Monday, October 3, 2016

Mr. Smith, Ms. Palin, Mr. Trump, and Mr. Godwin

Once the smoke has cleared, the political takeaway of this year's presidential campaign will be the peril of the "unconventional".

A number of factors combined this time to leave the electorate unusually favorable toward unconventional candidates. And "unconventional" is like "ethnic food" or "world music": a modest-seeming term encompassing vast realms.

Plenty of non-white-supremacist, perfectly decent Trump supporters see his unprofessional, erratic behavior, his brashness, and his ignorance as confirmation of his refreshing unconventionality. If "unconventional" is what you're looking for, an authoritarian loudmouth fits that bill. Shoot, a ham sandwich fits that bill. There is an infinite range of random options, each of them inappropriate by definition.

Unconventionality excuses bad behavior, blurry policy, and poor politicking of all sorts. When an electorate is of a mind to elect someone divergent from the norm, it should come as no surprise when a profoundly unqualified TV celeb draws momentum.

There is great danger at such crossroads moments, because the emotional need for change can attach itself to radical, misguided, even extreme sorts of change. "Change" can mean anything.

The preference for unconventionality is, itself, benign. After all, the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is a cherished part of our national DNA. It struck - and continues to strike - a chord in those of us tired of the usual politicians. For 75 years this narrative - a decent everyman sent to high national office to replace the crooks and to speak for "The Real America" - has sat unquestioningly right with all of us, though scout leader Jefferson Smith had no experience or familiarity with the issues (he wouldn't have had anything incisive to say about Aleppo). A sequel might easily have been made about Mr. Smith's actual time in Congress, where he does lots of very stupid things and demonstrates shocking ignorance of the sort that's tolerable in scout leaders, but not in national ones. There are perfectly good reasons why we wouldn't want untested everymen running the country.

To understand the one-time popularity of Ms. Palin, consider Mr. Smith. And to understand the current popularity of Mr. Trump, consider Ms. Palin. And, with apologies to Godwin, to understand 1933 Germany (when another confluence of factors favored strong change and unconventional attitudes), consider Mr. Trump.

Next time maybe we'll get the ham sandwich...

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