Donald Trump has doubled down, insulting the women who accuse him of abuse. “When you looked at that horrible woman last night, you said, ‘I don’t think so’,” he said in response to one accuser, and apparently the crowd roared its approval. They then started chanting, “Lock her up,” presumably in reference to Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
American statesman Benjamin Franklin once said, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” That typifies the feelings of many toward Trump’s antics and the current quality of public debate.
At this point in electoral proceedings, we should be witnessing debates about the important issues facing America.
After all, the United States and its western allies face a growing international firestorm. There’s a very real chance of armed conflict with an increasingly belligerent and militaristic Russia. The crisis in the Middle East is widening. And middle class lifestyles are crumbling, caught in a global economic system in need of serious reform.
Yet what is the topic of conversation? Trump.
As more women come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct by Trump, panic is spreading in Republican circles.
Major Wall Street donors are pressuring the party to dump Trump. Several big donors have warned Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, that his job is on the line. His crime? He’s holding firm to Trump.
Trump has so befuddled the party’s bigwigs that the party could shatter. Many senior Republicans have denounced their candidate, even withdrawing their personal endorsements. But none have publicly asked for his removal.
But surely the party bears some responsibility for Trump and the rising tide of bitterness. The policy of simply being ‘anti-Barack Obama,’ deliberately using Republican majorities in the House of Representatives to bring the business of government to a standstill, has come back to haunt the Grand Old Party. This political nihilism has now gone viral, threatening to devour the party.
The fact that the presidential race is still close is perhaps most worrying. According to reliable polls, two in every five Americans of voting age say they’ll vote for Trump despite his demeaning of Hispanics, women, Muslims, and threatening (like a dictator) to jail his political opponent.
But beyond the crisis inside the Republican party, Trump’s candidacy threatens democracy by trivializing the entire electoral process.
It’s not as if Trump is the entire election – serious issues have been debated.
Informed views were put forward by many of the candidates in both parties during the nomination process. Regrettably, most of those important debates happened so long ago that they have now been forgotten.
Franklin anticipated these kinds of weaknesses in democracies. “Constitutional government … can only end in despotism,” he warned, “as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of the other.”
So what’s to be done?
The parties could agree to limit the nomination/electoral cycle to six months (still longer than the longest campaign in parliamentary democracies). That would necessitate tighter qualifications for candidates, focus the debates on important issues and limit the media feeding frenzy to a dull roar.
As Franklin warned centuries ago, dumbing down the politics of a republic, as the present system has done, corrupts the political life of a democracy. It feeds the forces of demagoguery and ends in despotism.
Shorter and much more tightly focused electoral cycles would help.
The U.S. has a big job ahead. It must put the beast of political corruption back in its cage before it destroys the republic.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.