Christopher Caldwell discusses his new book, The Age of Entitlement.
Has there ever been a July 4 other than during the Civil War or the Great Depression where the domestic prospects of our nation have been so dismal? No presidential contest has ever featured a choice that was as obviously dreadful as this one. I would be happy to hear of contrary claims from the annals of American history, but to me even Nixon v. McGovern falls short of our present plight. Nixon’s role in Watergate was not known at the time of the election, and McGovern at least was a man of good character.
But today we are about to elect someone with disabling character flaws and no commitment to the liberty that has been at the core of American ideals. On character, both Trump and Clinton have reputations for dishonesty unusual even for politicians. They also excel at dividing the American people, Trump with his outrageous remarks about ethnic groups, Clinton with her penchant for blaming her and her husband’s troubles of “vast conspiracies” of her political enemies even in instances where she has every reason to know the cause of these troubles is in her own home.
And these character flaws threaten to widen some of our most dangerous fault lines. Trust in government is at one of the lowest points ever. A President widely regarded as dishonest will exacerbate the trust deficit. Americans are more polarized than at any time since the Second World War. Polarizing figures making uncivil remarks about one group or the other are sure to lead to a more divided nation.
Both candidates threaten our economic and civil liberties even if in different ways. Trump wants to deprive our citizens of the right to collaborate and trade with others who happen be foreign. He will do nothing to reign in the entitlement state that will hold the young in thrall. He endangers free speech, threatening those who criticize him.
Clinton’s impositions on economic liberties are largely typical of the left today, but her emphasis on comparable worth for female pay is particularly dangerous. It would make a critical move toward permitting bureaucrats rather than the market set wages and will deepen division between males and females. And she is little better on civil liberties as demonstrated by her litmus test for Supreme Court nominees: he or she must be comfortable with muzzling criticism of Clinton and other politicians at election time.
But of greater concern than the candidates themselves is that fact that Americans of both parties selected them. The Republican electorate’s performance was the more deplorable. The voters had plenty of decent choices for the GOP’s standard bearer. To be sure, none were perfect, but none were the illiberal inciter that is Donald Trump. Clinton was fortunate in that she was running against an avowed socialist, but her ability to otherwise clear the field reflected the power of gender politics in the Democratic party—a politics that has been pushed by its members for many years.
On our first independence day we created a republic by breaking from a foreign power. But we can keep it only by our own good judgment as a people about our domestic affairs. That has never been more in doubt.