Many of those blinkered political commenters who allowed themselves to be swept up in the diaphanous hysteria that resulted in Barack Obama’s presidency convinced themselves that he was a change agent of divine wisdom. A “lightworker,” as the San Francisco Gate’s Mark Morford called him. They said Obama would restore America’s faith in the United States, in government in general, and even in ourselves. “That campaign restored a faith in politics that most of us thought we had lost,” gushed The Hill’s Niall Stanage. “America has restored the world’s faith in its ideals,” The Guardian averred without evidence. Seven years later, it’s clear that the effects of Obama’s presidency have not been to restore but to sap faith in the American system. We have so little reverence for the order bequeathed to us by the nation’s enlightened founding generation, in fact, that we deface it with adolescent acts of directionless defiance.
The presidency that was allegedly destined to repair the damage Bush did to the credibility of the federal government has only quickened the pace of America’s disaffection with politics. Today, the three co-equal branches of the federal government inspire confidence in only a handful of Americans. The media, organized labor, banks, schools, and big business, too, are no longer trusted. Among government-run enterprises, only the police and the military retain the trust of a majority of American citizens – a dangerous place for any civilian-led republic to find itself. Even on the matter of racial comity, a perpetual sore spot for most Americans, Obama has not lived up to his transcendental promise. In fact, the state of racial tensions in the Obama era makes the Bush presidency look like a utopian epoch characterized by ethnic harmony. The Obama presidency has failed on a variety of fronts, but its most injurious may be the ruinous effect it has had on faith in the republican experiment itself.
Americans’ disregard for the value of the governing institutions that serve as the country’s foundational structures is evident in how the voting public has approached the coming presidential election. Thus far, the process has been a joke, and the public has treated it like one.
On the Republican side of the ledger, the most accomplished and electable field of presidential candidates in living memory has been overshadowed by the all-consuming umbra that is Donald Trump. The celebrity candidate’s act — and it is an act – has thus far centered on offering only the vaguest of policy prescriptions, touting his own supreme awesomeness, and insulting anyone who dares to criticize him. Trump has said that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife,” who happens to be Hispanic. He has accused George W. Bush of milking veterans groups and of delivering “boring” speeches. He has called Lindsey Graham an unemployable “stiff,” John Kerry a “baby,” Jonah Goldberg a “dummy,” and Charles Krauthammer a “clown.” Trump’s insult comic routine rivaling that of Robert Smigel’s slight-slinging puppet, Triumph, has found a substantial and devoted audience of Republican primary voters. If politics and the presidency is a joke, this wounded group of conservatives reason, why not exalt a clown?
Republicans are not the only jaded types who are eagerly abandoning reason amid a summer of discontent. The Democratic Party’s prohibitive presidential nominee and the anointed successor to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, is embroiled in a controversy that would have scuttled the political prospects of a lesser deity. When confronted with the fact that the FBI, which recently seized the illicit and vulnerable server on which she housed “Top Secret” documents, discovered that much of that information was intentionally scrubbed in order to shield it from investigators, Clinton tried to turn the whole affair into a jest.
On Tuesday, Fox News correspondent Ed Henry asked Clinton if she had any knowledge of why her server was wiped of data, to which Clinton flippantly replied, “What? Like with a cloth or something?” It wasn’t the first time she had insulted the nation’s intelligence by dismissing the investigation into her careless stewardship of American national security secrets in service to the “convenience” and privileges to which she was accustomed. “You may have seen that I recently launched a Snapchat account,” Clinton told a roomful of supporters this week. “I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves.” Quite the knee-slapper – at least, for those who regard this kind of overt and unapologetic contempt for the public trust humorous.
Even America’s polling firms are getting in on the gag. The Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling has apparently embraced its image as an intentionally proactive source of fodder for standup comics rather than a scientific research outlet. That firm was spectacularly successful in that endeavor recently after it began survey testing the vulgarly named fictitious candidate “Deez Nuts.” They were perhaps surprised to learn that they successfully tricked 9 percent of North Carolina voters into supporting the make-believe independent candidate in a recent poll. The jest sparked the composition of hundreds of giddy headlines in which prurient journalists, titillated by the naughtily named candidate, reveled in their unearned sense of superiority over the misled survey respondents and mocked the uninformed voter who has yet to tune into the political process.
All of this cynicism is both trite and toxic. It is a tedious sort of juvenile rebelliousness that sees no value in the most resilient and vibrant political system man ever devised. We’re not talking about satire here – even if any of it were clever. We’re talking about stakeholders – candidates, pollsters, and political parties that have skin in the game – making light of the American system in order to capture the prevalent mood of alienation and apathy. But that dark and self-destructive mood is not one that deserves to be captured; it should be repudiated and dispelled, not incubated. It’s a republic only so long as we can keep it, and there is a vocal minority who appears increasingly indifferent to its longevity. What’s worse, there is an influential set in positions of authority who apparently feel the same way.