Evelyn Waugh described the character of Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited like this: “He isn’t a real person at all. He’s just a few faculties of a man, highly developed.” Mr Mottram had the makings of a President.
In the last ten days, half of the truth appears finally to have dawned on American voters. They now see that no matter how they vote tomorrow, after all these many months of sound and fury and all these many millions of dollars, they will end up with a president who is not a real person at all. That is all the choice they have. There is no longer any question of the best man winning. The best man – whoever he is – never ran.
This realisation has now become the strongest single sentiment about the election. A national poll last week found that more than 60% of the voters are dissatisfied with the choice they have been offered between Bush and Dukakis. In Crook County, Oregon – the only county which has always voted for the winning candidate – a breath-taking 71% of voters declared that they want neither candidate to become their President. In the nation’s capital, the Washington Post issued its long-awaited verdict on the campaign by announcing that for the first time it will endorse no-one. “Neither man running has established a claim to the office that we find compelling,” it said. “Each is too deeply flawed.”
This is still only half the truth, however, because even in the moment of revelation, it appears the American electorate would rather not know the whole truth. Like Chico Marx’s wife who caught him kissing a chambermaid and who was happy to accept his explanation that he was really only whispering in her mouth.
Here, this takes the form of a determination to believe that there is something unusual about 1988, that – as the Washington Post put it – “this has been a terrible campaign, a national disappointment” and that by launching enough bitter attacks on this year’s candidates or this year’s pollsters or this year’s press, the country will return to some pure state in which well-rounded and honest candidates engage in interesting and intelligent arguments about important issues. This is what we call Mrs Marxism.
The whole truth is that the democracy about which this country so loves to boast has always been a little twisted and is now so horribly misshapen that inevitably and repeatedly it throws up leaders who are not real people and who would not survive the political process of most other developed countries.
Just look back beyond the present mess to the last Presidential election in 1984 when Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale. How did he do it? With intelligent arguments about central issues? No chance, as one of the year’s best leaks has now confirmed.
The leak was published last month in Landslide, a book about the Reagan years by two American journalists. It consisted of a tape recording of Reagan’s senior campaign aides planning their strategy for the 1984 election. They started by acknowledging that Reagan’s White House simply had no agenda, no plans at all for the future of the country – “They don’t have a goddam thing in the pipeline”. So the object of the meeting was simple. In the words of one aide: “We’ve got to find something to say.”
How about overhauling the tax system? Too risky: “We have to put it off until after the election”. How about abortion? Best to say nothing and try to attract both sides: “It’s one issue we ought not to talk about”. How about the environment? “We’re better off without it. If you get the old man going on it, he does `killer trees'” – a reminder of Reagan’s bizarre claim in 1980 that trees cause pollution. How about spending some money on battered women? But where would the money come from? “You take it away from poor people”. They laughed but they knew it was no good.
Finally, they found their feet. The old man should make a few speeches which sounded sophisticated- “Things that, when he gets through, people will think he sure as hell knows something, without really saying something”. Then they could stage some executive action. “Some conspicuous ass-kicking of Cabinet members would help”. Then the old man could could meet some young people. “But it can’t be seen as something cooked up”. Oh, no. Then they could have him sit in on an arms-control session. But supposing he tried to take part? Better, they decided, if he just sat there and played dominoes. Better still – if he got shot. “If he got a bullet in the toe, it would help the election”. And so on. No issues, no arguments, just a few faculties of a man.
Bush and Dukakis have played the same game this year. Indeed, Bush has been coached by the same aides whose schemes for Reagan were leaked in Landslide. This is not because the two men want to be stripped of their personalities, but because the political system demands that they should be.
