Is this the worst presidential election in history? Only if you know nothing about history.
Would Donald Trump be the worst president of all time? Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on it.
Over the last month or so—as the precise character of the 2016 election has taken form—there has been an endless parade of rhetoric in favor of one or both of the aforementioned claims. An assumed general election match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we have been told, represents the most wretched choice the American public has faced in many moons—if not ever—and should the presumptive Republican nominee emerge victorious on November 8, it would likely portend the fall of Western civilization as we know it.
The latter, of course, is a matter of pure speculation until the unspeakable actually occurs. As for the former: Don’t be ridiculous. The championship match of the 2016 campaign—uninspiring as it might be—hardly represents a nadir in the history of U.S. presidential elections. That we have convinced ourselves otherwise is less a product of our increasingly lackluster candidates than of our unjustifiably heightened expectations thereof.
As with so much else, we in the present like to think we live in exceptional times when it comes to presidential politics—in this case, exceptionally bad—and that our generation of voters deserves a heap of pity that all previous generations managed to avoid.
What ignorant hogwash this is.
All the way back in 1905, in writing about politics in the 1870s, historian Henry Adams dryly observed, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.” Ninety-nine years later, surveying the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, comedian Lewis Black similarly quipped, “If this is evolution in terms of leadership, I think in 12 years we’re gonna be voting for plants.”
Whether or not Black’s assessment has proved correct (those dozen years are now officially up), it is clear enough that the perception of having a lackluster roster of potential presidents is the oldest, stalest gripe in the book. Contrary to popular belief, Americans have always been disappointed by the people who’ve run to lead them, viewing every election as a search for—well, if not the lesser evil, then at least the person with a fighting chance of not making life any more miserable than it already is.
We elect a commander-in-chief for all sorts of reasons and under many different circumstances, but it’s always with the subtext—spoken or unspoken—that the available options are hardly the best specimens America has to offer.
We often compare our present-day leaders (unfavorably) to those of the founding generation, viewing the latter as the high water mark for intellectual and political brilliance in the history of this or any country. Indeed, that’s exactly what they were, and the sad truth is that the Founding Fathers were simply the exception to the rule: George Washington, for his part, didn’t even want to be president except to avert a possible civil war, while his next five successors got the job on the strength of having directly contributed to the American Revolution—a prerequisite that, by definition, could not be reproduced in any other era.
Following the populist upheaval fostered by one Andrew Jackson—a man of extraordinary physical courage who, if he ran today, would be roundly dismissed as a raging psychopath—Americans elected a series of chief executives of such immense mediocrity—often against equally humdrum opponents—that few citizens today could even recite their names. Much the same was the case in between the end of the Civil War and the rise of Teddy Roosevelt in 1901. Indeed, one could argue that, except for Abraham Lincoln, the final two-thirds of the 19th century were one giant muddle of executive leadership to which no one would want to return.
And yet return we have, over and over again. For all our insistence that only the best and the brightest seek and execute the most powerful post on planet Earth, we have spent most of American history dealing with the uncomfortable truth that, on the whole—and especially now—the most brilliant people in the country are not interested in running for elected office: They’re busy curing diseases, inventing self-driving cars, building skyscrapers and writing Broadway musicals.
Even before presidential campaigns became the insane carnival acts they are today, the incentive for dedicating one’s talents to the public good has been in decline since practically the dawn of the republic, which means that the slack will inevitably be picked up by aspirants who are intellectually and morally inferior.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean that the occasional prodigy hasn’t occasionally slipped through. We have, after all, just enjoyed two terms with a president who—imperfections notwithstanding—is an exceptionally deep thinker, capable of speaking and writing elegantly, clearly and at length, and (to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald) adept at holding opposing ideas in his head without losing the ability to function.
If today’s voters—particularly those under 30—feel short-changed by this year’s options, it’s largely a consequence of having been spoiled by arguably the hippest man who has ever held this job. Indeed, for every voting American born after 1986, this will be the first presidential election in which Barack Obama’s name will not be on the ballot. (Were it not for the 22nd Amendment, one suspects 2016 would’ve gone very differently, indeed.)
And yet, for those very voters, it would be difficult—on paper, at least—to craft a more agreeable and logical successor than someone who spent eight years in the White House, eight years in the Senate and four years in the State Department and who, by the way, is openly campaigning for Obama’s third term and possesses a mastery of policy nuance light years ahead of Obama’s at this point in his 2008 campaign.
This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is perfect or that someone who is qualified on paper is also qualified in real life. Having been a nationally-known figure for nearly a quarter-century, Clinton carries clear shortcomings and asterisks, and her ascendancy would be a calculated risk on all of our parts.
In other words, Hillary is flawed. But you know which other presidential candidates have been flawed? All of them.
In truth, every person who has ever sought the Oval Office has been ill-qualified to one degree or another. That’s the nature of the gig. The fantastical notion of an Ideal Candidate—someone with the right skills at the right time—has rarely been borne out by history, and we have little reason to expect such a thing in the near future.
Contra Trump, Clinton is as solid a candidate as you would expect our system to produce: Wily, intelligent, hardworking, compassionate, compromising, gritty and ruthless. If you expect more than that in a modern-day commander-in-chief, you just may expect too much.