How Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Campaign Gave Us Donald Trump

In November 1976, a plainspoken peanut farmer-turned-governor won the Presidency. His campaign message was simple and explicit: Washington politicians lacked the ethics and the basic human knowledge that “everyday Americans” possess to provide competent leadership.

If this sounds like Donald Trump’s familiar rant on “incompetent leadership” because “we are led by very, very stupid people,” it should. Trump is aiming his barbed rhetoric at our leaders, just as Carter did (more politely) 40 years ago.

(I should preface this by saying that I respect Jimmy Carter as a former president, and deeply admire his post-presidential work to build peace and democracy throughout the world. In no way do I consider him personally at all similar to the blustering bigot that is Donald Trump.)

But their messages have a similarity that is historically important.

We now take for granted the idea that Washington is “broken,” and that every four or eight years we elect someone new to “fix” it. In fact, most of us probably believe it, too.

But this election year refrain is relatively modern, at least in the way we hear it and repeat it.

To be sure, there are certain themes that are rooted in our national history (and mythology), far older than Carter’s election. The Founding Fathers admired the Roman hero, Cincinnatus, who left his farm to fight for Rome and returned to his plow after the battle had been won. They, and many an American politician afterward, modeled their public images after this ancient hero.

George Washington refused to run for a third term, instead returning to his Virginia farm. Abraham Lincoln was “The Rail-Splitter,” who had grown up doing manual labor, not sucking on a silver spoon. In 1840, William Henry Harrison ran as the war hero who had grown up in a log cabin. (He hadn’t.) So, we Americans generally favor the “common man” candidate over the one who, like a crime show villain, “knows too much.”

However, public trust in government had for generations remained high. While Americans might have preferred the bums outside of government over the bums within, we generally never questioned the government itself, often respected our leaders enough to believe what FDR said in his fireside chats, and even hung our presidents’ portraits over our mantles.

Until the 1970s.

Now, you might argue that this wasn’t Carter’s fault at all — that it was Richard Nixon’s perversion of the presidency that led to a total collapse of public trust in government. This is supported by Pew Research surveys, which show a drop-off in the public’s trust in government following the Watergate scandal. Or you might also argue that the decline was due not just to Watergate, but to the disastrous handling of the Vietnam War, which predates Nixon and falls on the desk of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Source: Pew Research Center, 2014.

You would have a strong case for either argument.

But I contend that Carter’s political strategy in 1976 cemented a “way of doing politics” in America that now repeats every four or eight years. Remember that Ronald Reagan swept to power as an arch-conservative running against a government that was the problem. Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush as the “change” candidate before Barack Obama invented “hope and change.” (Their campaign messages from 1992 and 2008 are strikingly — if not coincidentally — similar.)

And recall that Obama’s record in the Senate before running for President was built on government reform. His platform was not just a change in policies, but a radical change in “politics as usual.”

The problem with this repetitive message, repackaged in different slogans, is that it reinforces a belief in the American people’s psyche that government cannot be trusted and, more troublingly, cannot solve problems.

The problem with running against government is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tea Party candidates ran against government in 2010 and, once they won office, refused to compromise — the most necessary tool in governing. The result is the common complaint from voters that “nothing gets done in Washington.” But if the goal is to obstruct the wheels of government, if the goal of electing a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz is to make government “so small you can’t even see it,” then you are guaranteeing that “nothing gets done in Washington.”

The problem with believing that government cannot solve problems is that the cause is the effect: when a problem arises that only government can solve — a massive student debt crisis, a bloated healthcare system that weighs down businesses’ productivity, a financial crisis that obliterates the wealth of the population’s poorest — “shrinking government” ensures that these problems cannot get solved.

And they get worse.

The charge that our leaders are “incompetent” is misleading. The question should be whether they believe in the power of government to solve the problems we face, and whether they use the tools of government effectively in order to meet these challenges.

Hopefully, in 2016, we won’t fall for this typical election year trope. Hopefully, we will elect someone who can actually use government to solve problems, based on a knowledge of how our government works and a record of using the tools of government to get results.


Note: This post contains Ryan R. Migeed’s own thoughts and opinions, which do not necessarily reflect those of his employer, or any organization(s) of which he is a member.

This post was also published on LinkedIn.

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