It is not difficult to see that Donald Trump has rendered the Republican party irrelevant in the race for president. Paul Ryan, more and more looking the role of a lost boy, pretty much surrendered the campaign to Trump when he said that he would do whatever Trump wanted at the Republican convention.
However, the picture is not much different on the Democratic side. The enspiriting core, the exciting vision, lies not with Hillary Clinton, who is now being considered on all sides as the “safe” candidate, but rather with Bernie Sanders. It is Sanders who is setting the tone, and that tone is not political. It is, above all, moral.
The phenomenon that Senator Sanders has become owes its rise to the fact that he speaks, not in terms of political unity, but rather within the constant theme of ideals. He calls, not for a concentration of power, but for a unified commitment to the needs of the entire community. Not even the most enthusiastic Sanders fan could have any realistic hope that Sanders would have any chance of getting his proposals enacted. That doesn’t mean he is delusional about this. He is not making his points as programs to be passed, but rather as ideals to be kept in front of those in power as they legislate on such subjects as health care, taxation and the environment.
Surprisingly enough, Trump’s campaign can only be understood on that very same plane. Trump has abandoned, or rather ignored, the entire party mechanism, and so his campaign is entirely about him, and his message is a stark endorsement of the morality of self-interest. That might in fact explain the inability of the Republican power brokers to stop Trump. After all, Ryan, supposedly the most powerful Republican, held himself out as a devotee of the objectivism of Ayn Rand, which, whether Ryan knows it or not, is the clearest example of a morality of self-interest in modern times.
So for me the only way to understand the core tension of this campaign is to see it, not at all as a standard political campaign, but rather as a battle for the soul of America, a battle that mirrors the very tension of human existence. To be human is both to be driven by self-interest, by enjoyment in its dual sense of pleasure and possession, and to aspire to a meaning beyond ourselves. We both lust after wealth and comfort and suffer with and for those who have little or none of either.
In the end, then, this campaign may be one of the most important of our time. We are forced, in choosing one of these candidates, to look into ourselves, and the winner will show us what we want to be as a nation. We will be choosing much more than a candidate, and we are not at all choosing a party. We are telling ourselves what we really mean by the American ideal. We will be choosing between freedom as license and freedom as fulfillment of the ideals of inalienable human rights.
One small word of warning: the outcome is not as obvious as one might guess.