The press predicts Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton will be “the nastiest, ugliest campaign in modern presidential history.” Polling indicates that the two major-party presumptive nominees are the most unpopular and disliked of any in recent memory. A majority of Republican primary voters preferred someone other than Trump; more than 40 percent of Democratic primary voters prefer Bernie Sanders to Clinton, often strongly. Both of the nominees relish nasty attacks, lie with gleeful, reckless abandon, flip-flop depending upon the political winds, and appear to believe in nothing besides their own right to power.
In other words, the year 2016 will be a tremendously dispiriting one in American politics. On one side, voters can endorse a long history of crass behavior, petty vindictiveness, and unwillingness to learn anything about policy; on the other, they can further reward the matriarch of a shameless, corrupt dynasty that thrives on hoodwinking the little people it claims to represent.
These are two way-too-familiar figures in our national politics. The fourth presidential campaign featuring a Clinton in 24 years promises, and is already delivering, an exhumation of all the old scandals and some new ones: Whitewater, Lewinsky, Benghazi, the e-mail server. The suicide of Vince Foster is in the headlines; it’s as if the news is in reruns.
Meanwhile, Trump’s flirted with the idea of running for president since the late 1980s, and has his own disgusting baggage. He promises, and is already delivering, a different kind of exhausting, unpleasant debate.
In the face of such a depressing choice, it’s easy to forget that there was a time, not long ago, when tens of thousands of Americans entered the realm of political activism with new determination, vigor, and energy. According to Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, at one point there were about 1,000 tea-party organizations across the country. Her research suggested that strong supporters of the movement constituted “one-fifth of voting-age adults, or roughly 46 million Americans.”
The Tea Party that once looked set to take over the GOP is now largely lining up behind a man who donated to Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter, and Harry Reid; a man who supported the TARP and auto bailouts and praised socialized medicine, touted ethanol subsidies to the rafters in Iowa, and offered a tax plan that would increase the deficit by $10 trillion.
Why attend meetings and rallies, knock on doors, and devote such effort to politics if politics gives you back Trump for your trouble?
How many former tea-party activists feel like they wasted their time? Why attend meetings and rallies, knock on doors, and devote such effort to politics if politics gives you back Trump for your trouble? Because of President Obama’s reelection, the Tea Party’s victories are better measured by the bad ideas it prevented than by the good ideas it enacted. That perpetually defensive posture would be frustrating enough, but the end of Obama’s administration has brought with it a cycle in which being politically active means volunteering for abuse from seemingly all directions.
The kind of nauseating verbal abuse that once was contained to comments sections on blogs has now spread to Facebook and Twitter; announce the birth of your son and you’ll be sent messages about how your whole family should be sent to the gas chambers. This is not how normal human beings talk to one other, and most normal human beings want nothing to do with a political atmosphere where it is the norm. If an environment has enough crazy people, non-crazy people will avoid it.
Which is a shame, because it means that politics is increasingly the exclusive domain of the crazy and delusional. The perversion of political discourse has brought with it a new kind of partisan loyalty, one that asks you to put aside your own thinking and have faith in an irrational leader. Being a good member of your tribe requires you to close your eyes and ears and block out all contrary evidence. Insist that Clinton release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches but ignore Trump’s tax returns. Pretend that Katie Couric’s documentary on guns wasn’t deceptively edited to make it appear that gun-rights activists can’t answer basic questions. Believe that those donations to Terry McAuliffe from a member of the Chinese parliament are legal, ethical, and perfectly normal, and that those rock-throwing anti-Trump protesters in Albuquerque are “mostly peaceful.”
One distraught Twitter user described this cycle as trying to persuade someone on a ledge not to jump because we’re handcuffed to them. By nominating Trump and Clinton, the American primary electorate jumped. Those of us who don’t like either option can feel the yank on our wrists already.
The moms and dads and grandparents and small-business owners and cheerful, idealistic amateurs who awakened in 2009 and 2010 were a gift to America’s political system. But they didn’t properly value themselves, and they weren’t properly valued by the Republican party, Democrats, or a hostile mainstream media.
The world has a lot of needs, and a lot of good causes in America’s communities could use the time, money, and effort of the Tea Party’s members and former members. A lot of one-time conservative activists are going to find other ways to occupy themselves this year. That’s a damn shame, but it’s hard to begrudge them their spot on the sidelines.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.