When today’s presidential candidates make Richard Nixon look like an exemplar of probity, it’s not just the US but all of us who are in trouble.
The Nixon who was such an exemplar isn’t the Watergate culprit, but the dignified man who lost the 1960 election to Kennedy. Or rather had the election stolen from him.
What happened then in several swing states, especially in Illinois, wasn’t just election fraud. It was election robbery.
When Richard Daley, Chicago’s Mafioso mayor, realised that the outcome more or less hinged on Illinois, and Nixon was ahead in the polls there, he told Kennedy not to worry. I’ll deliver Illinois, Mr President, he promised.
Daley was as good as his word. He had crowds of Democratic voters bussed from one precinct to another, with coachloads of votes bolstering Kennedy at each stop. That swung the election Kennedy’s way.
Nixon’s advisers begged their man to launch a legal challenge, which they were certain he’d win. Yet the candidate refused. The institution of presidency, he said, is more important than the person of a president. And a legal challenge would undermine that institution, something he wasn’t prepared to do.
I also remember another former president, Ronald Reagan, debating against Jimmy Carter. The Democrats’ strategy in that election was based on Reagan’s distaste for the Soviet Union, which, they threatened at every turn, would plunge America into a World War directly Reagan was elected.
That imminent danger was enunciated by my tennis partner Ross over a beer and, to a somewhat broader audience and in more histrionic tones, by Carter during the presidential debate. In response, Reagan gave his good-natured chuckle and said indulgently, like a grown-up talking to a naughty child: “There we go again”. End of argument. Also the end of that Democratic challenge.
Watching the slanging match between Trump and Biden the other day, I couldn’t help lamenting how different presidential candidates are these days. Actually, that was my first thought. The second, less obvious but more distressing, was that it’s not just the candidates who are different. It’s the country.
One is reminded that the etymological link between civility and civilisation transcends linguistics. For the absence of the former is a symptom of malaise in the latter.
When two candidates can’t debate as civilised men, the problem cuts deeper than politics. It betokens an existential collapse.
“The style is the man”, said Georges Buffon (Le style, c’est l’homme même). If so, then the two men contesting the presidential election are two drunken louts bumping foreheads in a bar: “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” “Says who?” “Says I!” “So go @$&^ yourself!” “&%@£ you, you @£$%!” “So’s your mother!”
Biden actually threw more brawling epithets, along the lines of “liar”, “fool”, “racist”, “clown” and so forth. But Trump was no better. He responded by interrupting Biden every second, sputtering ad hominems at his opponent along with his whole family, and coming across as an unsmiling thug permanently on the threshold of committing grievous bodily harm.
The consensus in the US is that the election is Biden’s to lose. As long as he manages to keep his staggering incompetence a secret, he’ll walk it.
In that sense, Biden did well in the debate. He did come across as a boorish nonentity, but at least not a demented one.
However, had Trump replaced thuggish savagery with proper debating nous, he could have skewered Biden. For, buried underneath the foul manure of mutual insults was the barely discernible kernel of real argument – and Trump was right.
For, since I left in 1988, American politics has changed not only in rhetorical style but also in substance. The whole political spectrum has shifted leftwards, with the bulk of the Democratic Party now coloured a bright red. Yesterday’s lunatic fringe has become today’s mainstream.
And the mainstream will carry President Biden in its current because he is no Trump, a maverick who neither feels indebted to his party nor cares how many feathers he ruffles. As a machine politician, a party man first and foremost, Biden won’t have any option but to drift along – with disastrous consequences for America.
A few well-chosen remarks by Trump could have drawn Biden out, showing him for what he is: the figurehead of the country’s most sweeping political upheaval since the war, possibly ever.
Much more useful than gloating over Biden’s family problems would have been an insistence on straight answers to some vital questions.
For example, does Biden realise that Obamacare is a snowball of nationalisation that rolls down the slope, gathering momentum and growing in size until it becomes an unwieldy, NHS-like Leviathan? Had the answer been no, it would have taken but a sentence or two to drive the point home.
Does Biden acknowledge that identity politics, the Democrats’ current stock in trade, is the direct cause of the race riots, turning America into the world’s laughingstock and threatening to turn her into its powder keg? Again, a couple of simple, strong arguments would have sufficed.
Instead Trump let Biden get away with saying, mendaciously and inanely, that Antifa is “an idea, not an organisation”. Quite, Joe, I would have said. So was Marxism, which ought to remind us that evil ideas become evil organisations at the drop of a bomb. Do you agree that Antifa is one such idea that has already become one such organisation? No? QED.
Do I repudiate armed supremacist militias taking to the streets? I do, provided that you accept what’s obvious to everyone: it’s Antifa that acts and those militias that react. The initiative comes from the Marxist subversives, those hailed by your party as courageous freedom fighters.
And do you disavow your party’s pet plan to pack the Supreme Court, meaning to add as many socialist members it would take to turn the Court into an extension of a socialist government? Do you agree that this plan represents constitutional vandalism at its most subversive? You refuse to answer? I’ll take it as a yes then.
Are you prepared to accept on faith that your party’s cherished New Green Deal is based on solid scientific evidence? And even if you do, which in itself is indefensible, where’s the money going to come from, Joe? Another trillion or two added to the public debt? Do you think we can afford that, especially in an economy already reeling from Covid?
Drawn onto that kind of battleground, Biden would have instantly come across as the nincompoop he is, one in the pocket of the most dangerous political movement in US history. The goal was gaping, yet Trump managed to miss it from close range.
Rather than highlighting the evil nature of Biden’s puppet masters, Trump let his barbaric nature take over. Instead of the rapier of wit and the sword of reason he relied on the cudgel of thuggery, missing his target every time.
Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan would have buried someone like Biden there and then. But then they belong to an era gone, a civilisation lost – or at best teetering on the edge of the abyss.