Politics of discontent: Who will move to the center and win back Americans' trust?

Politics of discontent: Who will move to the center and win back Americans' trust?
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All polls and current anecdotal experience confirm that Americans are very disappointed in government and in politics generally. Since the Great Depression 90 years ago, political discontent has been near this level only at the worst of the Vietnam era (1966-1971), the depths of the Watergate crisis (1973-1974) and the frustrations of the latter Carter administration (1979-1981). 

On those occasions, one party bore most of the blame and a change of presidents produced a policy that addressed the widespread dissatisfaction. 

President Nixon resolved the Vietnam problem, even though a Democratic-controlled Congress eventually refused any assistance to South Vietnam and handed victory to the North Vietnamese. President Ford quickly alleviated the unfeasibly poisonous atmosphere of Watergate, and has been justly praised in subsequent years for pardoning Nixon. Under President Reagan, the hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were released as he gave his inaugural address, stagflation was succeeded by an economic boom, warm relations developed with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Cold War ended satisfactorily.

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The reasons for the current discontent are much more complicated, and they afflict both parties. 

It was a world-startling revelation when Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE exposed the depth of America’s public discontent in his campaign for the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016. He represented all those dissatisfied with the complacency of the bipartisan and rather look-alike character of post-Reagan public policy. The working class felt it had been put over the side by Democrats in favor of the Clinton-era upwardly mobile and less traditional middle class, and there emerged a body of opposition to the management of unemployment with make-work public sector jobs and increased welfare benefits for the idle dropouts of a shrinking workforce under President Obama. It was only the second time in American history when there were three consecutive two-term presidents (Clinton, Bush and Obama, 1993-2017; Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, 1801-1825).

Trump exploited the discontent of both the unabashed capitalists, who regarded Obama as a socialist, and the traditional working class, who regarded Obama as an elitist who famously disparaged “guns and religion.” Trump also won over a huge block of lower-income Democrats with the application of low-tax Reagan capitalism. The greatest concerns of those voters were stagnant incomes, the steady influx of illegal unskilled labor across the southern border keeping a rod on the backs of lower-income earners, and the perception of the federal government as being global rather than local or national in its goals. The latter caused the loss of good manufacturing jobs to foreign countries, which then exported to the United States what we previously manufactured ourselves, while retaining and reinvesting the profits abroad, untaxed in the U.S. 

The basic problem was that the Bush-McCain-Romney Republicans were so barely distinguishable from their Democratic opponents that several large constituencies felt unrepresented. The complacency of the political establishment, which dismissed Trump right up to Election Day 2016, was so profound that its shock at his election — and its  revulsion at his often garish, even outrageous personality — made the anti-Trump Republicans an oppressed minority within their party, sending supportive signals to Democrats and the media as they conducted guerrilla warfare against their party’s president. 

Trump supporters, however, found his disrespect for the existing political establishment to be refreshing, and he substantially delivered on his radical promises: a significant reduction in illegal immigration, a surge in job creation that gave the country 750,000 more jobs to fill than there were unemployed, a widely supported assertion of the proportions of the China challenge, and tax-incentivized assistance to low-income areas which helped to facilitate sharp increases of support for Republicans from the African American and Latin American communities. He substantially increased the base of his support, while anti-Trump forces reached unheard-of heights of partisan belligerency with the Trump-Russia collusion fraud followed by an overreaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, in between two failed impeachment trials

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This escalation of political skirmishing is what helped to create today’s extremely contentious atmosphere. The united opposition to Trump includes militant advocacy groups and a large socialist contingent led by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Briahna Joy Gray: Voters are 'torn' over Ohio special election Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength MORE (I-Vt.) — supported by the vast majority of the national political media — which, in the 2020 presidential election, outspent Trump two-to-one.

This unprecedented hostility between the majority factions of both parties won’t necessarily be resolved by a change of parties in government. Either one party will crush the other — as in the landslides of Democrat Lyndon Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon (R) over George McGovern (D) in 1972, and Ronald Reagan (R) over Walter Mondale (D) in 1984 — or one or both parties will move toward the center. Of course, this would require Trump to retire from politics and support a less contentious Republican nominee who generally shares his views, and/or require Democrats to shift back gradually toward a center-left position and stop frightening voters with the Sanders left and other militants (which they already may be starting to do). 

In the United States, after all, the political game is always played between the 30-yard lines. 

Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of 10 books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. He co-hosts the "Scholars & Sense" podcast with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett and Hoover Institution scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.