I didn’t include last week what I thought was the most vexing question of 2016. I cut it for space, thinking it was a little off point, or at least not pressing, and could be explored down the road. I had asserted that Donald Trump was a nut but that a sane Trump could have won in a landslide. The vexing question: Could a non-nutty Trump have broken through, captured the imagination and indignation of Republicans and many Democrats, won the nomination?
What struck me after the column was the number of angry Trump supporters who told me that I didn’t get it—he may act like a nut but he had to be crazy to break through. He had to be a flame-haired rebuke to the establishment. He in fact had to be a living insult—no political experience, rude, crude ways—to those who’ve failed us. He had to leave you nervous, on the edge of your seat. Only that man could have broken through. Crazy was a feature, not a bug. (The assumption seemed to be he could turn crazy on and off. I believe he has demonstrated he can’t.)
Clearly, a lot of people have been thinking about the vexing question. My question now is: What does its answer tell us about our political future? A hopeful answer is that Mr. Trump was a reaction to the careful, empty, consultant-crafted insincerity of the past, and next cycle’s candidate will be a reaction to the mad, hypercharged, undirected electricity of this one.
What is the non-hopeful answer?
What I’m thinking about this week is a focus group led by Peter Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster, Tuesday night, in Charlotte, N.C., still a toss-up state. Present were a dozen late-decider voters, three Democrats, six Republicans and three independents.
What struck me about the group wasn’t its new insights, which were few. What was powerful was its averageness, its confirmation of what you’ve already observed. The members weren’t sad, precisely, but they were unillusioned. They were seeing things with clean eyes and they were disappointed. They wanted a candidate they could trust and believe in.
Which when you think about it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Raise your hand, said Mr. Hart, if you like both candidates. No one did. Raise your hand if you like one candidate. No one did. Raise if you don’t like either. All 12 did.
When asked to describe the America they want, they wrote things like “a solid education system,” “no longer at war,” “people have joy in their work,” “leading the world in everything, including morals,” “equal opportunity and reward based on work,” “people haven’t lost their homes” and “a culture that improves us as a people.”
Many of their hopes were communal, societal, not individual. A great instructive lesson for conservatives this year is that Margaret Thatcher’s individualist vision, expressed with the words “There’s no such thing as society,” has given way, or rather shifted weight. The individual is key and crucial, but everyone is worried about our society and culture now; they see the nation as a shared entity with shared problems. It reminds me of something I meant to write in 2012 and never did. When Mitt Romney would walk around talking about “competitiveness” and “opportunity,” he came across to me like a doctor walking into an old-fashioned hospital ward with bed after bed of people in heavy casts and head bandages. Dr. Romney walks in with “competition!” and “47%,” and they’re roused all right—they rise and throw their crutches at his head and chase him from the ward.
Mr. Hart asked: Will the next generation be better off? No one raised a hand. This is not news; it’s been a cliché since the crash of 2008. You get used to the data: Americans no longer assume their children will have it better than they did. But it was striking to see these dozen thoughtful people keep their hands down.
Asked what has been lost in America, one respondent said security for kids: “They can’t just go out and play.” “Innocence for kids,” said another. Parents no longer feel the world, even the immediate one, is a safe place.
What is missing in America? “A freshness,” said a middle aged man. He went on to speak of the 1950s, “Ozzie and Harriet,” when things seemed newer somehow and assumptive of progress.
Is America off track? They all nodded. A woman said you can’t pray in schools anymore. By this she seemed to mean that religious practice, which among other things offers guidelines and guardrails, is no longer officially sanctioned or encouraged. A man ruminated that things seemed to go off track after 9/11 and “never quite recovered.”
Mr. Hart asked about how they see the 2016 campaign in historical terms. A man who appeared to be in his 30s said it was “like a soldier going to Vietnam,” by which he meant “no good outcome” and “no choice.” Twenty sixteen reminded another of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—low, embarrassing and leaving you “hurt for our country.” Another respondent remembered a talk from those days with a precocious 2½-year-old relative. She looked up at him one day and asked, “Uncle John, what’s a blow job?” He wanted to punch Bill Clinton in the face. Later a respondent, being asked what has happened to America, said: “Moral failure from the top starts to trickle down.”
Another said the 2016 race reminded him of Vietnam in terms of “the divisiveness in the country” and “the whole country being torn apart.”
Is a good outcome to this presidential year possible? Five said yes, giving versions of the idea that it will end and we’ll survive. “We’re a hardy bunch,” said a woman. Another: “It’ll stick in our minds. We’ll learn from it.”
Donald Trump’s behavior in 2016 reminds you of what? asked Mr. Hart. The answers: “schoolboy,” “brat,” “child tantrum,” “rich kid” and “bully middle-schooler.” Hillary Clinton’s? “Robotic,” “liar,” “privileged,” “cool operator” and, if I heard right, “satellite dish.”
You are late-deciding voters, said Mr. Hart. Some of you have switched around, some are still undecided. Where are you now?
One was leaning toward Mr. Trump. Another was too, “because of Supreme Court decisions.” A woman said she thought she’d go Trump. “Discard the candidate, look at the platform.”
Another was pretty close to decided for Hillary: “I so much wanted Trump,” but “he doesn’t know when to shut up.” “I don’t love Clinton—I don’t trust her.
Another, leaning toward Mr. Trump, said “It’s hard.”
Another was still undecided: “I wanted to like Trump. . . . It’s embarrassing how he acts.”
One had come down for Hillary as the “lesser of two evils.”
Another said “I’ve always been Democratic,” and allowed that Mrs. Clinton has “leadership skills.” But there’s the email story: “She lies—makes you wonder.”
Another had broken for Hillary: “Trump’s ego is what kills me.” Of Mrs. Clinton, in contrast: “She knows what she’s doing.”
Watching the next day, online, I couldn’t stop thinking of what we all know. Oh, how the two big parties have let these good people down.