Gerson: GOP voters' love of the unserious
WASHINGTON – Welcome to the vetting season, in which presidential candidate resumes are pumped full of air, submerged in water, and tested for bubbles like an inner tube.
None of the Republican candidates, even the few with actual governing experience, has ever suffered the level of scrutiny given to a top-tier presidential prospect. It is part journalism, part tax audit, part fraternity hazing and part, especially when it comes to Republicans, ideological hit job. (The last, consulting Aristotelian logic and CNBC, does not need to be true of every journalist to be true nonetheless.) Only Democrat Hillary Clinton has made a career of sailing in this hurricane. And even she is taking on water with an ongoing FBI investigation.
Ben Carson, amazingly, has been asked to substantiate the claim that he actually tried to hit his mother with a hammer. Was it kept on the mantel as a souvenir? Are there pictures of the event in the family scrapbook? And, by the way, did he embellish his resume through the hazy high school memory of a recruiting meeting?
Carson's claim that his treatment is unique – "I have not seen that with anyone else" – is disproved by, well, just about everyone else. Marco Rubio is being called to account for questionable purchases as a state representative on a GOP American Express card, including some flooring. In my book, hardwood would indicate disqualifying extravagance; laminate, reassuring practicality.
What is the actual charge? One of the CNBC debate moderators asked Rubio if his expense record demonstrates "the maturity and the wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy." First of all, an American president does not lead the economy. He helps create laws that marginally improve or complicate economic conditions. And second of all, what utter garbage. How does properly balancing a checkbook relate to presidential economic leadership, which is actually determined by ideology and legislative effectiveness?
For Jeb Bush, the vetting process has been more about performance. How does he distinguish himself from the wallpaper in the debates? His town hall meetings, by one media account, are "charmingly anachronistic," apparently because political discourse is better served by Twitter sarcasm. The real question: Is Bush's stated refusal to be an "angry agitator" disqualifying in a political party that seems to view angry agitation as the sum of the political enterprise?
All the while, Donald Trump lobs sarcastic tweets, appears on late-night television and leads the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Trump is somehow enjoying the presidential vetting season as a spectator instead of a target. For about a quarter of the Republican electorate, there is apparently no scandal that could rock their high regard.
Think for a moment. What would it even mean for Trump to inflate his resume when his whole campaign is a hyperbolic inflation of his resume? How do you accuse Trump of mishandling his checkbook when he brags of bilking hapless investors through the bankruptcy laws, or makes money through gaming businesses that prey on gambling addicts and low-income people? How do you hold Trump to performance standards when part of his appeal as an outsider is a blustering, appalling ignorance of policy?
What if (entirely hypothetically) Trump had gold-plated fixtures in his bathrooms, put his name on a shady diploma mill, issued misogynist personal attacks and took credit for buying politicians? That would be a Tuesday. Stepping back, what does it mean that a significant portion of prospective GOP voters are seriously considering a leader who can't be embarrassed because he is incapable of shame? A leader who can't be disgraced because expectations are already so low?
The choice of a president, at least in theory, should have something to do with character, policy views, temperament, governing record and political philosophy. Trump is judged by his followers on an entirely different set of standards, imported from reality television. Is he entertaining? Check. Is he angry? Check. Does he demolish political correctness and political convention? Double check. Is he authentic? Ah, here is the rub.
By one definition, political authenticity is defined by the impulsive expression of everyman instincts. By another definition, authenticity means taking serious things – such as rhetoric and political ideas – seriously. The former unleashes and rides political passions. The latter channels passions into useful public purposes through political and governing skill. The former culminates in the cutting tweet. The latter in Lincoln writing and rewriting the Gettysburg Address or his second inaugural, which were made authentic through thought and craft.
So far, this is the sad, overall summary of the 2016 campaign: They took unserious things seriously.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.