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Donald Trump took the myth of the political outsider to a whole new level

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Picture this scene. You have been in a terrible accident and are being rushed into an emergency room. Though barely conscious, you can still mouth a few words. Before the trauma team puts you under, you look up from the gurney and spy a physician examining you with great concern. Her worried look sends a clear message that you are in grave danger. The last words you are likely to utter are, “Get that doctor out of here. I want someone from outside the medical profession to attend to my injuries.”

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Consider this scenario. You are boarding a jumbo jet for a cross-country flight. As the plane taxis to the runway, you see the cockpit door open. The pilot emerges and walks down the aisle to an empty seat. As he sits down and makes himself comfortable, a flight attendant takes the controls the pilot had abandoned. You hear the engines roar in preparation for takeoff, yet the pilot doesn’t budge. It’s becoming increasingly clear, the flight attendant is going to pilot the aircraft. Are you feeling good about that?

Or contemplate this situation. You’ve been informed by the IRS that you are going to be audited. Some complex financial dealings you had during the past year have raised red flags with the feds. You know little about tax law, but your accountant assured you months earlier that all your deductions are allowed. When you inform that same individual of your impending review, he confesses that he was too busy during tax season to prepare your return, so he left that task to his intern. Do you begin to wonder how you will look in prison garb when you are incarcerated for tax fraud?

All of the above seem far-fetched. And maybe they are. For who would want someone other than a medical professional caring for one’s wounds, or anyone but a pilot flying a plane, or somebody other than an accountant preparing taxes? Yet for some reason, many Americans feel perfectly confident electing an outsider to the presidency. When it comes to governing the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, many believe experience is more of a hindrance than a help. It’s assumed by some that the skills and knowledge necessary to lead the United States can be appropriated by almost anyone doing almost anything. For those folks, statecraft is no more difficult than riding a bike or chewing gum. It takes no special abilities, except perhaps bravado and an unbridled ego.

Why is that? What is it about politics that makes some people think it takes no formal preparation? Why are so many willing to put an outsider into the White House? Perhaps it’s the nature of government itself. It has been said that politics is the art of compromise. It requires give and take, making demands as well as concessions, getting something though not everything. Or as Otto von Bismarck put it in the mid-19th century, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.”

But the idea of only getting half a loaf, as it were, leaves many Americans feeling short changed. For them, anything less than total victory is a defeat. So politicians who wallow in the arena of give and take are viewed with disdain. If they cannot win all of the time, they are unworthy of support. But the outsider, who has not had to negotiate and compromise, appears as a refreshing change. The outsider can promise the world because he’s never had to deliver a thing. The outsider can guarantee to make everything better, because he’s never had to make anything better.

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This is not a new phenomenon in American politics. It antedates Donald Trump’s promises of winning “bigly.” Jimmy Carter ran as an outsider in 1976. But forty years ago being an outsider didn’t mean outside of politics, it simply meant outside the Washington beltway. When Carter first announced his candidacy, few Americans had ever heard of him. “Jimmy who?” many jeered. But a nation chastened by the Vietnam War and disgusted with Watergate hungered for change. The outsider, “born again,” peanut farmer from Georgia seemed to be the answer.

To be sure, the Carter administration had many victories. The Camp David Accords, the historic agreement between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, still stands as a monumental step towards securing peace in the troubled Middle East. The Panama Canal Zone Treaty too, while decried by some at the time, did much to improve relations between the United States, Panama, and our other southern neighbors.

But Carter’s efforts to address the energy crisis proved less than successful. And that was in large part his own doing. While Carter should be applauded for encouraging Americans to conserve energy and consume less, his attempt to craft an effective program failed abysmally, though not for lack of ideas. He sent to Congress a comprehensive package, addressing every aspect of energy policy from exploration to production to conservation. But Carter made it clear that he wanted Congress to accept it all as presented. He seemed little interested in negotiation or accommodation with the folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Carter wanted a whole loaf, instead he received only crumbs.

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This was not because of partisan divisions; the Democrats controlled both House and the Senate. However, having run and won as an outsider, Carter never bothered himself with the inner workings of Washington. Neither Carter nor his staff seemed interested in reaching out to the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Tip O’Neill noted that even after three years of the Carter presidency, he could not recognize Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief aide, because Jordan had never bothered to introduce himself. Ironically, Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan, the Speaker’s ideological opposite, would have better relations with O’Neill and the Democrats in Congress than Carter. The lesson is clear. Being an outsider can have great appeal when voters are angry, frustrated, and hungry for change. But little change will come if the outsider doesn’t learn how to operate inside the beltway.

Donald Trump has taken the role of outsider to a whole new level. He prides himself as not being of the political establishment of either party. He claims to know more than the “career politicians” because he has never sullied himself in the dirty world of negotiations and compromise. He even “knows more than the generals,” who have devoted their entire lives in service to their country. He would have us believe that he and he alone has the answers to all of the nation’s problems. All voters need to do is put this outsider into the White House. I’m guessing he even thinks he can perform emergency surgery and fly a jumbo jet. There is considerable evidence, however, that his accountant is a whiz at preparing taxes.

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Timothy Lynch is a Professor of History at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

This article was originally published at History News Network


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