Why the upcoming presidential election is the most important in our lifetime

Most presidential elections are about the country picking one lane or the other. But regardless of whether the right or the left wins the country generally remains on the same road. Occasionally an election is a true fork in the road offering America a choice between completely different paths forward. Washington’s victory in his first election established the model for the Office of the President avoiding an American-style monarchy. And if Lincoln had lost his second election it’s entirely probable that the Confederacy would have become its own nation complete with the institution of slavery. And we now must consider 2020 to be another one of those moments, one of the most important elections in the history of America. The most critical elections of the past have been a test of our character and the promises we made to ourselves in the Constitution. This election very simply is about defining that character for generations to come.

With a few exceptions like the Supreme Court, most of Trump’s greatest achievements (if you’re a supporter) or damage (if you’re a detractor) are not set in stone. Much of his impact on America’s government, political culture, and economy has been disruptive in nature, often followed by ad hoc or temporary attempts to establish new policies and norms. Whether you believe he has “drained the swamp” or made it more toxic, a one-term president Trump will go down in American history as a temporary period of populist upheaval. But if Trump wins a second-term we as a nation will have to adjust to a fundamentally different world. It will be validation of Trump’s leadership and personality as a symbol of what it means to be American. And for the rest the world it will be a confirmation that for better or worse, we are not who we used to be.

Deconstructing the Melting Pot

The most important choice we have in 2020 is between the vision of America as a diverse ‘melting pot’ or one based on a narrower view of what it means to be American. The reality is that not everyone has appreciated all the flavors and ingredients in the stew of cultures, religions, and ethnicities that is our country. But there was always a sense of pride regarding our diversity, open-mindedness, and willingness to accept when compared to the oppressive regimes and cultures of the world. The key question in 2020 is whether the United States still believes in the ‘melting pot’, or will we now become much more discriminating in the ingredients we add to the stew? Is being American still defined by pursuit of the American dream or will it now be defined by what you look like, the language you speak, how you pray, and where your parents were born? The bottom line is that regardless of how you respond to these questions, the answers will be determined by whether Donald Trump is elected to a second term.

Reelection allows Trump to formalize and more fully implement his anti-immigration policies. Doing so will confirm the increasing strength of nativism within America, ending the long-standing role of broad-based immigration as the foundation of America’s cultural diversity. Given the president’s explicit statements regarding what he sees as the ’preferred immigrant’ the new America would define immigration economically rather than culturally. It would be the conclusion that we are more interested in adding to the nation’s bottom line than we are adding more ingredients to the stew. And it would confirm the belief of some that from now on the ‘land of opportunity’ is for Americans only. From this standpoint alone next year’s presidential election will have profound implications for the future of America.

Pick Your Tribe

But of course, the struggle to define the character of the country is only one of the things we all must consider at the ballot box next year. For many of us the final decision will be driven more by a need to protect our tribe and its interests than what’s best for the country as a whole. One of the truly unique aspects of this election is that it is not the traditional fork in the road, it’s a roundabout with multiple exits. Each exit is a distinct issue or interest, and the tribes that have organized around those interests increasingly have enough power to override the traditional two-party system. Unlike the past, people will be inclined to vote on issues like immigration, the economy, and abortion rather than by party lines. Of course, love or hatred of Trump himself will also play a key role in the election outcome. But it is important to note that the last time there was such a significant division within parties under the umbrella of a polarizing president it was 1968 and LBJ eventually decided not to run for a second term.

The tribes of American politics are as diverse and vocal today as they were during the 1960s and 70s. The key difference in 2020 is that through the advancements of social media and the internet they’ve all become exponentially more powerful in terms of affecting elections. In the past key groups in the electorate from African-Americans and women to Christians and immigrants all had to choose the party most likely to empower and promote their individual interests. A key aspect of today’s political landscape is that these groups now hold such significant power that it is the parties that must woo the interest groups in order to empower their platforms. Both parties are increasingly driven by the individual tribes with in them, each unwilling to compromise what it sees as the most important issue. For the Democrats the result is almost 30 candidates running for the nomination. For the Republicans it is increasing tension between loyalty to Trump as their leader and the practical realities of policies that have not always worked out as advertised. And for America it means that despite the rhetoric we are sure to hear over the next year and a half, almost no one believes there’s a common path forward for all Americans.

“It’s (still) the economy stupid!”

