There’s no shortage, I realize, of ways of detecting falsity in contemporary politicians, but I’ve come upon one that I find most helpful. The more politicians use the phrase “the American people,” I believe, the less they are to be trusted.
The phrase has been cropping up with an impressive regularity in recent months. From the Democrats we hear that “the American people” want to have an unredacted version of the Mueller report, that “the American people” need the past six (or is it 10?) years of Donald Trump’s tax returns made public, that “the American people” deserve to have former White House counsel Don McGahn, former special counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr testify before Congress.
Across the aisle, the Republicans confidently inform us that “the American people” aren’t interested in any of these things, that instead “the American people” are interested in health care, the economy and immigration—the bread and butter, the really serious issues of the day.
As an American person, I have a difficult time believing that Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy have their fingers on my, so to say, American pulse. None speak for me, and I find it hard to believe they speak for the vast congeries of my confreres who go by the name of “the American people.” I feel confident that as far as this American person and most of the rest of us are concerned, the politicians in both parties could not give a flying you-know-what about what we want, need, deserve or are really interested in.
What each of our two parties is chiefly concerned about, and has been over the past two years, is putting down, degrading and humiliating the other party. Since Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election, the Democrats have been seeking a way to nullify Mr. Trump’s victory. He and the Republicans, meanwhile, have done all they can to ensure that the Democrats are never viewed as anything other than pettifogging, obstructionist, malignant—to use one of our president’s favorite words—creeps.
Politics, which Aristotle defined as the practical science for making citizens happy, just now are about little more than intramural squabbling, and appeals to “the American people” are little more than a cover, a shield, a phony justification blithely used by both parties to keep this dreary game going.
The results, sadly, are extramural. Though all Democrats and a vast number of independents of a liberal bent claim that they will vote for anyone against Mr. Trump, all the two dozen Democrats who have announced their presidential candidacies seem so dim, so thin, so impressively unpresidential. Might it be because the only question of the least interest about all of these candidates is whether they can defeat Mr. Trump? Next to this question, intelligence, temperament, gravity and all the other qualities one looks for in an American president have been set aside. The actual policies of the Democratic Party candidates are finally negligible.
The forthcoming election figures to be not in the least about what is best for “the American people,” but whether power can be wrested from Donald Trump or if he can retain it for another rocky four-year ride. Although to be sure many would say that defeating Mr. Trump is in itself what is best for “the American people”—the only policy that truly matters.
I don’t believe Mr. Trump often, or even ever, uses the phrase “the American people.” At least I cannot recall his doing so. But then that would entail slipping out of the first person in which he is so comfortable and into what for him would be a grammatically foreign land, the third person. Besides, one senses that “the American people” is never what it has been about for Mr. Trump. Besides, accuse the man of what you will—crudity, vanity, cupidity—no one sensible would think to accuse him of hypocrisy, that most common of politicians’ sins.
So there we are, the good old American people, without much in the way of political options. If the polls at this early point can be relied upon, the 2020 presidential election may well be between Mr. Trump and Joe Biden, not so much the Laurel and Hardy as two of the Three Stooges of current American political life.
Mr. Trump will call Mr. Biden sleepy, creepy, low IQ and whatever else comes to mind, and Mr. Biden—hair plugs, bleached teeth and all—will somehow play his way through, stopping along the way only for the occasional, amusingly egregious gaffes.
Whoever wins, the loser figures to be—you will have guessed it—the American people.
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”