A Trump loss won’t fix our nasty, polarized and shallow politics. We need to stop hoping transformation is around the corner if we oust one bad apple.

Many people have expressed shock and disbelief after witnessing the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Even with the lowest of expectations about what the president would do, he managed to defy expectations by finding ways to go even lower. He refused to condemn white supremacy, he attacked Biden’s family and he kept challenging his intelligence. Trump also just made stuff up and simply refused to let Biden answer questions. Whenever Biden spoke, Trump muttered comments like a human chyron.  

But really, at this point Trump’s performance shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Everything he did was consistent with everything else that he has done until now. Throughout his term and the last campaign, the president has refused to condemn white supremacy numerous times before or offered elusive responses when asked about the issue. He has been aggressive and nasty with his opponents, employing rhetoric much worse than conventional partisan politics. Character assassination is as much his business as real estate. And the list goes on.   

Increasingly ugly and partisan

Yet the problems on display during the debate extend well beyond President Trump. Three developments are especially important to understand what happened. The first is the rightward shift of the Republican Party, which has become more extreme in its policies and more smashmouth partisan in its tactics.

This rightward shift has been taking place for decades. In 1964, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ran against President Lyndon Johnson with a campaign that embraced right-wing extremism as a virtue. Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968 and 1972 pushed Republicans to court the white backlash against civil rights, using appeals such as “law and order.” During the 1980s, Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, elected Minority Whip in 1989 and Speaker in 1994, exploded the norms and guardrails that provided some restrain on elected officials. After Gingrich, anything was permissible.

President Donald Trump at the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. (Photo: Julio Cortez, AP)

Republican campaign operative Lee Atwater also pioneered this outlook. In 1988, working for Vice President George H.W. Bush in his race against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Atwater perfected the strategy for destroying an opponent’s image by tarnishing their character through manipulated information, distorted images and exploiting division in the electorate. Twenty years later, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin blasted the “lamestream media” for spreading falsehoods and whipped up rally crowds to shout “treason” and “terrorist” about Barack Obama. The only difference with Trump is that he is willing to say the quiet parts much louder than Gingrich or Palin ever did.  

Biden, Trump and the Gingrich effect:Democrats must toughen up to win the 2020 election

The second trend has been a steady deterioration of our national political discourse. Televised presidential debates have not been the finest moments as a democracy. The debates have increasingly revolved around analysis of shallow moments — the way that a candidate sighs into the microphone (Al Gore in 2000) or looks at their watch (George H.W. Bush in 1992).

President George H.W. Bush looks at his watch during a presidential debate on Oct. 15, 1992 at the University of Richmond in Virginia. (Photo: Ron Edmonds, AP)

Candidates are told by their handler to perfect short made-for-television zingers — rather than to provide long substantive answers to policy. The model remains Ronald Reagan, who responded to President Jimmy Carter’s lengthy criticism about his positions on health care by simply saying, with a smile, “There You Go Again.” Moderators have taken own on a larger role in these events while the news media hypes them into a spectacle. Is it really that surprising that at some point a candidate would revel in the underside of these debates and play to its worst elements?  

Talking points for hosts and pundits

Finally, we live in an era of partisan polarization where electoral success revolves around mobilizing party support and maximizing partisan turnout. Building coalitions seems less central. With each passing year, the ability of candidates to persuade large numbers of voters to switch their positions diminishes. Success in presidential politics has emphasized making certain that one’s party remains on board and comes out on Election Day.

This strategy is more pronounced with Republicans than Democrats. The GOP has become more united since the Gingrich Era and in 2020 depends on an increasingly narrow sliver of the electorate: white, non-college educated rural men. The vast conservative media — with Fox News as its anchor — offers a powerful platform to pursue this strategy. Much of what Trump did or said in the debate was aimed at an audience of hosts and pundits who would repeat his messages.  

Trump-Biden presidential debate in Cleveland: Once is enough. Please make it stop.

So let’s stop being so surprised. We need to understand where Donald Trump came from and stop seeing him as some sort of massive aberration. Until we shift our perspective, our democracy can’t move into a better place. We will be perpetually stuck in this moment for decades to come, always hoping that transformation is right around the corner when the “bad apple” finally goes away.  

Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton and the author of “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of a New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer


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