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January 1, 2024

Trump, Biden and a Fight for the Heart

One way or another, the majorities of tomorrow will be built on emotional relationships, not new New Deals or retro-Reaganism.

As an election year dawns, Republicans and Democrats should stop to reflect on why our politics seems so stagnant.

No one expects President Joe Biden to earn a mandate even if he wins reelection; it won’t be a victory for Biden so much as a defeat for Donald Trump.

Progressives don’t see Biden, or Kamala Harris, as an architect for the future.

A second Biden term promises an older, ever less vigorous president facing a world afire and a nation divided to the point of political divorce — with big Republican gains in the 2026 midterms, if history is any guide.

But what if Trump defeats Biden?

In a non-consecutive second term, Trump will be as old as Biden is now, and he too would likely find the next midterms devastating.

Trump is more spry than Biden and may still personify his party’s ongoing evolution.

He’ll also have a fresh running mate come November, which should help his ticket appear future-oriented.

But the “lawfare” that mostly blue-state and blue-city prosecutors have been waging against Trump will continue if he wins, and the same media that hyped conspiracy theories about Russian collusion in his first term won’t be more fair the second time.

Paralysis seems inevitable.

The reasons for this transcend the parties and their leading personalities; these reasons are rooted in Americans’ changing beliefs about expertise and competence.

In an age when much of rural America didn’t have access to electricity, Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal seemed like an expressway to the future.

From FDR all the way to Richard Nixon, presidents could rely upon Americans’ trust in technocracy.

It was a time when “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” wasn’t yet a punchline.

But by the mid-1970s the federal government’s reputation for competence was in tatters, thanks to Vietnam, inflation, fuel shortages and monumental burdens imposed by rising taxes and overregulation.

The era of faith in federal competence thus gave way to an era of hope for a private-sector competence that would be unleashed if only government got out of the way.

This first took shape in the Jimmy Carter years, when a combination of blue-dog Democrats and Republicans in Congress pushed for deregulation.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency was the symbolic zenith of this new confidence in unleashing entrepreneurship, though just as Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon testified to the epoch-defining influence of the New Deal mentality, Democrats like Bill Clinton would demonstrate, however reluctantly, the power of the new Reaganite dispensation.

Congress again played a leading role: once the GOP won the House and Senate in 1994, sweeping reforms to welfare became possible.

By 1996, Clinton himself was announcing, “The era of big government is over.”

The truth is government expanded even as deregulation continued, but public confidence in federal expertise declined relative to faith in the possibilities of the “new economy,” represented above all by the telecommunications industry and the internet.

But both parties soon changed their emphasis again.

George W. Bush didn’t campaign, or govern, as a slasher of red tape.

Instead his vision was one of competent collaboration between government and the private sector: what he called “compassionate conservatism.”

Barack Obama imagined much the same: Obamacare, after all, was about government creating rules for private insurance companies and their customers (who were, of course, forced to buy their products on pain of government-imposed penalties).

This new philosophy of government backfired spectacularly, when instead of restoring faith in expert government, it exposed how incestuous the relationship between corporate America, both parties, and higher education had become.

The result was the Tea Party — and Trump.

America was only partly industrialized when expert government first appeared capable of meeting any challenge.

And America was at the dawn of the information revolution when deregulation seemed to answer every question.

Today faith in expertise, public and private, is depleted — and as Harvard reels from its president’s plagiarisms, prospects for renewed confidence in the credentialed elite are bleak.

Instead of pretending to have competence they do not possess, both parties would be better off learning to feel what other Americans feel.

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, for all their differences, each sensed that empathy, not expertise, would be the key to victory.

Alas, Clinton’s empathy was only that of a seducer, while Obama’s elitism came to the fore as soon as he was elected.

Now the 2024 election hinges on Donald Trump’s emotional connection with the public — a balance of love and hate, trust and fear.

Biden is almost a bystander.

This isn’t a fluke; it’s the future: one way or another, the majorities of tomorrow will be built on emotional relationships, not new New Deals or retro-Reaganism.

The challenge, however, isn’t simply to win, but to connect strongly enough to govern.

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