One of the key factors here is that American Presidential candidates begin their journey to the White House with next to no national reputation or organisation. Unlike other national systems in which established party leaders run for office, American hopefuls now have to spend at least two years as full-time candidates in order to break through nationally – an ordeal which simply repels many of the best potential runners and which reduces those who do run to being all things to all people, embodying the paradox of being outstandingly bland.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that American politics is an ideological wasteland. In other democracies, candidates immediately reveal a whole cluster of things about themselves simply by belonging to a particular party. This is not so in America where the political spectrum is so narrow that it is straddled by both parties with fundamentalist Republicans and southern Democrats on the right, and north eastern liberals of both parties on the left.
Beyond that, there is a particularly virulent form of Mrs Marxism – the quite baffling belief which appears to be universal among Americans that they live in “the greatest country on Earth”. It is not just Dan Quayle with his vacuous boast that “the United States is the envy of the world”. Politicians in every country say silly things like that. But ordinary Americans really believe this and commonly introduce the idea into their conversation.
Never mind the violence in their cities, the staggering poverty, the junk culture, the commercialisation of everything, the glaring racism, the environment choking to death, and never mind the deep resentment of people in all corners of the world whose internal affairs have been re-arranged by Washington’s cold warriors – this is God’s Country doing God’s Work. It is as if Narcissus preferred to gaze at his reflection with his eyes shut, the better to enjoy his love affair with himself. This seems to be the root of their political malaise.
For if America is really this wonderful, they have no need of the political solutions that are embraced by lesser folk. Hence the absence of ideology. The same complacency is also reflected in a flurry of educational surveys which portray the average American’s knowledge of his own history, world politics, geography and economics and virtually every other subject as one big blank sheet. Their mass media indulge these narrow minds, repeating familiar formulas with minimum complexity. The result is a terrifyingly ignorant, and often stupid society. Hence the kindergarten political debate.
If Americans cannot understand the issues and if they lack any kind of intellectual framework within which to analyse them, then the issues play no part. So bland candidates talk trivia. The vacuum is filled by negativism. The smears that have defined this campaign are just as traditional as the spurning of intelligent argument.
Look back to Richard Nixon smearing Hubert Humphrey with TV ads which blamed him for bloodshed in Vietnam and riots in Chicago. Or to Lyndon Johnson scare-mongering with an infamous advertisement which showed a little girl picking daisies disappearing into a nuclear mushroom cloud of Barry Goldwater’s making. Or Franklin Roosevelt, said to be a lunatic and a secret Jew; or Theodore Roosevelt, smeared as an alcoholic drug addict; or Warren Harding who was accused of being a covert Negro; or Abe Lincoln, attacked as illegitimate; or George Washington, who was accused of being a thief and a pimp.
The smears may be true or untrue. In political terms, it really does not matter. Beyond the smears, Bush and Dukakis have lied steadily throughout their campaigns about themselves and about each other. Dukakis has been telling fibs about the Massachusetts economy ever since the primaries. Remember how Bush pulled himself back from the brink of defeat to the sound of the vanquished Bob Dole complaining bitterly that he should “stop lying about my record”. The lies have been raining down ever since – during the big debates, in the TV ads, in stump speeches.
These two liars are also hypocrites in the simple sense that both of them pretend to believe things which they do not. Both pedal lines which have been foisted on them by their conservative wings. It was particularly transparent in one of the presidential debates when Bush whittered on about his supposed belief that abortion should be a criminal offence and then admitted that he did not know whether women should be prosecuted for having abortions. Simply, he had not thought about it because he does not believe it.
The one tiny glimmer of hope is that American politics may finally have touched bottom. The blandness and the lying, the stupidity and the smears may not be new, but the signs of revulsion are. It is a reasonably safe bet that at least half the voters in this country will not even bother to go the ballot box tomorrow. They may then set aside the philosophy of Mrs Marx and admit that they have a nasty problem which needs to be solved before they next try and choose a President in 1992. But for tomorrow, they have no option but to elect another President who is a liar and a hypocrite and, in truth, not a real person at all.
NOTE: Even back in 1988 Donald Trump was manoeuvring to run for the White House.