As a Mitt Romney–supporting Republican in 2012, I distinctly remember the moment when I knew that Barack Obama would be extraordinarily tough to beat. It was when I first heard his one-line sales pitch: “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”
If you remember the upheavals of 1998—when Bill Clinton was caught perjuring himself after an affair with an intern—and think back to how he was able to survive the scandal, a single phrase comes to mind: peace and prosperity. The American economy was roaring, the Soviet Union was extinct, and the federal budget was in a state of actual surplus.
Let’s go back even farther, to 1988. Americans tend to get weary of one-party presidential control. Since the Roosevelt-Truman era, American voters have given the same party three consecutive presidential terms only once, when George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis.
Why did Bush win? Certainly Dukakis had his deficiencies as a candidate, but Bush had a mighty wind at his back—years of economic expansion supplemented by the Reagan-era revival of the American spirit and American self-confidence.
Amidst the recent wave of (extremely justified) concern over the future of American democracy—rooted in the threat of a potential Donald Trump comeback and the moral and intellectual decline of the American right—I fear that we’re losing sight of the main thing that can stop Trumpism in its tracks. It’s not ideology. It’s not messaging. It’s competence. The short history above reminds us why.