“As democracy is perfected, the office (of the President) represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Those words, courtesy of H.L. Mencken, appeared in The Baltimore Evening Sun on July 26, 1920.
While they reflected a journalistic curmudgeon’s generally low regard for the collective wisdom of ordinary Americans, almost a century later, they are noteworthy for their extraordinary prescience.
The “Sage of Baltimore,” as he was known, clearly saw the eventual election of a Trump-type figure as inevitable. He saw a White House occupied by stupidity, the ship of state being steered by a ship of fools.
Yet, could even the famously cynical Mencken — an outspoken critic of representative democracy — have fully anticipated the shambolic and shameless presidency of Donald Trump? Could he have imagined the extent to which America’s democratic norms would be under assault, and any semblance of civil discourse shattered? And that roughly one in three Americans, having reached their “heart’s desire,” would not seem to care?
It is interesting to contemplate how he would have reacted to a dangerously deviant American president who, among other things:
• Is supportive of thuggish autocrats while alienating traditional allies.
• Is being investigated for possibly conspiring with a foreign adversary to help himself get elected, and is now acting in plain sight to obstruct that very investigation.
• Is routinely challenging the rule of law and other basic principles he has sworn to protect.
• Is proudly taking credit for the recent government shutdown, having proclaimed a nonexistent “national emergency” at our southern border as a pretext for causing it.
• Is using the same pretext to justify the casual cruelty of a policy that separates children from parents to deter others from seeking refuge.
• Is filling his cabinet and White House staff with plutocrats, grifters and political neophytes who, following his lead, are often seen serving their own interests rather than the public’s.
To be sure, stocking an administration with “the best and the brightest” has proved to be no guarantee of smart, ethical and successful governance. The role of President Kennedy’s high-caliber inner circle in promoting expanded American involvement in Vietnam testifies to that.
On the other hand, recruiting the worst and the dimmest — a hallmark of the Trump era — is a virtual guarantee of incompetence, corruption and failure.
Mencken would not be surprised by the executive branch’s current crisis of leadership, nor by the self-serving complicity of congressional Republicans. His view of the Grand Old Party was unambiguous: “In this world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”
What he likely would have found surprising were times when the “plain folks” he disdained did rise to an occasion, and to great effect.
For example, the man who wrote that “no one … ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of … the great masses of the plain people” might have underestimated their potential as catalysts for political and social reform. In fact, it was not long after Mencken’s death in 1956 that the civil rights and anti-war movements, driven by mass public protest, profoundly changed the American narrative.
Although Mencken may not have seen that coming, he did see the ultimate emergence of women as a possible game-changing political force. And that has significant implications for today.
In his book, “In Defense of Women,” he predicted that granting the vote to women would be “the real beginning of an improvement to our politics, and in the end, in our whole theory of government.”
In 2020, that premise will be tested as never before.
Acutely aware of the prospective power of the ballot, and inspired by the “Me Too” movement, a de facto coalition of ordinary women and female politicians — including several presidential candidates — is in the vanguard of those leading the resistance to Mr. Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, like Mencken a native of Baltimore and also the daughter of its one-time mayor, was sage-like in deftly outmaneuvering Trump during the shutdown to become, at least for now, the face of that resistance.
If, come 2020, the female vote does prove decisive and Trump is defeated, it would represent a fascinating bit of historical symmetry. For the victory would come exactly 100 years after women finally won the right to vote, on Aug. 26, 1920. Which, ironically, was just one month after Mencken wrote the words that foreshadowed a future President Trump.