“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. 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.”
— H.L. Mencken, On Politics
I am not altogether certain that Mencken was right in his initial conditions. That is, I don't think that democracy has been perfected. If anything, we have gotten ourselves off track with regard to democracy. And his approach seems rooted somewhat in the ahistorical belief that our political institutions were set up, in those heady days of 1787, primarily to avoid "mob rule."
I have no doubt that the highly educated men who wrote and debated and instituted our great Constitution were rightly suspicious of the uneducated masses. They were fearful of the great mass of people who, lacking resources, obtained no great measure of book-learning beyond that necessary to work and pray, which in most cases was none at all, and they did not want those people pulling the levers of government directly in any sense.
But, even then, politics and horse-trading were afoot. The Electoral College exists, it was said in those days, and specifically in Federalist No. 68 (authored by the now-popular Alexander Hamilton), as a bulwark against mob rule by interposing an erudite, discreet body of the best qualified individuals between the easily inflamed passions of the people and the Presidency. That was, however, merely the sales pitch. The real motivation behind the Electoral College was to ensure that smaller states received outsize say in the election, in exchange for their support of the new Constitution.
In No. 68, Hamilton also argued that the existence of the Electoral College "affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Rather than the popular choice, the body is designed to produce the right choice, the definition of which Hamilton kindly provided. "The true test of a good government," Hamilton said, "is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration."
In No. 63, James Madison, writing about the Senate (but in any event talking about government generally), said:
Thus far I have considered the circumstances which point out the necessity of a well constructed senate, only as they relate to the representatives of the people. To a people as little blinded by prejudice, or corrupted by flattery, as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary, as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought in all governments, and actually will in all free governments ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.
It seems Madison knew his posterity better than we know ourselves. But what he and Hamilton and the others could not have anticipated is the degree to which people of such defective ideology as the Republicans are vomiting out these days might, through gamesmanship and subterfuge, gain absolute control over the levers of power and use them to implement a bastard form of tyranny—a tyranny of anarchy (except, of course, in the bedroom).
And that brings us to Mencken. What Mencken got right is that as we progress through our long descent into self-destruction, the "people," not a majority of us, but the loudest among us, would see the fulfillment of their apparently highest desire: A President who lacks any reasonable qualifications and whose basic functional intent is to monkeywrench the government—or, as Mencken put it, an outright moron.
It has been said before that we were already there. Ronald Reagan was no great shakes in the brain department, but he could say his lines and hit his marks. George W. Bush spoke and acted like a moron until the gravity of events pulled him into a regular orbit.
But nobody tops Trump, at least not in the category of "outright moron." (I shudder to think of who might outpoint the Fascist Cheeto on that score. Thankfully, Justin Bieber is Canadian and therefore ineligible to serve.)
And here we are, less than 24 hours away, and that outright moron will be the President of the United States—together with his record-low approval rating, his "work when I want to" attitude, his insistence on personal loyalty instead of competence and expertise, and his cabinet of idiots and sycophants. I'll side with Hamilton: The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration—and all signs are pointing to "unmitigated disaster." So much for the protection of the Electoral College. Thanks a lot, Hamilton.
I will leave it to others to hope for the best. I believe that the ship has sailed on "the best," and if we can simply survive the next four years, that will be yuuuge.