In all the usual analysis of the most unusual election of our lifetimes, our focus was set entirely on the expected: which candidate got more votes and earned the right to sit in the Oval Office. But what if the voters’ real choice was a break from the presidency? Or put another way, what if a majority or significant plurality among those who voted for the somnambulistic Joe Biden were actually voting in favor of essentially no president?
One would have to admit that this 46th president represents the closest thing we have witnessed to an absentee chief executive, or perhaps the man behind the curtain ultimately unmasked as powerless, or maybe the man who simply rubber stamps the agenda handed to him. Is it not legitimate to ask if those who voted for Biden, knowing of his advanced age and cognitive decline, were actually counting on Biden to not do anything in particular other than sit there and say as little as possible, so we might pretend there is no president at all?
Think of the beleaguered but civic-minded voter. For eight years, he heard horrendous things said from the left about George W. Bush, followed by eight more years of beatdowns on Barack Obama from the right, and then the vicious attacks on Trump morning, noon, and night every single day for four more years. That is the entire 21st century of avert-your-eyes ugliness seen as repulsive by normal Americans living outside the political sphere. Would they not desire above all else simply a break in the action?
At the same time, Donald Trump, refreshing to many millions when arriving on the stage as the first candidate to say what so many had long been thinking and prepared to shake things up in a big way, has obviously been at best an acquired taste for many millions of others. Could it be that the 45th president, unafraid to crack eggs to produce the desired omelet, was hired by the voters as the equivalent of one of those high-powered consultants from a firm like McKinsey or Booz Allen Hamilton? Was he brought in from the outside more as a fixer than a president, charged specifically with draining the D.C. Swamp?
It is a legitimate question, and if the answer is yes, then Trump may have fallen because of another truth about consultants: They arrive as the most unpopular people in the room, perpetually striking fear in those who have good reason to fear. They are hired for a specific purpose, to identify problems free from subjectivity or inside politics. But that brings us to the part about high-powered consultants that may have sunk the Donald in the end: They are hired for a limited time. Company morale would be broken if they remain too long, creating unyielding tension with their employees and programs constantly under the klieg lights.
Perhaps Donald Trump was exactly that, a man hired for a specific purpose (and yes, saving the Supreme Court also helped his cause) and a single term. He would be brought on not as a lingering presence in the White House, but as someone who would rattle cages, do the things other presidents promised but did not deliver – undoubtedly accumulating a growing number of enemies – and leave the place in better shape than when he arrived.
Another thing that generally happens when the consultants are gone is what we are witnessing now: a time of little to no drama, people adjusting to a torrent of change, and re-acclimating – in this case, to the world before Trump and the pandemic. It adds up to the desire for a return to something resembling normalcy, and if there is one thing Trump lovers and haters can agree on, it is this: There is nothing normal about Donald Trump.
Every election that produces a change of party in the White House is in part – often in large part – a reaction to the previous administration. Richard Nixon’s corruption produced the pious presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose weakness yielded to the strength of Ronald Reagan and then Bush 41, whose listlessness produced the energetic presidency of Bill Clinton. The rightward turn of Bush 43 was met with the leftward turn of Obama, which was in turn rejected with the populist uprising by Trump. But as Newt Gingrich can attest to following his revolution that won the House in 1994, revolutionary fervor is difficult to sustain. And the Trump movement is nothing if not a revolution in the way politics is done.
So, has America just pulled off a balancing act, deliberately creating a bookend to the most hyperactive president of our time with the least active one in memory?
One thing this new president apparently understands is that he was not elected to shake things up, turn things around, or fix a listing ship of state. And so, he appears perfectly content to follow the age-old axiom that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. As the closest thing we’ve seen to a non-president, he appears to have perceived that the voters’ greatest need right now is shelter from the storm, to act almost as if there is no president.
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