believed. They were condoned by Republicans who had come to believe, “everybody does it.” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough spoke for many:
Conservatives that have been betrayed by the Washington establishment for 30 years, by Republican candidates that run for office saying they're going to balance the budget and lie. Republican candidates that run and say they're going to overturn Obamacare and lie. Republican candidates who say vote for me and I'm going to have a humble foreign policy and lie.
But Scarborough’s list of betrayals weren’t “lies.” They were failures, failures made inevitable by the impossibility of the Republican base’s own demands. (How do you balance the budget while cutting taxes, without touching either defense or Medicare?) As one unfriendly critic noted, the Republican rank-and-file weren’t exactly innocent victims of elite deception.
Republican voters … wanted everything, and, after all, GOP leaders promised them that it was possible—even though those same leaders knew it was not.
Place the blame for that failure where you will, however, the results were glaring: radical Republican rejection of the trustworthiness of their leaders—all their leaders. What, then, was one liar more—especially if that liar were more exciting than the others, more willing to say at least some of the things that Republicans wanted said? Cynicism leads to acceptance of the previously unacceptable. Another guardrail down.
A third broken guardrail is the expectation that a potential president should possess deep—or at least adequate—knowledge of public affairs.
Donald Trump is surely the most policy-ignorant major party nominee of modern times, or perhaps of any time. As with the lies, it’s almost impossible to keep track of the revelations of gaps in his knowledge. The most spectacular may have been talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt’s exposure of the fact that Trump lacked the most basic understanding of the structure and mission of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
It’s a fair generalization that Republicans demand less policy expertise from their national leaders than Democrats have usually expected from theirs. Ronald Reagan was less well-informed than Jimmy Carter; George W. Bush had mastered less detail than Al Gore. Yet both Reagan and Bush had at least proven themselves successful governors of important states. Both men offered clear and plausible presidential platforms, which both men implemented in their first year in office more or less as advertised.
What’s different now is the massive Republican and conservative rejection of the idea that a candidate for president should know anything substantive about governing at all. As of November, 2015, 62 percent of Republicans insisted that “ordinary Americans” would do a better job solving the country’s problems than professional politicians. While 80 percent of Democrats wanted experience in government in the next president, according to post-Super Tuesday 2016 exit polls, only 40 percent of Republicans did so. The larger share, 50 percent, preferred an “outsider.”
Over the past three cycles, Republicans have elevated a succession of manifestly unqualified people to high places in their national politics. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann shot to stardom in the Tea Party era. For a brief period in late 2015, Ben Carson led the Republican polls—Carson being the only candidate who made even Donald Trump look knowledgeable by comparison. Government is a complex science and a sophisticated art. Its details matter, its trade-offs reverberate into four and five dimensions. Although Republican voters in the aggregate are better informed than Democratic voters in the aggregate, their votes are guided by two more urgent and immediate feelings: bleak pessimism (79 percent of Republicans say they are on the “losing side” of most political debates, versus 52 percent of Democrats) and unyielding refusal to compromise with opponents (while 63 percent of Democrats favor a president who’ll compromise with the other party, only 35 percent of Republicans do so). Despairing yet obdurate, Republicans have come to value willpower over intellect, combativeness over expertise. Donald Trump’s nomination culminates that evolution. A third guardrail down.
One guardrail that Trump’s opponents all assumed would hold fast was the fourth: the guardrail of ideology. Hardline conservatives would surely reject a candidate who barely understood what a principle was! Anti-compromise Republicans would certainly recoil from a candidate who advertised himself as a deal-maker! Wrong and wrong.
Trump bungled tests of orthodoxy on abortion, taxes, Obamacare, and national security. He survived unscathed. Attacks on Trump as a false conservative signally failed, whether launched by fellow-candidates or outside super PACs. As Ross Douthat of The New York Times nicely phrased it, “A party whose leading factions often seemed incapable of budging from 1980s-era dogma suddenly caved completely to a candidate who regards much of the conservative vision with indifference bordering on contempt.”
