There are many ways to analyze American political divisions, but one that may be especially germane to this period and to the coming presidential election is the persistent tension between the electorate’s longing for expertise and the appeal of authenticity. Recognizing that tension, modern presidential candidates tend to gravitate toward one camp or the other. Call them the “experts” vs. the “authentics.”
Hilary Clinton was an expert. I was editor of the L.A. Times editorial pages in 2008 when Clinton visited with the board to solicit its endorsement in that year’s Democratic primary. Never have I seen a candidate more fluent in more subjects than Clinton was that day. And yet, on the campaign trail, she often appeared stiff and relentlessly on message. Supporters would often lament that they rarely saw the Clinton they knew privately during the campaign.
Donald Trump, of course, is an authentic. He muffs easy questions so often and is so often wrong on facts that it’s ludicrous to think of him as an expert. Still, he projects a sort of feral frankness that dismays anyone in search of the actual truth, but also has an appeal — or at least did to the 46% of Americans who voted for him in 2016.
It’s tempting to think of this divide as one that mirrors party lines, but that’s not the case. Mitt Romney is an expert, conversant in facts, principled and yet stiff and removed. Bernie Sanders is an authentic, true to his vision of America, whether it lands him on the side of Fidel Castro or in pursuit of healthcare reform that could bring lasting relief to millions of Americans. One may agree or disagree with Sanders’ policy prescriptions, but no one thinks of him as poll-driven or insincere.
Nor are these categories new. Harry Truman was an authentic. Dwight Eisenhower was an expert. Bill Clinton was an expert, with feints of homespun authenticity; George H.W. Bush was an expert; George W. Bush was an authentic, though he recruited experts to his administration. In California, Gavin Newsom is an expert — smart, disciplined and polished, sometimes to a fault.
Every once in a while, a politician comes along who combines elements of expertise and authenticity. California’s last governor, Jerry Brown, for example, was a shrewd calculator of political opportunity, but also a freelancer who spoke without notes and enjoyed defying convention. He served four terms and would still be in office were in not for term limits.
Similarly, Barack Obama was a hybrid. He could seem to some, in the words of his admiring former CIA chief and Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, as relying “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” His critics saw him as aloof and superior. But Obama could muster an earthiness and sense of humor that gave him authenticity credentials as well. It is no wonder that he left office as a popular president and that esteem for him has only grown since.
And now we face a moment — an election amid a crisis that will make some qualities more attractive and others less so. Seen through this prism, the coming campaign will pit a full-blown authentic, Trump, against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, accustomed to running as an authentic but this time perhaps better advised to present himself as an expert.
Biden has run previously as a sort of aw-shucks populist who appeals to working people with his blue-collar, Delaware roots. That approach has made him popular but, until this race, never secured him so much as a single presidential primary victory, much less the nomination. But eight years with Obama have bolstered his expert credentials, and it is those that may prove most useful now. His early ads tout his expertise on health and economic issues, implicitly in contrast with Trump. That’s the right approach.
During a crisis of this magnitude, expertise is essential, and authenticity seems superfluous. It was one thing to take a flier on Donald Trump in 2016, when the economy was strong, American prestige solid and the prospects for the future bright. None of that is true today.
A reliance on science is needed to combat the coronavirus, and clumsy attempts at authenticity seem bizarre at best and dangerous at worst. Few people want a president who recommends experimenting with injecting disinfectants.
If modern American politics is a continuing test of authenticity vs. expertise, the coming election seems likely to favor expertise. Biden is well positioned to make the most of that.
Jim Newton, former editor of The Times’ editorial pages and now editor of UCLA’s Blueprint magazine, is the author of “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown,” to be released on May 12.