Sadly, the public hasn’t yet realized that Trump’s paranoid and fearmongering rhetoric — constantly complaining about everything from a “rigged system” to the “deep state” — combined with descriptions of himself as a powerless victim of a witch hunt is about manipulating their fears for his benefit.
They haven’t realized it, because it’s not a new strategy. For more than 40 years, candidates on both sides of the aisle have sold variants of the same cynical snake oil to the American public: “Washington is broken, and only an outsider can fix it.”
Politicians rely on this canard because it works. Voters buy into the promise of outsiders without recognizing the reality: The dysfunction in Washington is more a consequence of a political system run by inexperienced amateurs than of one manipulated by corrupt insiders.
Since a 40-year bipartisan lie about the urgent need for political “outsiders” is a lot to unpack, we need to start at the beginning: the years after World War II, which set the stage for today’s demonization of all things “Washington.”
After witnessing the horrific destruction visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Americans grew cautious about who controlled the power of the atomic bomb. They wanted experienced men with cool heads and steady hands for presidents. And until baby boomers began swaying elections in the mid-1970s, this is what we got. (In 1976, the boomers, who were under 30 at the time, made up the largest share of the electorate for the first time — 29.4 percent of those who voted.)
In the 20 years between 1952 and 1972, Americans elected presidents who had substantial national political experience or distinguished military service records. John F. Kennedy was viewed as a novice compared to Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Yet before running for president, Kennedy had already served four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve, six years in the U.S. House of Representatives and another eight years in the U.S. Senate. In our current environment, he would be maligned for being a career politician.
But then came the disillusioning one-two punch of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Crucially, neither of these events happened quickly. For more than eight years (between the Battle of la Drang in fall 1965 and Nixon’s resignation in summer 1974), the country endured one horrific revelation after another, from the thousands of troops reported dead overseas to the violent protests at home to the ugly details of government coverups, first about U.S. involvement in Vietnam and then about the many shady dealings of Nixon’s political team.
These revelations were exacerbated by the ever growing credibility gap fueled by the government’s overly rosy picture of the situation in Vietnam, as well as lies about the political scandals back home.
The boomers, who were coming of age at that time, developed a dark view of politics. As NPR’s Don Gonyea explained in a 2011 report, “the baby boomers remain very much a swing segment of the electorate. But there has been one constant for the members of this iconic generation, going back to the time of Watergate and Vietnam. They expressed a deep lack of trust in government back then — and that lack of trust persists today.”
Importantly, Johnson and Nixon, the presidents whose failures fueled this cynicism and distrust, were of opposite political parties, and each had scored landslide reelection victories (each won more than 60 percent of the popular vote and more than 90 percent of the electoral vote). The electorate had trusted each, and each failed voters. Because they represented opposing parties, their political and moral failings couldn’t be viewed through a partisan lens. Instead, they only made sense as the result of their long political service.
Up-and-coming politicians in both parties played and preyed on this discontent, which over time grew to include a paranoid assumption that all politicians were corrupt and politics was never about public service, but rapacious self-interest.
Many of the perceptions contributing to these judgments (like those about a “good old boy” culture that fueled, rather than ameliorated injustice) weren’t wrong. But the boomers went overboard. They became infatuated with the idea that outsiders were the only politicians pure and authentic enough to be trusted. And that all others who tried to work within the system or sought compromises were sellouts who had been co-opted by the establishment.
That belief had profound political consequences. Since 1976, eight of the 11 presidential nominees from the party out of power have claimed to be outsiders who would bring change to a broken Washington. Whether governors like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, a newly elected senator like Barack Obama, or a businessman like Donald Trump, each argued that he would be the one who could clean up national politics.
Of these outsiders, all but Dukakis and Romney triumphed. Meanwhile the loser list is fat with experienced national politicians: Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John F. Kerry, John McCain, Hillary Clinton. The only insider to make it was George H.W. Bush, who lost his bid for reelection to the young political outsider, Bill Clinton.
So for all but four of the past 40 years, we’ve gotten the “outsiders” we said we wanted in the White House. From the peanut farmer Jimmy Carter to the baseball team owner George W. Bush to the candidate of hope and change, Barack Obama, to the real estate magnate Donald Trump, we got them.
How’d they do?
Clearly, not well. According to the Pew Research Center, the level of the public trust in government “remains close to a historic low,” with only about 18 percent of Americans saying they “trust the federal government to do the right thing just about always or most of the time.”
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the two “outsiders” who had the most experience in politics (measured in both the number of years of they were active in politics and the scope of their governing responsibilities before running and serving as president), are also the most popular presidents of the bunch. Though each made real mistakes and neither accomplished all he hoped for during his presidency, both Reagan and Clinton were able to make more changes precisely because they had ample political experience before they got to Washington. And Clinton stumbled badly in his first two years. It is likely that without his fulsome experience (winning and losing in Arkansas and nearly 12 years in office as governor), he may have ended up like Carter: a one-term president.
Why? Because politics is more than the feel-good (or hate-others) slogans that dominate campaigns. Our politics are fundamentally about working through complex legislative and administrative processes — introducing policy ideas, aligning regulatory timelines, overcoming procedural hurdles, building broad coalitions, fashioning compromises — to create change.
What experienced politicians know that outsiders don’t is that policy fights are winnable — over a long time, with dogged persistence and usually in small steps. It takes work.
And many outsiders, particularly those who refuse to recognize that democratic politics is about compromise and approach bargaining as a zero-sum game (“my way or no way”), don’t want to do the hard work of governing. They got into politics to proselytize to adoring crowds and have their words dutifully recorded by a gaggle of reporters. On the trail, these outsiders often say they don’t need to learn policy or procedural details because they plan to delegate to experts. This, of course, raises the question: Why don’t we just elect experts and cut out the middleman?
The problem in Washington is not political insiders — the thousands of people inside the Beltway who spend their lives dedicated to working through our “messy” democratic process, trying to make change — but the political amateurs, and the persistent belief that we need more of them to stop the dysfunction and end gridlock.
It’s like saying the best way to stop turbulence on a flight is to swap out the pilot for a passenger. And then when that passenger’s flying leads to a sharp drop in altitude, replace him with yet another passenger.
After decades of trying outsiders who grew government dysfunction and created near-paralysis in Washington, isn’t it time to return to the insiders who actually had the capacity to do the job? For all of their myriad foibles, Johnson and Nixon managed to enact seminal legislation like Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. And Eisenhower and Kennedy provided steady hands at the tiller, without the baggage that Johnson and Nixon brought to the table.
Baby boomers learned the wrong lessons from the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate, and we as a country have suffered for it. It’s time to right this wrong and give experience a chance.