The ideology guardrail snapped because so much of the ideology itself had long since ceased to be relevant to the lives of so many Republican primary voters. Instead of a political program, conservatism had become an individual identity. What this meant, for politicians, was that the measure of your “conservatism” stopped being the measures you passed in office—and became much more a matter of style, affect, and manner. John McCain might have a perfect pro-life voting record. Mitch McConnell may have proven himself President Obama’s most effective opponent. Jeb Bush may have cut state taxes every year. But compared to Sarah Palin’s folksy attacks on big city elites … or Ron Paul’s dark allegations of conspiracy at the Federal Reserve … or Ted Cruz’s government filibusters and shutdowns–none of those real-world achievements weighed much in the balance.
The party’s once mighty social conservatives collapsed like sodden newsprint before a candidate who treated them with flagrant disrespect. The ardently pro-life Pat Buchanan belittled Trump’s mangling of the movement’s core principles: “New to elective politics, Trump is less familiar with the ideological and issues terrain than those who live there.” Trump urged evangelical leaders to “trust him” on traditional marriage. Days later, he told a reporter that he’d “move forward” on gay rights. He then resolved the contradiction by refusing to answer more questions about the issue.
John Boehner and Eric Cantor had been chased out of Congress for much smaller deviations from orthodoxy. How did Trump get away with so much more? Trump may not be much of a conservative by conviction. But he functions as a conservative in silhouette, defined by the animosity of all the groups that revile him. “SJWs will elect Trump,” warned the anti-Trump writer Rod Dreher in The American Conservative after protesters shut down a Trump rally in Chicago in March. “I am not a Trump supporter, and I reject much of his rhetoric. But he has a right to give a speech, even an obnoxious speech, without it being interrupted by demonstrators. … What those protesters have done tonight is create a lot more Trump voters out of people who are sick and tired of privileged leftists using thug tactics to silence their opponents.”
“We love him most for the enemies he made,” said supporters of the anti-Tammany Democrat Grover Cleveland. The sentiment applies pretty generally in politics. As conservatism’s positive program has fallen ever more badly out of date, as it has delivered ever fewer benefits to its supporters and constituents, those supporters have increasingly defined their conservatism not by their beliefs, but by their adversaries. And those adversaries Donald Trump has made abundantly his own.
Donald Trump would have been hemmed in a generation ago by a fifth guardrail: the primacy of national security concerns. Trump has no relevant experience, no military record, scant interest in the topic—and a long history of casual expressions of sympathy for authoritarian rulers. He famously explained that he gets his military advice from TV talk shows. The most recent Republican secretary of defense, Bob Gates, told Yahoo’s Katie Couric that he would not, at present, feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button.
Trump has slighted NATO as “obsolete.” “If it breaks up NATO,” he has said of his plans to withdraw American protection from allies who don’t spend more, “it breaks up NATO.” He’s also proposed withdrawing U.S. protection from Japan and South Korea, and spoken favorably of those two countries providing for their own security by obtaining nuclear weapons, apparently unaware of the tensions between those two U.S. allies. Trump also mused open-mindedly about Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons.
There’s something more going on here than an Iraq War hangover. Trump’s foreign policy is predicated upon an apocalyptic vision of the United States as a weak and fading country, no longer able to shoulder the costs and burdens of world leadership. That view aligns with the deeply pessimistic mood of today’s Republican voters. Sixty-six percent of them say that life has gotten worse for people like them as compared to 50 years ago. (Trump voters are the most pessimistic: 75 percent of them say things are worse for people like themselves.) Half of Trump Republicans describe economic conditions in the United States as poor; almost 40 percent of them assess that American involvement usually makes global problems worse.
