Can Donald Trump survive the crucible of a presidential campaign?
Many people (including me) have bewailed our unique and arguably insane American system of choosing a president, requiring candidates to invest two years of exhausting non-stop work toward a highly uncertain outcome. What kind of person would be willing to do such a thing?
For most of U.S. history, we didn’t want such a person in the job. Presidential nominees did not campaign for themselves because mainstream society believed doing so was unbecoming and the sign of a character flaw. We’ve since reversed our views entirely, and our ratio of bad presidents to good ones over time doesn’t seem to have deteriorated. Possibly that’s because our current system has at least this in its favor: It’s the hottest crucible in electoral politics anywhere, and it exposes realities about our candidates that would likely never be known in any other system.
The Trump tape released Friday is just the latest example. That tape was sitting in the archives of a nationally syndicated TV program for 11 years, but apparently no one dug it out until after Trump became the Republican nominee—and now CNN has unearthed a trove of audio tapes in which Trump is similarly vulgar and misogynistic speaking with radio host Howard Stern.
The larger point is that no one on earth is examined more closely than a major party’s nominee for president. On the case are thousands of journalists worldwide as well as the opposing party, special interests for and against, foreign powers, and a lifetime’s worth of acquaintances—some with grudges—who possess letters, emails, photos, and documents that may suddenly be newsworthy. All of them can reveal facts that the candidates themselves may have forgotten.
Hillary Clinton’s Friday was of the same kind as Trump’s but of a vastly different degree. Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks published emails that included transcripts of Clinton’s speeches to financial services companies such as Goldman Sachs. In any other year, or even on any other day, these might have been a moderately big deal, especially since these are transcripts she has refused to release. But next to the Trump firestorm, they became almost invisible.
Being scorched by the heat of the crucible can destroy people or make them stronger. Former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley says he wouldn’t have been prepared for the top job if he hadn’t been running P&G’s Japan business during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. General Electric chief Jeff Immelt says he wouldn’t be CEO today if he hadn’t gone through the hellish experience many years earlier of managing a GE refrigerator recall that was the largest appliance recall by any company ever. They were strengthened by their experiences. But no one knows in advance what the crucible will do to them, what it will reveal about them.
Neither Trump nor Clinton has come through the crucible well. It has exposed realities that render them the most disliked and untrusted candidates in the history of public opinion polling. Whatever the result, on November 9 we’ll all wake up grateful that this seemingly endless process is over. Say this for it, though: We’ll know more about our next president than we ever could have known in any other way.
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