Unfortunately, the Republicans of this generation have a special ability to produce truly unfit and unknowledgeable candidates for president. This position requires a person who grasps the important points of American history, understands how the legislation process truly works, sees the need for civility instead of fearmongering, recognizes the importance of speaking in public with logical presentation and many other things essential for success in positions of high authority. Even though most Republicans in office are not embarrassingly incapable of performing the rudimentary tasks of a serious and able government legislator, since the 2008 presidential campaign the party as a whole has allowed and encouraged very unqualified and bizarre people to represent them, often simply because much of their base apparently wanted leaders that did not sound or look like politicians. This party has bought into the mythology of the superior “everyman” (the down-to-earth fellow) and the idea that experts are to be distrusted and dismissed. Yet, in virtually every other area of life, they would choose to hire someone with specific talent and background experience related to whatever job was being offered. It is called competence.
Herman Cain thought the Chinese were trying to get nuclear weapons, when they have had them since 1964. Sarah Palin, as a Vice Presidential candidate, could not express even a simple understanding of the story of Paul Revere. In the 2016 Presidential Race, Ben Carson, someone who clearly was very capable as a surgeon, continually demonstrated an inability to handle challenges common to political leaders seeking office. Consider just a few of the nonsensical things he expressed: the Egyptian pyramids were not tombs for pharaohs, none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had any previous experience as elected officials, Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to America since slavery, prison makes people gay and when being asked three times during an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News to name one U.S. ally in the Middle East that he would reach out to in fighting ISIS he could not name a single country. Donald Trump’s list of wildly false or ignorant assertions is possibly longer than all of the more than a dozen Republican candidates combined. He has constantly fabricated half-truths and untruths about a wide range of details within foreign relations, monetary policy and immigration, but since he says it all with such bravado and volume, the party’s base loves him. Typical politicians are troubled and hindered by large scale gaffes of the type where fact checkers in newspapers and universities can easily point out the unsound basis for claims or actions. Because Trump is an entertainer and showman extraordinaire, any kind of attention swells up his public persona and feeds his popularity. His infamous ego and addiction to self-congratulation lifts further skyward as viewers watch him and give his reckless political analysis a legitimate hearing. The media and the public cannot resist him, a character who presents a little bit of factual content here and there, but primarily creates a controversy and drama wherever he acts and speaks. Politifact, a fact checking organization described by various critics as being both too liberal and too conservative, has done extensive research on what they call “Donald Trump’s file”, in which they have tested the validity of his remarks. As of March 20th, 2016, they had closely examined 113 statements and found them to be 3% true, 6% mostly true, 14% half true, 17% mostly false, 42% false and 19% pants on fire. It is very common to hear Americans say that deception and misinformation are highly prevalent in politics. Even within this context, Trump’s campaign has set an incredibly low standard – possibly the worst in American political history.
Even that other Republican candidate of many questionable ethical behaviors Ted Cruz did better than that (barely) at 6% true. Ben Carson and Herman Cain bottomed out this list with 0% true. Sarah Palin and John Kasich outpaced them significantly with 25%. Among the currently major Democratic figures, Bernie Sanders came in at 15% and Hillary Clinton performed at 25%. Barack Obama had by far the most comments evaluated, more than 3 times that of Clinton or between 5 and 20 times more than the other politicians. He was given a 21% true rating by Politifact. Generally continuing this pattern, the categories of “Mostly True” and “Half True” were much higher for Kasich, Clinton, Sanders and Obama.
A Salon and Alternet article got it right, even with just the title alone, “When the GOP lost its damn mind: Sarah Palin spawned Donald Trump and Ben Carson”. Its subtitle reads, “The former White House chief of staff traces the Republican Party’s demise to McCain’s fateful decision in 2008.” The Chicago Tribune said it in a similar way with, “The GOP’s dysfunction all started with Sarah Palin”. However it began, the trend is hard to stop.
Democrats and Republicans both insist on hiring knowledgeable and experienced people for jobs that require a plumber, doctor, teacher or dentist. The job of President of the United States is the most important and powerful position in the world. Why would we think it is okay to put a novice in there? The president ought to be a person who represents the best of American culture, education and politics.