Trump’s foreign-policy statements are so careless and so seemingly poorly considered that it’s tempting to dismiss them. If he did become president, wouldn’t he be surrounded by steadier hands, who would draw him back toward the historic norms of American policy? Perhaps. But also very likely … not. Trump’s ramshackle statements do present a coherent point of view. His instinct is always to abandon friends and allies, to smash up alliances that have kept the peace, to leave the world to fend for itself against aggressors and predators.
Trump’s one significant foreign-policy address was delivered to an audience that included the Russian ambassador but no representatives of any U.S. allies. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for seven years for the kleptocratic ruler of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Trump’s online presence is strongly reinforced by pro-Putin trolls and bots.
Republicans still care that their candidate be “strong.” They thrill to Trump’s rhetoric of massive violence against ISIS. What they seem no longer to care about is the larger architecture of security built since 1941 to keep America and its friends safe, prosperous, and free.
Despairing and demoralized, they lack the “energy and conviction”—in the phrase of the French Cold War writer Jean-Francois Revel—to sustain American leadership or to defend American interests in the larger world. The guardrail of conservative commitment to U.S. global leadership has smashed, ripping open a danger to the world, and a sinister opportunity to global mischief-makers.
A deep belief in tolerance and non-discrimination for Americans of all faiths, creeds, and origins also once functioned as a guardrail against destructive politics. In the words of the 1980 Republican platform: “The truths we hold and the values we share affirm that no individual should be victimized by unfair discrimination because of race, sex, advanced age, physical handicap, difference of national origin or religion, or economic circumstance.”
Disrespect for targeted groups—including the very biggest of them all, women—has been the recurring theme of the Trump candidacy. Even many Republicans who have accepted Trump are left uneasy by the candidate’s tone and associations. Trump himself is trying to retrace some ground, tweeting an image of himself eating a taco bowl and explaining to Fox’s Greta van Sustern that he’d wish to “back off” a ban on Muslim entry into the United States “as soon as possible.”
Trump has appealed to white identity more explicitly than any national political figure since George Wallace. But whereas Wallace was marginalized first within the Democratic Party, and then within national politics, Trump has increasingly been accommodated. Yes, Trump was often fiercely denounced by rivals and insiders in the earlier part of the campaign. But since effectively securing the nomination by winning the Indiana primary on May 3, that criticism has quieted—when it has not ceased altogether. One-time Trump opponents like former Bush White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer now dismiss criticism of Trump’s slurs and insults as “a Northeastern look down your nose at other people who are different …. That [criticism] is disdain for the voters.”
America in 2016 is vastly more racially diverse society than the America of Goldwater’s and Wallace’s time. At that time, an overwhelming white majority was presented with demands for equality by a long subordinated African American minority. At least as a matter of formal law, the white majority of the 1960s and 1970s acceded to that demand. Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, spoke for that majority when he led the fight to end the filibuster of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “The time has come for equal of opportunity in … government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.”
The country’s different now, and the change has brought unexpected political consequences.
Whites exposed to the racial demographic shift information preferred interactions/settings with their own ethnic group over minority ethnic groups; expressed more negative attitudes toward Latinos, Blacks, and Asian Americans; and expressed more automatic pro-White/anti-minority bias. … These results suggest that rather than ushering in a more tolerant future, the increasing diversity of the nation may instead yield intergroup hostility.
That’s the summary of a set of experiments by psychologists at Northwestern University. Their work is supported by abundant evidence across the social sciences, including perhaps most famously a 2007 paper by Robert Putnam showing that increases in ethnic diversity lead to collapses in civic health. Trust among neighbors declines, as does voting, charitable giving, and volunteering.
As community cohesion weakens, moral norms change. What would have been unacceptable behavior in a more homogenous national community becomes tolerable when a formerly ascendant group sees itself at risk from aggressive new claims by new competitors. Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans. Those white Americans who respond to his message hear his abusive comments, not as evidence of his unfitness for office, but as proof of his commitment to their tribe.
And so breaks another guardrail.
Which brings us to the last and perhaps very most ominous of the broken guardrails.
