The congressional elections of 2018 and 2020, along with the presidential election of 2020, will be the most consequential since the end of the Cold War. Will the American electorate defend basic values and constitutional principles, or will accelerating factionalism undermine the concerted action needed to defend our constitutional system? The fundamental will of the American people is being tested.
The American electorate proved an ability to withstand crisis twice in the twentieth century. First was the test of new forms of federal intervention in a devastating economic crisis in the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt concentrated on remedial action in his first two years, then launched into transformative Social Security programs when congressional victories in 1934 and 1936 demonstrated public determination to support federal initiatives. An even more difficult test began in 1945 as the Cold War took shape. Both parties supported foreign policies based on containment and deterrence through nine presidents and changing congressional majorities until the collapse of the Soviet Union, demonstrating incredible persistence that made victory possible.
Once again, the long-term will and commitment of the American people faces a difficult test. Can we unite in coalitions with enough strength and persistence to overcome Trumpism? Does the fundamental will of Americans support our constitutional system or our international leadership of democracies and human rights?
The present crisis is due to the complete victory of Trumpism in a Republican party lacking courage to deal with open repudiation of principles they claimed were foundational. The burden is clearly on the American electorate to speak up definitively in multiple election cycles to repair constitutional processes that are being undermined. It is also essential that Trump voters recognize they were betrayed and join in stemming the Trumpian tide. When the will of a people is challenged, success depends on unification of effort and persistence for more than a two-year cycle.
The election of 2016 was not completely illegitimate. It was heavily influenced by hacking and weaponized social media content, as has clearly been established. Even though Trump refuses to acknowledge the Russian attack on our electoral system and the help he received, American voters saw him using the fruits of hacking and brazenly asking Russia for more help before television cameras. Even if the worst is true and Trump actively conspired with Russia to steal the election, there is no evidence of electronic ballot box stuffing or undermining of voter registrations that would have made the vote count illegitimate.
This legitimate, though tainted, election did not reflect the will of the American people. He won in the electoral college while falling 3 million votes short in the popular total. Immediate reactions, such as the women’s marches the day after Trump’s inauguration, showed broad-based rejection of the presidential winner. It is now time for Trump voters to join marches and protests, for damaging our constitution and undermining world peace were not what they intended with their votes.
Trump voters have been betrayed. He has not appointed the best people to offices or eliminated Washington corruption based on donors and lobbyists. In fact, he has installed the most corrupt and ethically compromised cabinet in history while turning the presidency and foreign policy into profit centers for his family businesses. Even though Trump’s campaign challenged the credibility of trade deals and diplomatic agreements, most of his voters were not rejecting NATO or choosing to pull out of multi-lateral agreements with friends in ways that openly benefit our chief adversaries Russia and China.
No doubt many Trump voters are concerned over erratic presidential behavior that insults friendly countries and finds encouraging relationships with autocrats all over the world. Did they really expect an all-out attack on American intelligence agencies, the FBI, and the integrity of our system of justice? Surely, they did not expect to see the State Department and diplomacy repudiated in favor of seat of the pants decisions and whims of the president. Even if they wanted to see tougher responses to immigration issues, did they want ICE agents to openly adopt practices like Hitler’s violent brownshirt supporters or a policy of separating children from immigrant parents to place them in Americanized concentration camps? Trump voters may have rejected political correctness, but did they really want policies that commit crimes against humanity at the level seen in authoritarian countries? All of these developments reflect betrayal of expectations.
The Cost of Failing the Test
Trump voters took a chance, placing their faith in a wild card they thought would settle down as he started governing. Now they see that Trump is not capable of being the kind of president Americans have always required. Will Republicans and others who voted for Trump support non-Trumpian candidates, whether Democratic, Independent, or Republican? That is the test.
Can this be achieved? Americans responded to Roosevelt’s New Deal and supported hard decisions from Truman to George H. W. Bush to win the Cold War. But we also failed after the OPEC oil embargo when Jimmy Carter wanted to eliminate foreign oil dependence through a series of conservation measures. Lowering the speed limit on highways was considered too inconvenient as people chose to support Reagan’s elimination of Carter’s unpopular rules.
What has been the cost of dependence on international oil? Eight years after Carter, our first Iraq War grew out of dependence on Middle Eastern oil. That war led to the emergence of Osama bin Laden as an American enemy and to a second Iraq War that again focused on oil. It is not certain, but possible, that deaths in oil-related wars and terroristic attacks of Osama bin Laden might have been avoided if popular will had supported conservation of energy.
Democrats may win majorities in both houses of Congress this November and fail to remedy the problem of Trumpism. Long-term repair is needed – and that requires Republican and Democrat efforts over several election cycles. Many Trump voters will also need to become aware they made a mistake and join coalitions fighting Trumpism.
Historically, the will of the American people has supported our constitutional system because large segments in two national parties made stability possible amidst the turbulence of changing congressional majorities. A broad segment of the American people must stand up and say ENOUGH! This kind of popular will must also be expressed in more than one election if essential foundations are to be restored.
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. After serving in the Air Force, Dr. Simmons became an expert in the field of organizational development and management training during thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. In retirement, he returned to teaching history as part-time faculty at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia. His leading interests arise from combining history, science, and Bible scholarship in emerging fields such as Big History. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.
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