The Republican Party contains many competent and qualified leaders that stand out distinctively from their worse than mediocre colleagues mentioned above. There is substantial evidence to demonstrate that the kind of extreme conservatism that dominates much of the American right today is philosophically misguided and structurally impaired. Yet I appreciate the many Republicans who are capable of discussing policy issues, passing complex laws that do not always pander to the most radical Tea Party views and representing our country with a general sense of professionalism and decency. Recent candidates that fit this description are those like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham. They say and do things that bother and oppose members of the Democratic Party, but they do not consistently appear to the rest of the world as unhinged or clueless. You or I may disagree with their political actions and beliefs, but we do not immediately cringe when they speak because of their inability to engage the press with at a least a fair degree of intellectual rigor and a basic grounding in realism.
Obviously, the conservative half of the country will never approve of Obama, no matter what he does. A large portion of their leadership has constantly said he was only a “community organizer” before becoming a State Senator (1997-2004) and United States Senator (2005-2008) before becoming president. One difference between someone like him and the “folksy” candidates like Carson, Palin, Cain and Trump is that he is well educated about this type of job. He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School and served as president of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a civil rights lawyer. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years and was invited to join the faculty on a tenure track several times. In contrast to charges that he lacked “real world” experience, he had worked for a living throughout his adulthood, including managing his own congressional staffs for a decade. How much more “real world” experience could a person in their mid-40s have?
Sure, some (or maybe most) politicians have shady motives for doing much of what they do. But, we need to expect all of them to be knowledgeable about the field of American politics so when one of them has a good motive…something effective can get done without a fairly high probability that they will make a disastrous choice…because they do not know enough about history, global affairs and internal government functions. Yes, a good staff can help someone in office. They cannot do everything for them, however. Just look at the long list of truly crazy and irrelevant things these candidates have said, in spite of their expert political staffs. What plausible argument can be offered to support the extension of such a momentous risk upon people who consistently behave in unstable and unlearned ways? When millions of citizens greatly depend on the skill level and commitment of their leaders, the response from those elected officials cannot be naiveté and immaturity through a lack of critical thinking and sloppy execution of duties. Whether regarding salaried or unpaid work, in every other category of life outside of politics we universally demand focused and sober-minded professionalism because of the need for effective work performance and to protect and provide for the well being of those people affected by the choices of key decision-makers. It is beyond incredible to expect any person unsuited for a job to radically change into a qualified candidate after they are hired. Although much of the populace appears to believe it, the political sphere is not a magical realm where earnest desire and an inspiring personality can make up for not knowing how to do the actual work of a politician.
Knowledge is vital. Especially if one wants an important job.
The answer is to put pressure on qualified political leaders to make better decisions that enrich the lives of each American if possible. The answer is not to remove competency as a desired requirement and replace it with someone who simply can say off-the-cuff (and often absurd) things that make a portion of the population feel excited, inspired, flattered, connected or angry.
See a small sampling of what the four loony people initially mentioned above have said:
“But obviously, we’ve got to stand with our North Korean allies.” –Sarah Palin, after being asked how she would handle the current hostilities between the two Koreas, interview on Glenn Beck’s radio show, Nov. 24, 2010
“OK, Libya. [pause] President Obama supported the uprising, correct? President Obama called for the removal of Gadhafi. I just wanted to make sure we’re talking about the same thing before I say, ‘Yes, I agreed’ or ‘No I didn’t agree.’ I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason — nope, that’s a different one. [pause] I gotta go back and see. I got all this stuff twirling around in my head. Specifically, what are you asking me that I agree or not disagree with Obama?” –Herman Cain, Nov. 14, 2011, in response to a question from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board
“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” –Donald Trump, Twitter, April 16, 2015
“[John McCain is] not a war hero. … He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, OK?” –Donald Trump, Ames, Iowa, July 18, 2015
“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” –Donald Trump, first campaign speech, June 2015
“I mean very much like Nazi Germany — and I know you’re not supposed to talk about Nazi Germany, but I don’t care about political correctness — you know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate a population,” Carson said. “We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe, and it’s because of the PC police, it’s because of politicians, because of news — all of these things are combining to stifle people’s conversation.” –Ben Carson, March 2014, when defending his earlier claim that modern America is in a “Gestapo age” (even though nothing like Nazi-type mass incarcerations, violent government oppressions or genocides have even come close to happening in any Western nation since the mid-1940s, all while every other developed society has been more liberal than the United States)