The generation that bore arms in World War II returned home with a strong—arguably unprecedentedly strong—loyalty to the nation as a whole. Never before or after did so many civilians move across state lines as in the decade of the 1940s. Then followed the great migrations from city to suburbs, of black farmworkers to northern cities, and of northern officeworkers to the booming Sunbelt.
Once fierce religious rivalries blurred into the broad categories— Protestant, Catholic, Jew–which in turn discovered new affinities for each other in a common creed of “Americanism.”
In a way unknown before, and unfamiliar since, the veterans of World War II routinely voted one way for presidents and governors, and the opposite way for members of Congress or state legislatures. Democrats won majorities of both houses of Congress in nearly every election from 1954 through 1992, with Republicans only holding the Senate for a brief stretch from 1981 to 1987. Yet voters delivered pendulum-swing-style landslide presidential victories, sometimes to Democrats (1964), sometimes to Republicans (1972, 1984).*
In 1972, more than 37 million Americans cast a vote for a Democratic member of the House of Representatives: something over 52 percent of all House votes cast. Only about 29 million Americans voted for Democrat George McGovern for president that year. Ticket splitting in 1984 was only a little less dramatic: House Democrats won a combined 4.25 million more votes than House Republicans, even as Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by some 17 million votes.
Partisan identities have hardened since then. “Today, far larger proportions of Democratic and Republican voters hold strongly negative views of the opposing party than in the past,” observe Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster in their paper, “All Politics is National: The Rise of Negative Partisanship.” Negative partisanship is the argument deployed to reconcile anti-Trump Republicans to their party’s nominee.
Thus, defeated Senator Marco Rubio told the Today program on May 11 that, without retracting a word of criticism of Donald Trump, “I'm even more scared about her [Clinton] being in control of the U.S. government.”
Negative partisanship has softened the Wall Street Journal too. The day after Trump released a list of selections for the Supreme Court, the Journal’s editors reassured readers: “Nothing is certain with Mr. Trump, but that’s far preferable to the certainty that Hillary Clinton would nominate a down-the-line liberal.”
Even more arrestingly, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg—one of the most forceful of the conservative “Never Trump” voices—explained on May 21 that while he would continue to speak against Trump as a danger to the conservative movement:
If the election were a perfect tie, and the vote fell to me and me alone, I’d probably vote for none other than Donald Trump because (endorsing a view presented to him by a National Review supporter) we know Hillary will be terrible, while we can only suspect Trump will be. Trump will probably do some things conservatives will like—Supreme Court appointments, etc.—while we know for a fact Hillary will not.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that a president of the other party is the very worst possible thing that could befall America, then any nominee of your party—literally no matter who—becomes a lesser evil. And with that, the last of the guardrails is smashed.
Many conservatives and Republicans recognize Trump as a disaster for their institutions and their ideals. Yet they have found it impossible to protect things they hold dear—in large part because they have continued to fix all blame outward and elsewhere. “President Obama created Donald Trump,” charged Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in a March 3, 2016, op-ed.
To the extent that Donald Trump has policies, I’m probably more sympathetic to them than Jindal is. Much of the traditional conservative ideology was obsolete. Migration should be reduced. Americans reasonably depend on Medicare and Social Security. It’s time to move past culture wars on private sexual behavior. Policy, however, is not the first or second or third impetus of the Trump campaign. It’s driven by something else—and the source of that something is found inside the conservative and Republican world, not outside. The Trump phenomenon is the effect of many causes. Yet overhanging all the causes is the central question: Why did Republicans and conservatives react to those causes as they did? There were alternatives. Of all the alternatives for their post-Obama future, Republicans and conservatives selected the most self-destructive of the options before them. Why? What went wrong? That will be the excruciating mystery to ponder during the long and difficult work of reconstruction ahead.
* This article originally stated that Democrats won both houses of the U.S. Congress in every election from 1954 to 1992. We regret the error.