Aside from Trump’s reshaping of the federal and Supreme Court systems, he has had no greater success in the eyes of his supporters than his management of the economy. Domestically he pushed through one of the most significant tax cuts in US history, especially relative to its positive impact on key economic indicators and negative impact on the national debt. Internationally he has transformed US trade policy utilizing tariffs, defense spending, and personal relationships in ways that no other American president has done before. Much to the chagrin of his detractors the economy as symbolized by the stock market and unemployment continue to indicate a strong America and by association a strong President Trump. But there are increasing signs that the good times may be slowing, a situation made more precarious by the ongoing trade war with China and continuing border tensions with Mexico. The essential question Americans will have to answer is do we cut our losses? Do we elect someone with more traditional diplomatic and economic expertise in order to begin preparing for the inevitable downside of this economic boom? Or do we rely on an individual who has declared bankruptcy multiple times only to be reborn as a tycoon to guide the country through the rough waters ahead?

One of the most important components of Trump’s trade policy has been the degree to which the international community is holding its breath to see whether he’ll be reelected. From Canada and Mexico to the EU and China, major US trading partners have explicitly stated that there are reasons to stall negotiations in expectation of a new president at the end of next year. First and foremost, Trump’s application of his ‘America First’ philosophy to US trade policy has placed the country at odds with long standing commitments to free trade. The unilateral use of tariffs and other policy actions by the president has disrupted NAFTA negotiations, impacted trade with Europe, and stalled an agreement with China. Whether you believe the president’s tactics are a use of US strength to force necessary changes or a destruction of international trade, most of the world is waiting to see if Trump gets a second term before they begin shifting their own policies in response. Given the his approach has also created significant rifts with Congress and the Republican Party, next year’s election could decide whether the United States rejects the philosophy of free trade altogether in favor of protectionism.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson trying to answer questions at a congressional hearing

Institutional Decay

The most tangible impact of a second Trump term will be an accelerated dismantling/decay of certain institutions in America. A hallmark of Trump’s first term has been his consistent and unabashed attacks against some the most important leaders, organizations, and systems in America. His claims that the media are the enemy of the people would be greatly reinforced in the minds of his supporters if he was able to win again despite the volume of negative press coverage. His engagement with the US intelligence and justice systems has been volatile, marked by disdain and numerous attacks against its leadership. A second term would offer him the opportunity to begin fundamentally altering some of these institutions and systems beyond his frequent shuffling of appointees. The EPA has been all but neutered as the key environmental organization in the United States. The Department of Education, HUD, and the Department of the Interior have all been hamstrung by poor leadership and scandal. And yet none of these changes or upheaval are permanent… yet.

Overall there has been a devolution of federal regulation and oversight to the states driven by two primary motivations the president brought with him to office. First was a clear intention to erase President Obama’s legacy from a policy perspective. This has involved everything from withdrawing from the Transpacific Partnership to continued attacks against Obamacare. In fact, throughout the last 2 ½ years Trump’s engagement with federal systems has mostly been a piecemeal dismantling of policies and programs created by previous administrations, Democrat and Republican alike. His second motivation has been the broader anti-government sentiment that resides in his base symbolized by his frequent claims of having “drained the swamp.” Together they have resulted in increasingly wide variations between states and regions on a host of issues including abortion, immigration, gun control, and education. It is almost certain that should Trump win a second term he will move beyond these motivations to a more explicit belief that he can restructure American government. And given four more years he might be able to do just that.

Trump at a re-election rally in Melbourne, FL in February 2017.

This Is How We Do Things Now

Trump’s potential to change federal institutions is easy to understand and measure. But his impact on America’s political and diplomatic culture will be as significant as it is hard to define. It is accepting presidential policy statements, negotiation, and diplomatic exchange now takes place through Twitter. It is adjusting to a new world of name-calling and insults, counter punches and unyielding positions, all exchanged instantly and without vetting, counsel, or editing. It is “seeing good people on both sides”, conspiracy theories, political extremism, and “fake news”. A second Trump term will set in stone the increasing belief amongst Americans that their opinions are the only truth that matters, and anyone who questions those truths are a threat. It is a phenomenon that exists on the right and left with Trump as the lightning rod in the middle. But it is also the result of increasing tribalism and distrust of the broader narrative of a diverse but unified America. And next year’s election will decide whether it is the new America.

Previous elections have been about who would have their hands on the wheel as America built a better future for itself and the world. Most have been about picking a lane and a rare few have involved choosing an entirely different road to be on. But until now most Americans continued to believe that for better or for worse, we were all riding in the same car. Between tribalism, the de-legitimization of the federal government, and increasing distrust of judicial systems many Americans are now concluding that they should just get their own. Our greatest source of strength in America’s history has been the belief that no matter how much we argued amongst ourselves, the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. Next year’s election is a referendum on whether this belief still holds. And my fear is that whether Trump wins or loses a significant number of Americans will decide it doesn’t. The question is which of the views of a new America are you going to vote for?

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Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.