Fifty-four years ago, on November 8, 1966, only two years after Barry Goldwater’s rout in the Presidential election of 1964, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California and American Conservatism was back in political business. His opponent, once-popular, two-term Democrat Pat Brown had unwisely decided to seek a third term (after stating that he would not), and was damaged by unrest in the universities (where else?) and a season of riots, most notably those in the Watts area of South Los Angeles, huge conflagrations in which dozens died. Reagan took a tough line with the universities, asking in the speech announcing his candidacy:
Will we allow a great university to be brought to its knees by a noisy dissident minority? Will we meet their neurotic vulgarities with vacillation and weakness, or will we tell those entrusted with administering the university we expect them to enforce a code based on decency, common sense and dedication to the high and noble purpose of the university?
He was not shy about condemning the riots either, saying that the city streets of California had become “jungle paths after dark,” and supporting the short-lived repeal of the Rumford Fair Housing Act calling it an incursion on a citizen’s right to “dispose of property to whom we see fit, and when we see fit.” As might have been expected, the fallout from those remarks was swift and both of those positions aroused accusations of racism, which Reagan largely shrugged off, saying that citizens had a right to live in safety and that although some people may have been “expressing bigotry and prejudice [in opposing the Rumford Act]” that he was “sure the majority did so because the government was invading a Constitutional right.”
Reagan’s ascension to the Governorship of California launched the political career of one who many people considered a second-rate actor, a man of indifferent intellect, and a divorced and remarried man who many believed didn’t have the moral character to serve in public office. And yet that career culminated, fourteen years later, with his election to the first of his two terms as President of the United States, and after that, the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, in the hopes that the often spectacular successes and outcomes of the Reagan years would continue. And today, forty years later, many look back on that time as a lost, golden age of Conservatism and the Republican Party in the United States. And perhaps it is. And perhaps it was.
Nevertheless, life goes on, and here we still are.
It’s a bit of a mess, to be sure. I don’t know what the final outcome will be. I don’t really know what ordinary citizens can do to help (pretty sure rioting and burning things down should be off the table). Send money to the RNC legal fund, perhaps?
I do know that Donald Trump has an obligation to the 70 million or so Americans who voted for him to do everything he can to ensure the integrity of the ballots, and that the count is fair and accurate. As obnoxious as some people may find that idea, and as petulant and ungracious as Trump’s demeanor may be in announcing it and as it plays out, the history of both perceived and actual election fraud in this country is wide and deep, and the quadrennial navel-gazing over it is one of the country’s least edifying aspects, no matter who’s on offense, who’s on defense, or where the ball is spotted (note well: rare sports analogy). It’s 60 years since the first American presidential election of my lifetime to be clouded by credible claims of fraud and corruption was held. Whether or not the election of John F. Kennedy on November 8, 1960 was legitimate is still being debated, not always by cranks.
Will Trump be successful in his challenges? I don’t know. I hope that the eventual outcome will show that one or the other presidential candidates won fairly and squarely, and that the GOP holds the Senate. I increasingly fear that one, or worst case both, of those things will not come to pass.
can’t won’t live my life that way. Hope is not a strategy. Despair is not a lifestyle. Not for me, anyway.
So what now?
I look back four years, to a time when the last narcissistic and grandiose US President left office. (To be fair, I think a certain amount of narcissism and grandiosity is necessary in the character and makeup of anyone who’s running for a position as “Leader of the Free World.” Some just manage to hide it better than others.)
And I think to myself that one of the huge disservices that Barack Obama did the Democrat party was to leave office and leave the party with no clear lines of succession. Often, when a President leaves office, the Vice-President becomes the de-facto “leader,” first among equals with a few rising stars thrown in the mix. Joe Biden wasn’t that leader in 2016. (As best I can tell, he’s been hiding in his basement not just for the last six months, but for the last four years.) And there weren’t really any significant nationally-credible rising stars. Well, Pelosi and Schumer. LOL.
The result of what (I remember reading about at the time) was probably a conscious decision on Obama’s part not to hand off the baton to the next generation, but to keep himself front and center even after he left office (likely because he was depending on a Hillary win), was the “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” effect of the Democrat primary debate stage earlier this year. 17 of them? 19 of them? 22 of them? Who cares? And who can really remember what any of them, besides Bernie, stood for–or did they all stand for the same thing? Who cares?
Because when it all came down to it, no-one really knew who the hell they were, they started dropping like flies, and finally, in an effort to stem the chaos, squelch Bernie, and give Rip van Biden a boost, James Clyburn decreed that he would win the South Carolina primary. (IIRC, it’s the first primary election Biden had ever won, in any of his 3? 5? 12? Who cares? runs for President.)
That started the “Joe-mentum.” And the rest is history. Maybe.
My hope for the post-Trump Republican party is that it doesn’t make the same mistake. Whether or not Trump leaves office in January of 2021, or January of 2025, I hope that there’ll be two or three leaders of recognized national stature carrying the Conservative (and yes, largely Trumpian–remember those 70 million voters) message forward, and that the electorate will have a chance to evaluate and observe them over a period of more than the five minutes of the primary season when they suddenly erupt into the national consciousness for the first time.
I’m not saying there isn’t room for a shooting star to emerge at any moment from the political, or a different, arena. I’m saying that nature, and politics, abhor a vacuum, and that it’s not a good idea to leave one at the head of the party, otherwise, after a brief period of posturing by a gaggle of opportunists, poseurs, and nitwits, you’re likely to end up with another Joe Biden, or his equivalent on the GOP side, doddering in to fill the space.
When it comes time for Trump to say goodbye, I hope he gives the speech of his life. I hope he thanks his supporters, tells them they’re the best people in the world (I know they are, because many of them are my neighbors), tells them that they, and not he, are what “Makes America Great.” That even though he is leaving office, the work goes on. That he knows he can trust them to do it. And that he’s leaving the party in good hands [insert a few names here].
I hope he doesn’t leave angrily, with promises that he, or one of his children, will be back in 2024 or 2028. I really hope he doesn’t do that.
If Donald Trump would like to have some say in how the country and the party moves forward (and I hope he would like that), if he’d like to be remembered as something of a statesman, he’s going to have reconcile himself, perhaps for the first time ever, to the fact that not all his 80 percent supporters are his 20 percent enemies, give some of them a boost into the spotlight, and then let go gracefully.
That’s half the job.
And then it is on us to do with each other, likewise.