Monday, July 25, 2016

What's happened to us (or, what explains the allure of a Donald Trump candidacy)?

The candidacy of Donald Trump takes me back to law school.  I will never forget the day we discussed Shaw v. Reno -- the North Carolina racial gerrymandering case -- and the professor called on the guy in the back.  The guy in the back had not done the reading.  And upon every question, his answer was the same: "I don't know."  But there was something about the way the guy in the back answered the questions.  He must have seemed convincing enough.  And the case must have been confusing enough.  The professor liked those answers just fine.  

I bet the guy in the back must be a successful litigator somewhere.

This is the way I think about the Trump candidacy.  How could any of this happen? I don't know.  How could a person with no political experience get this far?  I don't know.  How could a person with such a checkered past get this far?  I don't know.  How could a person with as many bankruptcies and divorces speak for the "moral majority"?  I don't know.  How could a person recently labeled a racist by an influential columnist get this far?  I don't know. 

I could go on.

These are the questions that journalists and political scientists are now asking.  They are interesting questions.  As I think about the Trump candidacy, however, my mind goes back to the founding of the United States and the many fears and concerns that occupied the minds of the founding generation.  They feared precisely this, populism and what might amount to mob rule.  They feared direct democracy.  They feared the union of citizens "actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."  This is where checks and balances came in, and federalism, and separation of powers, and the Senate, and the Electoral College.  You can add to this list the rise of the party system and its disciplining influence on the impulses and passions of the masses.  

You can read many accounts of what has happened to the Republican party to get us to where we are today. I am more interested in a separate question: isn't Trump's the very candidacy that our constitutional structure is designed to avoid?  It is tempting to go back through time and compare the 2016 election cycle  with prior cycles (1964 is a popular example, and the Goldwater candidacy).  But I agree with those who argue that Trump is sui generis. His candidacy is unique.  And it raises the question:  What has happened to us?  Is this who "We the People" are, at out core?  Is the Trump candidacy a reflection of our basest instincts?  

Unlike the guy in the back, we know the answers to these questions.  

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