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In Greek mythology, a Chimera is a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. Today the term refers to a thing that is hoped for but, in fact, is illusory. In 2016, Donald Trump got just enough Americans to buy into his chimerical portrayal of himself that he became our 45th president. Put simply, America voted for an illusion and the reality of Trump is what put us in the mess we’re in today.
This isn’t the first time that America didn’t get what they bargained for. Turn back the clock 44 years to when the nation put Jimmy Carter in the White House. After Watergate, the nation wanted somebody decent from outside the Capitol beltway. Jimmy Carter, with his soft-spoken peanut farmer humility, distinguished naval career, training as a nuclear engineer and devout religious faith was just the thing to get the taste of Nixon out of our mouths. Carter had a surprisingly easy path to the nomination for a low-profile one-term Georgia governor. Voters were more than willing to overlook Carter’s limited government experience in favor of his moral character and transparent style.
Carter’s presidency started well. Democrats dominated both houses of Congress. Optimism for a national healthcare program ran high. In March of 1977, with Carter’s approval rating at 75%, Saturday Night Live ran a skit where Jimmy Carter (Dan Ackroyd) took unscreened calls from the public. The skit had Carter giving a postal worker detailed instructions about how to fix her Mondex 3000 mail sorting machine. Then he talked a seventeen-year-old boy down from a bad acid trip.
The nation wanted to believe that it had a grounded President who could do anything. In reality, Carter was having some success. He and his diplomatic team were able to get Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to come together at Camp David for a summit that ultimately led to a lasting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Like Trump, it was Carter’s lack of Washington experience that set the stage for his undoing. Carter decided that he could do without a chief of staff. In a normal presidency, the chief of staff controls access to the president and referees White House infighting. Carter, true to the SNL skit, attempted to handle everything himself and quickly became mired in unimportant details. Carter and his team of outsiders weren’t familiar with the ways of Capitol Hill. Toes were stepped on. Communications were bungled. Carter refused to go along with the pork barrel politics and log rolling, and, as a result legislation bogged down. Carter even banned bourbon from the White House despite its legendary role in smoke-filled room deal-making.
Carter, like Trump, might have been fine if he never faced a serious national crisis. For most of Carter’s presidency, the economy was growing at a rate of 5-6% per annum, deficits as a percentage of GDP were falling, and we were at peace. Then along came 1979.
In January 1979, the Shah fled Iran and the country was taken over by fundamentalist Islamic clerics and oil production there ground to a halt. Later in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Iran and took sixty Americans hostage. The revolution spooked the oil markets and the price of oil doubled. Rising oil prices pushed inflation into double digits.
In order to get inflation under control, Carter appointed monetarist banker Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve in July of 1979. Volcker’s decisive actions to cool inflation drove interest rates to unprecedented levels and ultimately pushed the economy into recession. Carter made a serious, and ultimately successful attempt to break the back of inflation in America. But the pain that the American people were feeling from higher interest rates and oil prices crushed his popularity. On Carter’s watch the nation had its worst Misery Index reading, a measure of how the average American is doing economically, since the index was first recorded in 1948.
By mid-1979, Carter’s approval rating had fallen to the mid-30’s. Carter was primaried by Ted Kennedy. Carter managed to beat Kennedy for the nomination but then he lost to Ronald Reagan in the worst electoral college drubbing since George McClellan’s loss to Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
That is how the last experiment in electing a chimera went. Things started out well enough, but then a series of national crises burst the illusion and the nation went into a tailspin. When America elected Carter it got what it bargained for. It just wasn’t a good idea.
By the time Trump announced to the nation at the 2016 Republican nominating convention, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he had convinced a large slice of America that the persona of the self-made business genius he developed on The Apprentice was really him.
Similar to Carter, Trump’s first term in office started off pretty well. The nation’s longest postwar economic expansion continued. Trump’s efforts to dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations, back out of international agreements, hollow out the Department of State, slash social programs, cage refugee children, appoint paleoconservative judges, use the Department of Justice to wreak revenge on his perceived enemies, and cut taxes on corporations and the rich didn’t have much effect on his approval rating. Even Trump’s impeachment for attempting to extort a foreign head of state into maligning Joe Biden didn’t harm Trump with his base. While the annual deficit ran into the trillions during an economic expansion, no one seemed to pay attention.
Along the same lines as with Carter, pundits said that Trump would do fine so long as there were no real crises to deal with. And, for three years, those predictions proved true. Trump would blow up an international agreement here and there, make a racist or sexist pronouncement, do some self-dealing, insult the press and our allies while lying about practically everything. But, so long as the economy (now juiced by massive corporate tax cuts) continued to grow, the jobless rate stayed low, and the stock market soared, his reelection chances looked good.
Then 2020 happened. Just like Carter’s 1979, Trump faced a year that he couldn’t handle. COVID-19 was immune to Trump’s denial, magical thinking, blame and misdirection. He did manage to convince the faithful—for a while—that the virus wasn’t real. But the gaslighting stops working when the body bags start piling up.
Then things went from bad to worse. Social distancing—the only viable public health response to a pandemic once the disease is out of control— had the added effect of dragging the nation into a record recession. Trump lost the strong economy and low employment rate on which he had pinned his reelection hopes. He also set all-time records for job losses and economic contraction. And, yes, the Misery Index is back up to Carter-era levels.
Trump’s karmic kickback didn’t stop there. A particularly graphic video of police murdering George Floyd emerged on May 25th. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement had been growing in America. Floyd’s murder caused BLM support to spike with nearly 80% of Americans agreeing that something needed to be done to stop the slaughter of Black Americans by cops.
So, less than twelve weeks out from election day, Trump is in the same shape as Carter. Like Carter, Trump also has no defense for the question that Reagan used to skewer Carter in the debates: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Decidedly not. If anything were impossible, Trump never would have been elected in the first place. So we can’t rule out his reelection. But, as Yogi Berra would say, things are getting late early.
Take Pennsylvania where Biden has a comfortable lead in the polls. Pennsylvania starts sending out mail-in ballots in 34 days. Early voting in Michigan, another battleground state where Biden has a commanding lead, starts in 39 days. Florida, where Biden leads, sends out mail ballots in late September. In-person absentee voting starts 28 days before election day in Ohio where Biden also leads in the polls. Trump’s leads in Texas, Georgia and Iowa all are within the margin of error. Not surprisingly, only 24.3% of the nation thinks the country is going in the right direction. We each passing day Trump, like Carter, is looking like a one-term president.
Will Trump’s post-presidency also mirror Carter’s? That is where their stories will diverge. Carter’s huge resume of humanitarian activities have made him the consensus best ex-president in history.
Trump creates the rather tantalizing prospect of him hearing chants of “lock him up” while he is, in fact, locked up.
2. Truman (primaried by Kefauver) and Truman chose not to run. LBJ (primaried by McCarthy) and LBJ chose not to run. Ford (primaried by Reagan) and Ford won the nomination, barely, and lost to Carter.
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