This column appeared in the May 20, 2016 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
A favorite game in the Jennings household is the Find It tube, a cylinder filled with beads and several random small objects. You don’t open it. You just look at it, endlessly turning it, displacing the beads, and checking items off the list as they appear. You see some of the stuff on the list over and over again, a maddening loop that has you looking up Find It’s mailing address so you can send them a strongly worded letter.
If you turn the cylinder long enough, your mind starts to see things that aren’t there. On top of that, there’s supposedly a penny hidden in every tube.
I’ve never seen the penny.
Out of anger, however, I’ve violently shaken the tube on the belief that it will magically appear when the beads settle.
That method has never produced the penny, though I must admit it feels good for a few seconds. During that moment of shaking, my brain has reached three conclusions: A) we exhausted all rational ways to find the penny, B) shaking this thing makes perfect sense because I am tired of waiting for a solution, and C) man, it feels good to inflict damage on the Devil’s cylinder.
I’ve been thinking about the Find It tube lately because of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Americans, searching for answers to our nation’s problems, angry after years of sifting through politicians and coming across the same stuff over and over again, are on the precipice of deciding whether to violently shake American politics.
Conditions are ripe. Anger among the electorate is so real that it fashioned one major party nominee and darn near another (the gravity-defying delegate rules of the Democratic Party prevented the anger from producing both).
People are fuming about various things (69 percent told CNN/ORC pollsters they were “very” or “somewhat” angry with the way things are going in America), generally speaking at a system increasingly viewed as rigged. Can’t find a better job? Can’t pay off your student debt? The system is rigged against you and favors the “powerful interests,” as 65 percent of Americans reported in a recent Pew Research survey.
Beyond that, we have a trust epidemic causing voters to tune out information from sources that in previous elections were considered reliable. U.S. News and World Report’s Ken Walsh wrote a piece last summer entitled: “Americans have lost confidence…in everything.” He’s right, and points to Gallup’s confidence in institutions survey as evidence: “Americans have little confidence in most of their major institutions including Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, banks and organized religion, according to the latest Gallup poll.”
This also extends to the news media. A recent survey by the Media Insight Project found just six percent of Americans have “a lot of confidence” in the media, about what they have in Congress. Americans are dismissive of information presented by the media these days and often look for ways to disprove it. This puts us in an “alternate reality, a virtual reality, where lies are accepted as truth and where conspiracy theories take root in the fertile soil of falsehoods,” as Marty Baron, Executive Editor of The Washington Post, said in a recent speech.
Just last week we learned Facebook employees filtered “trending” topics to suppress conservative news. Even our previously trusted source of organic news selected by computer algorithms and user interest may in fact be a censored propaganda machine rigged up by our Silicon Valley overlords. Is there any tree of trust left to climb in America?
Confronted with this perfect storm of anger and a crisis of confidence in institutions and information, what will America do? While this space has been skeptical of Trump’s chances of winning a general election, there is a growing possibility that American voters, sick and tired of looking for the elusive penny, will decide to violently shake the political cylinder just to see what happens by sending a wildcard like Trump to Washington. They doubt their shaking can make it any worse, so why not relieve their frustration? Especially when the alternative is another tired, mistrusted name produced by the same old rigged system.
Of course, there are persuasive arguments that any Republican—Trump included—faces long odds in taking back the White House. Democrats have a built-in Electoral College advantage of 242-102 (you need 270 to win) if you add up the states that have voted for the same party in each presidential election since 1992.
“The generic Democratic nominee starts with an electoral vote lead of 140, and…needs to find only 28 votes beyond that reliable base to win the presidency,” according to Chris Cillizza, who writes “The Fix” political blog for The Washington Post. That’s a perfectly rational, reasonable way to filter out the “Trump could win” theories for those who value data-driven handicapping over gut-level instinct.
But then again, America’s jaded and weary voters may shake their ballots as hard as they can this November in an effort to find the elusive penny, which to them represents a necessary reset of America’s broken political culture.
Scott Jennings previously served as an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this article contains hyperlinked citations.