I take it for granted that the Trump administration will be a disaster as a governing body. When you look ahead to the horrors I imagine, you might wonder why the necessary electoral majority chose him to be our president. I have an idea I would like to offer, but because it is an argument that cuts across the grain a little, I want to put some time into making a context for it.
I saw the previews of a movie in 1996 and based on those previews, decided I didn’t want to see the movie. On the other hand, I have remembered one of the scenes from the movie quite clearly.
The movie is Mr. Wrong. In it Whitman Crawford (Bill Pullman) is courting Martha Alston (Ellen DeGeneris) and trying to persuade her that his feelings for her are intense. “I’m going to show you how much I love you,” he says as he grasps and breaks his little finger. Martha tries to persuade him not to do it and fails and when he does it, she is horrified. But it was all really clear to him and that is the point I want you to remember.
The (mis-)quotation with which I began is the way I remember Sally Field’s line as she accepted an academy award. I am drawing on it as a common memory because it is the sentiment I want to use as the center of today’s argument. Here is what she actually said.
So let’s imagine now that there is a presidential contest underway. A presidential contest is like a courtship in sense. There are multiple suitors (two main ones) and the lady they are courting represents the number and distribution of voters who will exceed 270 votes in the Electoral College. They are courting us. Or, in another metaphor, they are courting Miss America.
So the courtier and his intended sit on the porch swing. He is saying the things that he thinks will win her heart. Just inside the window, her parents are listening, hoping to have a chance to talk to her afterwards.
He says, “I know there is a guy in science class who keeps hitting on you. To show you how much I love you, I am going to kill him so he won’t do that any more.” Her heart races. “Oh,” she says to herself, “He must love me a lot to be willing to do that for me.” The parents, listening through the window are thinking, “Did he just offer to kill someone to demonstrate the intensity of his love for our daughter?” Was he joking? He didn’t sound like he was joking.”
The young man returns the next night to ask the young lady to take a ride in the car with him.
“Really?” she asks, “I didn’t know you had a car.”
“Oh, I don’t,” he says, “I stole this one because you said you really liked hot sports cars. I’ll take it back before they ever know it was gone.”
And she thinks, “What a passionate young man! How very much he must love me to do such a dangerous thing for me. And I just said I liked that kind of car.” And her parents, listening through the window, say to each other, “Did he just tell our daughter he had stolen a car? Does he have any idea that is against the law?”
Maybe just one more.
He shows up in the evening and sits on the porch swing with her. “Oh,” he says, “I heard you say that you were worried about your chemistry test tomorrow. I hate to see you worried so I set a fire in the lab. There won’t be any chemistry tests of any kind tomorrow.” And her parents think, “Murder, theft, and now arson. This guy is a screwball and needs to be kept far away from our daughter.” And the daughter thinks, “Oh my. The perfect man for me. He will take care of me at whatever cost to himself. What a pure and powerful love he has.”
I’ve been thinking about the speeches the Clinton/Kaine campaign made to coal-dependent populations as opposed to the speeches the Trump/Pence campaign made. The Democrats said that coal is dirty, that getting it out of the ground is environmentally hazardous, and that we need to move to sustainable forms of energy. The Republicans said that coal is wonderful and that people who make their living mining coal are wonderful as are the women who wait hopefully for them to return safely from the mine. We will, the Republicans said, find a way to return coal jobs to the prestige they used to have and to honor the brave men who risk their lives to bring that energy to us.”
And the voters in those areas said, “That was thrilling. He likes us; he really likes us.”
In areas where people believe (and it isn’t always untrue) that lax immigration practices are depriving them of the jobs they used to have, the Democratic courtiers said, “We take great pride in being a nation of unrestricted immigration. We love Emma Lazarus and the few lines of her poetry that everyone had to learn. People who are wary of over-immigration are xenophobes and should be ashamed of themselves. The Republican courtiers said, “We understand what it must feel like to be overrun by illegal immigrants and to be told by our government that there is nothing they can do to stop it. Maybe they can’t stop it, but we can. Choose us and we will defend you no matter what the cost.”
Please don’t stop here and try to decide just who the nut job is. If you stop, stop to think who is going to get the girl if the girl gets to make the choice.
The Democratic courtiers go in the house to have a chat with the only relevant adults in this scene. “Did you hear what that other guy was saying? He promised murder, theft, and arson to your daughter. He promised an impossible dream of a coal economy and a mammoth wall against immigrants. You aren’t going to allow that, are you?” And parents say, “We don’t seem to be able to do a thing with her. She’s in love with love and she doesn’t really care about practicalities.”
You get the idea. If “he likes me, he really likes me” is all that matters, then the substance of what is promised is beside the point entirely. The promises are only vehicles for expressing “how much I love you;” and not at all about the substance of what is being promised.
Back in the old days, it was imagined that the parties (the courtiers) would propose policies and that the people (Miss America, on the porch swing) would choose among them. And if she failed to, the parents would swing into action and bring her attention back to the life she thinks she would have with this freewheeling criminal and talk her out of it.
Madison had hopes for the quality of the courtiers. Here is a description of his hopes from the justly famous Federalist #10.
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.
This is bad news, of course, for “unworthy candidates” and good news for candidates “who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.” These are absolutely the courtiers who would be chosen by the parents, but the parents aren’t calling the shots anymore.
That means that promises that illustrate affiliation with a group of voters and empathy with their plight or their hopes or their anger and going to work politically. It means that people who make promises that will just work out, they will do what they say they will do, will be unsuccessful in competition with the others.
So, to go back to Whitman Crawford and Martha Alston again, Crawford’s breaking his finger to show how much he loves her does not horrify her, as it did in the movie. In this new scenario—the porch swing scenario—she takes this perverse action not as proof that he is dangerous, but as proof that he really loves her that much.
I think that is where we are. The wacko promises that are based on the appearance of empathy will work for voters who can no longer bring themselves to care about what a policy is likely to accomplish. And sound public policy, when it is part of a campaign for office, will fail miserably with voters who want only to be courted and not to be well served.