An Ideological Reservoir Plagues the American Electorate
Jimmy Carter's "lust in my heart" vs. Donald Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy."
I’m on Jimmy Carter deathwatch. Since the former president entered hospice, I’ve woken up to a flurry of texts from tv and radio producers. They want me to confirm that, if Carter dies, I’ll be ready to go on their shows.
I am. I’ve been ready for a long time. I’ve read the books. I’ve visited the sites. I’ve met the man. My talking points are solid.
I suppose I could leave it at that, but I’ve turned contemplative on constitutionals. Why don’t we talk about x? Why do we think y? What if, what if, what if.
Consider, for example, Carter and Donald Trump. You wouldn’t expect them to have the same PR problem, yet they did: Carter and Trump were married men who publicly expressed a desire for women who were not their wives—but how they spoke about it, how it became known, and how it was received, highlights a significant change in the American electorate.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter volunteered to Playboy that he had "lust in his heart" for other women. Carter, a Baptist who, at the time, had already been happily married to Rosalynn for decades, paid the price for this confession, dropping 15 points in the polls.
In 2016, Donald Trump was caught on video saying, as Melania Trump, his third wife, was at home with their newborn child, that he was unfaithful with seeming abandon. He spoke in the crassest terms, alluding to nonconsensual behavior; allegations of assault and hush money were always in the news—but it had little effect on Trump’s popularity. As he said that year, “I could ... shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters.”
What’s the difference? Whether you like Trump or not, he’s considered objectively more charismatic than Carter, but that doesn’t fully explain the outcome. It highlights a bigger issue, one Trump confirms above: An ideological reservoir plagues the American electorate. In Trump’s case, voters approved of, or at least explained away, his shocking behavior. He pursued their objectives, and that’s what they chose to focus on. In Carter’s day, that wasn’t enough.
I’m not recommending nostalgia. It’s as dangerous as blind allegiance. But if we dismiss what follows the inevitable news of Carter’s death as yet more presidential pageantry, it’s surely at our peril.
FROM MY ARCHIVES
It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life—and I never want to do it again!
UPCOMING PUBLIC EVENTS
March 23rd: Keynote on George Washington. Raynham Hall Museum. Oyster Bay, New York.
April 19th: In conversation with Alex Mar. Oblong. Rhinebeck, NY.
May 17th: Interviewed by Christy S. Coleman. The Jamestown Settlement, Jamestown Yorktown Foundation. Williamsburg, Virginia.