Maybe it’s the fever of the election season, but prophecies of doom, despair, and darkness have begun to flare. Partisans of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton argue that it is imperative – for the future of the country, the fate of the world – to elect one or the other. At times, the candidates themselves get in on the act.
Perhaps in part to shore up his support in the wake of growing personal controversies, Donald Trump has taken to offering dire predictions that the movement embodied in his candidacy has only one shot of saving democratic self-governance: electing him as president. As he said in West Palm Beach the other day:
This is a struggle for the survival of our nation, believe me. And this will be our last chance to save it on November 8th, remember that. This election will determine whether we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged. This is reality, you know it, they know it, I know it, and pretty much the whole world knows it. The establishment and their media enablers will control over this nation through means that are very well known.
Donald Trump is not alone in this insistence that salvation comes only through his election. Hillary Clinton recently told the New York Times’s Mark Leibovich, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.”
There’s something troubling about a presidential candidate’s openly championing the idea that he or she alone is the last defense against the apocalypse or tyranny. It might help rally a candidate’s base, but it also sows the seeds of alienation: In a presidential contest, someone is bound to lose, which means that tens of millions of that person’s supporters are likely to be disappointed. In a healthy political system, those disappointed millions take the loss in stride, return to their daily lives, and work for victory in the next electoral cycle. When presidential campaigns trumpet their candidate as the only hope, they risk causing this disappointment to curdle into a political radicalization. To court this radicalization is to play with fire.
If Donald Trump loses on November 8 by five points (about how much he is down in the polls right now), it would not be because of a rigged system, vote fraud, or a sinister globalist cabal operating from the shadows. He would lose because of his traits as a candidate and the choices of his campaign. Nor would his loss be the final nail in the coffin of the American republic. We would muddle through, as we always have. A Clinton presidency – especially if backed by a Democratic Congress – could take a toll on the nation and set back many hopes of limited government. But, with hope and prudence, the nation would persevere.
The republic can certainly endure a bombastic reality-TV star or the most venal of Alinskyites.
But there is a risk of radicalization for anti-Trump activists, too. If, by some surprising turn of events (though perhaps less strange than some of the other occurrences of this cycle), Donald Trump were elected president, the republic would not collapse. If Donald Trump could end the American republic and usher in a dictatorship, then the republic is already rotten to the core. Despite the fashionable inclination to adulate presidents, our nation still has checks and balances. The courts and, especially, Congress can still restrain the executive branch. A national dictatorship would be the sign of a systemic failure of our republican architecture – a problem that no single election could either cause or cure. (The anti-Trump Right has its own temptation of radicalizing backlash: throwing in with a leftist narrative of politics and arguing that what really ails conservatism and the GOP are “toxic masculinity” and other ideological chimeras in the menagerie of cultural Marxism. The flaws of Donald Trump do not excuse the surrender of deeper principles – a truth a variety of factions could learn from.)
The idea that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton could destroy the republic suggests an abysmal lack of faith in the foundations of our government. We’ve survived a Civil War, Nazi Germany, and the Cold War; the republic can certainly endure a bombastic reality-TV star or the most venal of Alinskyites. In a healthy republic, no man is indispensable for the survival of the nation. The leader with the greatest claim to indispensability in American history is George Washington, and his indispensability owes more to his willingness to surrender power than to any particular use of that power.
In this divided era, it is imperative that we recover the spirit of compromise, charity, and hopefulness. It is through those everyday acts of virtue and empathy that we strengthen our communities and ensure the health of our republic. Whatever happens on November 8, we have an obligation to ensure that life can carry on when November 9 dawns.