“While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.”
Some 170 years and 36 presidents later, the choice presented to the American people at this year’s presidential election does not merely confirm the correctness of the Frenchman’s assessment; it amplifies his verdict in an absurd, almost surreal manner.
Among America’s presidents—many of them impressive and some great, especially in the early years—there have been a few warmongers, neurotics, ignoramuses, and dullards. No single chief executive has been marked by all of those traits, however.
Jackson was famously feisty and a true American hero. Polk waged a war of aggression, but at least that war could not be lost, and it increased the power of the country. Tyler, Fillmore, Buchanan, and Pierce have been maligned ex post facto after 1865 by the winners. Andrew Johnson, Grant, and Harding were personally flawed, rather than systemically destructive. Theodore Roosevelt was a trigger-happy imperialist, yet he was also intelligent, rational, and understood the uses and limits of American power...