The negativity, hostility and incivility of the Trump presidency makes it easy to say that he, and he alone, has degraded American political discourse and this coarseness has, thereby, endangered our nation and our democracy. But saying that is to both miss the point and give him too much credit.
We romanticize and misremember our past, creating a mythology that is more Hollywood than real, when we assume a golden age of civility in American political life. As most American historians know, politics has always been a competitive sport and American presidents have always expressed crude and often negative opinions about opponents. The difference between then and now is that they usually kept these thoughts and sayings private. We can hear them voice these thoughts to aides, colleagues, and staff in the White House tapes of JFK, LBJ and Nixon. But, they were careful to keep those thoughts out of the public realm (and their White House staffs rarely leaked), and to speak publicly in what could be best called a presidential voice. There was, in a sense a difference between the public and private sphere of being president.
One key difference today is the erasure of the private. Everything is public, as we are all witnesses as everything is leaked, tweeted, posted and published, in more or less real time. What we are witnessing is the unveiling of an old American secret — that politics is nasty business.
From the founding through much of the 19th century, ambitious men (and they were all men) used surrogates to pursue political office as the physical act of just running was seen as a demeaning, dirty act. Politics was above the American statesman. Active campaigning and embracing the active politics of life is a 20th century device, but let’s not forget that negative campaigning is age-old. The masters of politics (wizards and manipulators) always existed, if hidden behind the curtain, held at a distance and never fully in the inner circle. They were most certainly never public figures. They were feared and reviled as much as they were needed.
Take the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as an example. Supporters of Adams called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." That was in response to Jefferson’s supporters calling Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Neither man publically campaigned, let alone cast such loaded terms around; they battled through proxies in the belief that politics was by its nature is ugly and petty, thatt it could soil better men. Leaders needed to insulate themselves from politics as best they could to appear as statesmen rather than mere politicians. Statesmen needed to be above politics.
What we are witnessing now is the final toppling of the American statesman, as those in politics realize they are at their core politicians and therefore must embrace the realities of the business. The facade or gloss of statesmanship, of the walls between private and public life for American politicians is dead. . Sure, there are still those in politics who try to cling to the old notions, trying to stay above the fray, trying to maintain the dignity of statesmanship (in its genderless meaning). They are a declining bunch these days and seem to be going the way of the dodo bird.
Let’s look at presidential communication as a case in point. Historian David Greenberg has explained the role of political communications in The Republic of Spin, his important book on presidential and political communications. Presidents and their White House staff have always tried to manipulate the message, to change the discussion and influence discourse. How else could you govern or get anything done after all? To do that effectively, presidents needed to seem to be above politics, all the while being skilled political animals. Publicly they were statesmen; privately they were Machiavellian to the core. To succeed, White Houses needed a light-touch approach, as civilized discourse and plausible deniability were the rules. To overreach was to be publicly rebuffed. Therefore, they tried to avoid the appearance of direct manipulation, the appearance of scandal or anything that might change focus away from desired policy outcomes.
Sure, there are a few moments in history that pushed past the norms. The corruption of Ulysses Grant for instance, and more recently Richard Nixon and Watergate, but each of these low points led to what we might call a correction in the norms and expectations to which he held our presidents. We recommited to the statesman model of leadership.
Today, our political and social norms are again being pushed and it’s not clear we’ve yet hit whatever deep new bottom. The nastiness is nothing new. The abandonment of any veneer of politeness and civility, however, is very new—and suggests that the long-established unwritten rules of American politics have now been torn up.
The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue got there by breaking all the old rules of decent discourse, and — despite his plank promises that 'I'm gonna be so presidential that you people will be so bored” — has continued to viciously insult women, immigrants, rival politicians and anyone else who inspires his anger since coming to office. He won it by being a politician— and truly our first celebrity president, as John McCain, a subject of many of Trump’s insults, accused Barack Obama of being in 2008 — and shows no interest in becoming a statesman now.
Trump understands the entertainment value of politics and seems to have approached the campaign and his presidency as he would a reality show — the nasty characters always stay the longest. The nicest contestants leave first.
We are all witnesses to his utterances and will find out soon if there is any clawing back of our old political rules this time. Will one insult finally be the line in the sand that Americans will not accept him crossing? Is a moment coming similar to when chief counsel for the army Joseph N. Welsh confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy (advised by future Trump adviser Roy Cohn) with the line: "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” and thereby loosened the grip of McCarthyism on the U.S.
Historians will, no doubt, look back on this moment as a critical time when our political rules were redefined. It remains to be seen if it is marked also as the moment of democratic decline.