The Wonderful and/or Horrific Return of the American Statesman
Depending on who you ask, the last true leader that America had in the White House was either John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Regardless of which of the two you pick, you would be hard-pressed to deny that both men now have a reputation in many quarters of good governance. Both were not, in their day, men you would expect to steer America off a cliff, the opinions of punk rock pioneers notwithstanding. Both of these men were, in a word, statesmen, by which I mean a person in government who rules according to consistent principles, and with the best interests of their nation and its people at heart. More eloquently, a statesman rules for the sake of everyone but himself.
Now I personally fall in the JFK camp concerning the above. I do not quite think Reagan fits the definition of statesman I’m working with here. It is now clear to us that his economic and defense policies had long-term effects that he and his administration either did not account for or chose to ignore. This paints him more as someone pushing an ideology, or hewing so closely to principle that people are forgotten, neither of which are statesman-esque. My broader point is that both men at least ran for office and were elected on the idea of being statesmen; the people clamored for a champion, and these two men presented themselves as such.
How much you do or don’t agree with the above, I’m sure you’ll at least concur that we find ourselves in much the same situation today in 2016. By my reckoning, most Americans, regardless of political stripe, yearn for statesmen, both in the White House and in Congress. We are all fed up with mere politicians and their petty politicking, except of course for those twisted souls among us — self included — who enjoy watching the game for its own sake.
Thus we come to 2016’s two peoples’ champions: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
At bottom, these two men are running the same campaign. The core message both espouse is that they have the interests of America and Americans at heart. Both are buoyed by a huge swelling of popular support built of people who are disillusioned with Washington and believe themselves disadvantaged by the times. Both are terrifying, and watching them come against one another will be legendary. And both want you to believe that they are statesmen.
Sanders is more obvious in his claim to statesmanship, which fits with his anti-corporate message, which itself is just an angle from which he asserts a high degree of personal integrity. He also fits much better with the connotation of “lifetime service” that the term “statesman” has; he has been involved in Vermont’s politics since the early 1970s. People are often called statesmen only after they stop governing. Witness how people have been trying the term on Joe Biden to see if it fits, especially in the wake of his refusing to run for the presidency this election, seen by many as an unofficial declaration of retirement.
If Sanders is indeed a statesman, then he is one of the old model. He is presenting himself as someone who knows politics and can participate in the game without becoming corrupted by it.
Trump, by contrast, is trying to reinvent the idea of statesmanship. His concept builds on the idea that you cannot participate in the game and still be a statesman. He capitalizes greatly on how much of the public, blinded by their understandable disgust with Washington, cannot discern one “Washington outsider” from the other, and thus latch on to whichever one comes along who best fits their beliefs. It is fascinating how he can politic so well on the idea that politicking itself is a disease that forever taints those who indulge in it.
You have probably guessed that I will say Trump, if he is a statesman, is of a new model of his own invention. I do enjoy the irony, however, that the left-winger is the old guard, while the right-winger is the new guard, in this dichotomy, and I hope you do as well.
What does this mean for us, moving forward toward November? We talk a lot about how these two men, even if neither are nominated or elected, have already changed the conversation in American politics. I think this insistence on statesmanship will be the most lasting of those changes, and the most subtle. How else should we explain the absolute failure of every other candidate, save Clinton and Cruz, to find even a shred of support? Those two are playing at the same kind of game, respectively, as Sanders and Trump, only they are not doing it quite as well, Clinton because too many people refuse to believe her sincerity and Cruz because he’s betting on the dying political horse of the Christian Right. If either of them win, it is only because Sanders and Trump are too far out on the bleeding edge of political change.
But as I see it, we are about to swing very hard into populist territory across our entire political spectrum, thanks to the internet. Thus will people seeking office not find support unless they can portray themselves as common people, or rather, as non-politicians. For the Left, this will mean non-oligarchs and non-plutocrats. For the Right, this will mean… something reactionary, for now, but beyond that I’m sadly at a loss to say.
Regardless, the love of statesmen has returned to America. Only time will tell which sort wins. God help us if it’s the new model.