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Political commentators are supposed to be somewhat objective and analytical when it comes to tracking trends. In that spirit, I find the polling snapshot of President Trump at one year since his election to be interesting — if “interesting” is defined as a downward spiral of polarization, pettiness and prejudice that threatens the daily functioning and moral standing of the American republic.

Michael Gerson mug

Michael Gerson

Our times are not normal — and it is a disservice to the country to normalize them. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, Trump’s approval rating is worse — far worse — than any president at this stage in seven decades of polling. About half of those surveyed strongly disapprove. The public assessment of Trump’s leadership, character and competence has grown harsher in every category.

All this is true following two quarters of more than 3 percent economic growth, with the stock market booming and unemployment at 4.1 percent. Practically, this means that Trump has no cushion or margin of public support when economic circumstances worsen. At a time of (relative) peace and prosperity, Trump is still broadly viewed as divisive and ineffective. The ship of Trump has strong winds at its back — but is sinking too fast to take advantage of them.

And yet. The Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that if the Trump/Clinton presidential race were re-held today, it would be a tie. Think on that. Arguably the worst president in modern history might still beat one of the most prominent Democrats in America. This indicates a Democratic Party in the midst of its own profound crisis. During the Obama years, it collapsed in large portions of the country. Its national establishment has been revealed — with extensive footnotes provided by Donna Brazile — as arrogant, complacent and corrupt. But the only serious ideological alternative to that establishment is frankly socialist — the fatuous and shallow sort of socialism held by college freshmen and Bernie Sanders.

We have reached a moment of intellectual and moral exhaustion for both major political parties. One is dominated by ethnic politics — which a disturbingly strong majority of Republican regulars have found appealing or acceptable. The other is dominated by identity politics — a movement that counts a growing number of Robespierres. Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that America has built and led for 70 years.

Normally, a political party would succeed by taking the best of populist passion and giving it more mainstream expression. But in this particular, polarized environment, how is that possible? Do mainstream Republicans take a dollop of nativism and a dash of racism and add them to their tax cuts? That seemed to be the approach that Ed Gillespie took in the Virginia governor’s race. But this is morally poisonous — like taking a little ricin in your tea. Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism — some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single-payer health care — and add them to job training programs?

The lead ideology of the Republican Party at the national level is now immoral and must be overturned — a task that only a smattering of retiring officeholders has undertaken. The lead ideology of the Democratic Party is likely to be overturned — by radicals with little to offer the country save anger and bad economics.

Where does this leave us at year one of the Trump era? With two very sick political parties that have a monopoly on political power and little prospect for reform and recovery. The stakes are quite high. If America really develops a political competition between ethno-nationalism and identity socialism, it will mean we are a nation in decline — likely to leave pressing problems (educational failure, unconstrained debt, a flawed criminal justice system) unconfronted. Likely to forfeit global leadership, undermine world markets and cede to others the mantle of stability and firm purpose.

There is a serious prospect that the president will truly crash and burn in a colossal fiasco so disastrous as to be undeniable proof against all things Trump. But that would be so bad for the country that it is hard to wish for.

So what should we wish for? It is a measure of our moment that this is not obvious. It is quite possible that moderate conservatism and moderate liberalism are inadequate to explain and tame the convulsive economic and social changes of our time. Which places America’s future — uncertain, maybe unknowable — on the other side of an earthquake.

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Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson can be reached at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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(6) comments

oldhomey

I think Gerson essentially is right, as he usually is. Sorry, but single payer health insurance doesn't appear in this column. I think an awful lot of the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party IS sophomoric ideology that is worn like fashionable clothing but, like the Nehru jackets of the 60s, has a very short shelf life. Obamacare is real, it is here, it needs fixing, most Americans would like to see it fixed. It is the sort of moderate Democratic policy that the Democratic Party should selling hard and harder for the next three years. A message and a well constructed plan to generate jobs, make education and healthcare more affordable and to get back to building strong bridges and alliances with the world's democracies will energize people who came out to vote for Obama to come out and vote for new Democratic candidates, perhaps even recapturing older working class voters who voted for Trump. But don't get too carried away Bernie-style nostrums. It may feel good to be out there pounding the drums for them, but it is way too far ahead of what a majority Americans feel comfortable with at this time.

kingman10

True that single payers system is not specifically mentioned, but I assumed it was part of the "socialism" of Bernie Sanders wing of the party. I hope you are right that moderates are enough to win against the extremism of the GOP. But unless you fire up the base, get people excited and motivated on the Democratic side so they turn out to vote. Bernie was good at firing up the base, but moderate candidates may fall short come election day. I could be totally wrong. I hope the elections this past tuesday are an indication that people are already fed up with this GOP and Trump nonsense and it carries into the elections next year for congress,

oldhomey

Well, kingman, my record as a political prognosticator is a woeful one, indeed. I am wrong on the outcomes far more often than I am right. I wear my feelings on my shirtsleeves, but feelings don't mean much in hard political geography. I am guessing -- perhaps hoping is more accurate -- that American voters by and large in 2018 and 2020 will be so sick of the extremes that they will flock to candidates who are intelligent, capable and steering a course of moderation and conciliation, not blind hatred and extreme measures either to the left or right. The Democrats certainly have the chance to take that course far more easily than the Republicans, who are yoked with the primary election dilemma of having powerful, highly motivated, too-well-funded extremist right wing tea party types able to capture nominations but far less able to win a general election.

The Mouse of Death

[angry]It would behoove us to obey Президент России Владимир Путин, for he is the Boss of Дональд Дж. Трамп and is therefore, our boss too.

kingman10

So Gerson's beef with the democratic party is its push for single payer health care, Bernie Sanders type "socialist" programs, and a pro choice stance. While the democrats have their problems, I would say those three positions are pretty much spot on. They are much much better than the immoral agenda being pushed by the Repubs that Gerson pointed out. And I would think the majority of Americans would agree.

Clarification

Both sides are too chicken to stomp on the health care gorilla, even more so than the NRA.

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