Lots of people subscribe to the popular pendulum swing theory of Presidential elections. Although long-term election history does not support the theory of a pendulum swing between Democrat and Republican administrations, the anecdotal impression that we tend to recoil from the predominant characteristics of the last administration is compelling. It’s not a pendulum swing exactly, but more of an extreme overreaction to the last guy, in which the very strengths that attracted us to the last President become the very things we recoil against in our next President.
Let’s review, starting with Nixon.
Still traumatized by the shady, crooked, “Tricky Dick” characterization of the Nixon debacle, voters recoiled toward squeaky clean Jimmy Carter – a person whose integrity was as beyond reproach as the Pope. (Gerald Ford wasn’t really a choice.)
During the Carter years however, the public took his integrity for granted and instead focused on his “scholarly” nature. He communicated like a scientist – everything nuanced and complicated. He was well-known to dig into the details of original source material rather than rely solely upon executive summaries. He was viewed as an intellectual, and his successor, Ronald Reagan, was the perfect opposite extreme. Reagan played up Carter’s “egghead” perception, called facts thing that “get in the way,” offered simplistic, shallow quips as answers to complex questions, and consulted with psychic advisors. The public embraced Reagan because he was anti-intellectual and because he was anti-government while Carter still naively believed that government was good and should do good things.
In response to what was increasingly seen as a glib and even dangerously senile Reagan, the public gravitated toward the uncharismatic and uninspiring administrator, Bush Senior. But after being quickly bored to death by him, they flew into the arms of a youthful and inspiring Bill Clinton.
After his opponents finally made the Slick Willy impression stick, the public was next prime to reject our “smooth big city talker” and instead adopt a “good old boy,” a virtual country bumpkin, named Bush Junior. Electing Bush was essentially voting for Ned the farmer for Iowa City Mayor because we were just all taken in by that big-city fast-talking flimflam man that we finally booted out of town.
But after the inevitable embarrassment of an inept Barney Fife President that could barely speak proper English, threw up on foreign leaders, and seemed to laugh and dance in the most inappropriate ways, we were ready to recoil toward a far more dignified leader, and we found that in Barack Obama.
No one, even his worst critics, can do anything but praise and applaud the dignity and bearing with which Obama and his family have represented the office of President. Yet, it is that very characteristic that we now feel compelled as a people to reject. So what do we do? We elect Donald Trump – a man who is the antithesis of dignity. A trash-talking trailer-trash President who is about as refined as Cousin Eddie played by Randy Quaid in the Vacation movies. We love Eddie because he is NOT dignified. Likewise we see Trump as a refreshingly frank person who is a great natural businessman.
But after four humiliating years of Donald Trump as President, we will inevitably recoil again. After having eaten up all the food in our house and having trashed the carpets and furniture, we’ll finally push cousin Eddie our of our house, hitting the road again in his garish RV.
Who will we recoil to after Trump? I don’t have any idea, but I wouldn’t put it past many voters to decide that the problem with Trump was that he was just TOO dignified, TOO politically correct, TOO pro-government, and just TOO dang nice.
If there is a Presidential pendulum pattern, it seems to be more like a “nice guy – bad guy” cycle of dating. We are never satisfied in our relationships, so the things that attracted us to the last guy are the very things we explicitly reject in the next. We overcompensate like angst ridden teens and find ourselves making a lot of really, really stupid relationship decisions.
Will Trump be a troubled, deeply flawed bad boy with potential that we can fix, or just another supremely stupid relationship decision that we realize was a huge mistake five minutes after he moves in? I hope for the former but expect the latter.