President Donald Trump’s vicious tweets about MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, whom he called “low I.Q. Crazy” and said “was bleeding badly from a face-lift” when he saw her around New Year’s Eve, have re-energized the evergreen complaint that he is diminishing his office. “Inappropriate. Undignified. Unpresidential,” sputtered Jeb Bush. “Mr. President,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham chided, “your tweet was beneath the office and represents what is wrong with American politics, not the greatness of America.” His colleague Ben Sasse pleaded, “Please just stop. This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office.” And Brzezinski herself, in a Washington Post op-ed with Joe Scarborough, her Morning Joe co-host and fiancé, wrote that “concerns about his unmoored behavior go far beyond the personal. America’s leaders and allies are asking themselves yet again whether this man is fit to be president.”
Trump isn’t staining the presidency so much as redefining it. He’s shown that anyone can be president, even someone who completely lacks the ability or experience to do the job. Thanks to Trump—the first president never to have served in the military, worked in government, or held elected office—the pool of prospective candidates is overflowing. Whereas only politicians or the occasional general, like Dwight Eisenhower, could credibly compete for the White House, today billionaires and celebrities of all sorts are imagining themselves in the Oval Office. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently toured small towns in Iowa, as part of his “year of travel,” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has openly entertained a run for office. “I’ll be honest, I haven’t ruled politics out,” he said last year. “I can’t deny that the thought of being governor, the thought of being president, is alluring. And beyond that, it would be an opportunity to make a real impact on people’s lives on a global scale.”
As National Review senior writer David French wrote in a piece touting Johnson:
Since it’s 2017—and since a less popular celebrity made it to the White House—the question has arisen: Will The Rock bring the people’s eyebrow to politics? Will we see the rhetorical equivalent of the people’s elbow delivered to the solar plexus of his political opponents? Questions that once seemed crazy to ask are now a normal part of American political life.
In January, I joined the bandwagon, too, making the case that perhaps Democrats should “take a page out of the Republican playbook and put a celebrity up for national office.” A “magnetic, attractive movie star would have a far better chance” of turning out the Democratic base than “just another accomplished, dowdy politician,” I argued. “The party could recruit [Meryl] Streep and others to bait Trump, and perhaps, as [Michael] Moore suggested, groom some to be presidential candidates. In 2020, the Democrats could run Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyonce, Matt Damon, or Rosie O’Donnell.”
Now, more than five months into Trump’s disastrous presidency, I’m having second thoughts. Just because almost anyone can be president—provided they are over 35 and a natural-born U.S. citizen—doesn’t mean that the Democrats should follow the Republicans’ lead by putting up an angry, anti-political celebrity for president. In fact, history suggests that trying to replicate Trump is the exactly wrong approach for Democrats. While there’s merit in appealing to the frustration with political elites, which Trump has exploited, the smarter move would be to embody that message in a candidate who otherwise contrasts with Trump. Because after four years of Trumpian chaos and incompetence—if, that is, he even serves out his full term—America is going to be desperate for the opposite.
The presidency is a pendulum. There is a consistent pattern, going back decades, where the turnover of the White House from one party to another features a stark contrast between the outgoing and incoming occupant.
Dwight Eisenhower was old, linguistically inept, and a cultural philistine. He was replaced by John F. Kennedy, who was young, eloquent, and (at least in the image he crafted for himself) cultured. Lyndon Johnson, a rambunctious, back-slapping Texan, gave way to the socially awkward and furtive Richard Nixon. Nixon’s corruption, and Gerald Ford’s pardon of his predecessor, created an appetite for a man untainted by Washington perfidy: the pious Jimmy Carter. But Carter’s sanctimonious moralizing and acknowledgement of national malaise wore thin, and he was booted in favor of a sunny nationalist, Ronald Reagan. The Democrats regained the White House by nominating a personable populist, Bill Clinton, who contrasted with an aloof WASP, George H. W. Bush. The backlash to Clinton’s sexual escapades and slippery character contributed to the election of the evangelical George W. Bush. Barack Obama’s intellectual curiosity and cosmopolitanism was an obvious rebuke to Bush, and Trump is the anti-Obama: rude, belligerent, unwilling to apologize, and assertive to a fault.
The lesson here is that the electorate doesn’t reward copycat candidates, but those that offer a clean break from the past. Voters, especially those with any inclination at all to vote Democratic, will be sick of Trump well before 2020. Indeed, many already are. They’ll be sick of his crudeness, his misogyny, his abrasiveness, and his lack of policy knowledge. Those voters will be looking for a president who is, stylistically speaking, the opposite of Trump.
The best person for that job is Elizabeth Warren.
The stylistic contrast is clear: Warren is a brainy senator with a mastery of policy detail, as displayed in hearings where she’s grilled bankers and other corporate bigwigs. Her midwestern plainspokenness is a powerful rejoinder to Trump’s bombastic New York bullshitting. She’s a former academic who has served in government, in one form or another, more than 20 years. She’s also a woman, which is all the more significant in light of Trump’s persistent sexism.
What makes Warren especially appealing is that, while her public persona is nothin like Trump’s, she can appeal to the legitimate grievances of anti-establishment voters who supported Trump. With her strong populist credentials, Warren still offers those voters a voice, but in a different register. While voters will surely get sick of Trump’s antics, the issues that carried him to the White House aren’t going to disappear.
As Franklin Foer noted in a recent analysis of the Democratic Party in The Atlantic, Warren has been shrewdly honing her populist message to focus on the problem of monopolistic corporate power. If Warren runs for president, he wrote, “she will likely seek to channel working-class anger toward behemoth firms, their executives, and the government officials who coddle them.... The approach exudes a Trumplike hostility to Washington elites, but not necessarily to government. And nearly the entire Democratic agenda can be justified through its prism: Obamacare preserves freedom and loosens corporations’ grip on their employees, by allowing workers to switch jobs without fear of losing health insurance. Criminal-justice reform is an effort to secure liberty and equality from an abusive apparatus of the state.”
Warren believes in the ability of the government to fix problems and improve people’s lives. Her Trump-like populism and do-goodism could be a winning combination for Democrats, defusing Trump’s working-class appeal while highlighting his ineptness.
Trump has a visceral hatred of governance, a gut-level instinct that has led to him leaving hundreds of top-level positions vacant. “The failure to fill these top roles undermines the president’s ability to delivery on his policy agenda—including his ambitious tax reform plan and vow to overhaul health care,” CNN’s Donna Borak wrote. “Without critical leadership in place, agencies can be left rudderless.” At the State Department, for instance, Secretary Rex Tillerson’s inability to get White House approval for his choices for assistant secretaries (traditionally the key figures for implementing policy) has led to a bottleneck whereby the head of the department is cut off from its daily functioning.
After Trump slowly starves the government, and his administrative chaos seeps into everyday Americans’ lives, there will be considerable hunger for public institutions’ being run by someone who believes in their purpose and mission. This will be especially true if Trump faces a genuine crisis like Hurricane Katrina, where the importance of competent management is all too clear.
Among Warren’s many virtues as a Trump alternative is that she, much more than other Democrats, doesn’t shy away from making the affirmative case for government. After Trump gets through trashing the very government he was tasked with administrating, slashing regulations and hollowing out institutions, there will be a genuine need for someone who regards public service as a noble calling and who can properly craft and implement programs. Recovering from the Trump hangover, America will need a tonic: Warren, with her faith in government as an alternative to corporate power, is well positioned to be not just the anti-Trump but also the answer to Trump.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Joe Scarborough as Mika Brzezinski’s husband. They are engaged.