The Three Institutions that Failed in the 2016 Presidential Election
Any one of them could have blocked Trump’s rise to power
Let me start by saying that there should never be any "moving on" from Donald Trump. We must study him and the conditions that gave rise to his presidency as we study cancer and Covid—for purposes of intellectual mastery and prevention.
A demagogue like Trump came to power because three institutions failed in their duties to the nation and the Constitution during the presidential election season of 2015-16: the Republican Party, the media, and the U.S. educational system. In this essay I discuss the derelictions of the Republican Party. Later I will write about the negligence of the other two.
In future essays I will examine the other two institutions that failed badly in 2015-16: The Media & the American Education System.
The Republican Party committed malpractice against the Constitution because on July 19, 2016, it nominated a man with a God complex to become the next president of the United States. Plain for all to see from Day 1, Trump placed himself above the Constitution. Plain for all to see, Trump suffered from severe narcissistic personality disorder, and he was a demagogue—a political subtype well-known to be the agent of destruction of democracies since ancient Athens and Rome.
Republican leaders recognized early on that Trump was a nemesis to democracy, but, instead of acting, they followed a passive, perilous doctrine: “Let democracy take its course.”
Republican leaders could have done three things to stop Trump—and did none of them.
“Reject this demagoguery”
First, every middle-school student learns that you have to stand up for the principles you believe in. You have to take risks. You have to practice nonconformity and self-sacrifice when it comes to the important things in life, such as family, friends, the Constitution, and the safety of the nation.
In 2015 Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina certainly recognized this duty of Republicans. In a CNN interview with Dana Bash in July of that year, he stated with impressive conviction that Trump was “a demagogue” and a “wrecking ball” who was going to shatter the Republican Party.
Not only this. Graham condemned Trump’s racist, xenophobic comments about Mexican immigrants, arguing that prominent Republicans should formally, publicly, “reject this demagoguery.” The senator continued:
As to the Republican Party, if we do not reject this way of thinking clearly, without any ambiguity, we will have lost our way. We will have lost the moral authority, in my view, to govern this great nation.
Graham, it should be noted, expected Trump to bring down the Republican Party, disabling it from winning a general election. He never imagined that a Trump-led party would prove victorious and that he and other Republican establishment leaders, intoxicated by the prospect of regaining executive power after eight years of Obama, would silence themselves and go along for the ride.
Second, establishment Republican leaders could have maneuvered privately to exclude Trump from the ticket. Republican networks are extensive. Graham and other leaders who understood the danger could have lobbied other politicians, think tanks, and media outlets to “reject this demagoguery.”
They could have fought this valiant fight 24/7 for the sake of the Constitution and the peace of the nation. Instead, they maintained silence, surrendering their values not only to the laissez-faire philosophy “Let democracy take its course” but also to its close relative “Let free speech take its course.”
How it used to be
Finally, at the Republican National Convention that took place in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016, party leaders could have spoken out and maneuvered quietly against Trump in order to turn delegate votes against the demagogue. That is, the convention could have rejected Trump as its candidate, notwithstanding the fact that he won a majority of primary delegates at the polls.
Now let me tell you the truth. The above statement is false. Sadly, delegates at the 2016 Republican convention did not, in fact, possess the gatekeeping power to reject a dangerous candidate like Trump. Formerly, they did. Not now. Not anymore.
Since the great reforms of both the Republican and Democratic nominating procedures of the late 1960s and 1970s, conventions require all delegates to vote on the first ballot for whatever candidate won their home state—no matter if that candidate is a destroyer of democracy like Trump.
To make the point more glaring, if you were a delegate to a national convention today and Joseph Stalin won your state, you would have no choice but to vote for him to be the party nominee for president of the United States.
Look at what we have made of our democracy, once brilliantly aware of the necessity of checks and balances. If a person like Stalin can be chosen at the polls, but more than two thousand party delegates at a national convention cannot arrest his ascent to presidential power, our political system is fatally broken.
Bleak as this might sound, there is a consolation. The past seven years have taught us a vivid lesson: Democracy shorn of gatekeepers spawns the rise of demagogues who, once in power, become agents of corruption and authoritarianism.
As Michael Signer wrote so perceptively in his book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies (2009), “Democracy begets tyranny through demagogues.” Adding three words to this sterling truth makes it more precise still:
Democracy bereft of gatekeepers begets tyranny through demagogues
This eight-word observation tells us most everything we need to know about our current political situation. I wonder what it’s going to take to restore such truth and wisdom to American democracy, including, most urgently, the revitalization of presidential gatekeeping.