KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — A full century ago, the 28th president — a professor as much as a politician — counseled the man who would become the 32nd chief executive that there was a predictable tide in the nation’s politics. Woodrow Wilson shaped the perspective of the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt indelibly when he told him the country was willing to be liberal for only about a third of the time and then it always returns to its conservative moorings.
This may be the election that moves the United States off all its moorings.
For this may be the election in which the liberal/â€‹conservative axis is a minimal factor, and, what is more, several other reliable tenets of presidential politics — a broad but fragile free-trade consensus, established notions of what constitutes proper campaign comportment, even the alignments between business and other special interests and the two major parties — have lost their potency, or even their relevance.
These old rules guided the Bush family for nearly two-thirds of a century, positioning them, along with the Kennedy and Adams families, among the pre-eminent political clans in the nation. Had those rules held their power, a third Bush presidency might have been a possibility and the family’s stately home on rocky Walker’s Point here might again have been a summer White House.
“Just only a quarter-century ago there was an American president who valued dignity over publicity, compromise over purity, and decorum over winning the news cycle,” said Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of George H.W. Bush. “That’s not the world we live in anymore.”
The pinions of that world have tumbled like so many Lincoln logs, displaced with the same disruptive 21st-century force that has left the music and news businesses in tatters and that now threatens the higher education and the real-estate establishments.
Now new rules, or no rules at all, govern our politics. Nominees routinely accuse each other of being frauds, or felons. Candidates of a contemplative mien — in the old days that would have included Mr. Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman, perhaps even Jimmy Carter and the elder Mr. Bush — are dismissed, as former Gov. Jeb Bush was, as “low-energy,” even if the record and the mind of the younger Mr. Bush and the others were decidedly the opposite.
Donald J. Trump deserves some of the blame, or the credit, for that, but it is not fair, or accurate, to consider him the one-man wrecking ball of our politics.
Mr. Trump played hardball and drove the remaining shards of civility from Republican politics, but the purloined Democratic National Committee emails show that Hillary Clinton, or her allies, did not exactly practice a form of political gentility themselves. Sen. Bernie Sanders is justified in feeling aggrieved, and in concluding, as Mr. Trump did, that American politics is not always on the level.
There always has been an element of criminality in American politics, and not simply because Richard Nixon was chased from office for his sins, which were egregious. His 1960 rival, John F. Kennedy, won the White House under suspicious circumstances, and Mr. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, won his Senate seat (and his riches) under conditions Common Cause, and most of the rest of us, would find repugnant today.
Until Watergate, those irregularities were the subject of insiders’ whispers, seldom piercing the public consciousness, perhaps because over time they roughly canceled each other out, Republican sin for Democratic transgression. But the politics above the surface always had discernible, understandable and dependable rules, and many of them are gone now.
Every American election since 1932, with the exception of 1960, has provided a choice between a liberal candidate and a conservative opponent. This arrangement has organized our politics even when the two parties had both conservative and liberal wings. (Those outlier wings — conservatives for the Democrats and liberals for the Republicans — began to weaken in the 1960s, were threatened in the Reagan 1980s and disappeared with the new century.) No one had any doubt which candidate, George W. Bush or Al Gore, was the conservative in 2000, nor was there any debate about the ideologies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney a dozen years later.
Not so this time. On several issues, particularly involving the candidate’s relationship with Wall Street, Mr. Trump may be to the left of Hillary Clinton. That is what prompted Thomas Frank, a committed liberal, to write, “The Republican Party wants my liberal vote” in the The Guardian last month. Mr. Frank, known for “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” his 2004 critique of conservatism, was startled this summer to find congenial views inside the Trump policy portfolio.
“The party of free trade and free markets now says it wants to break up Wall Street banks and toss NAFTA to the winds,” he wrote. “The party of family values has nominated a thrice-married vulgarian who doesn’t seem threatened by gay people or concerned about the war over bathrooms. The party of empire wants to withdraw from foreign entanglements.”
The biggest disruption in the political world is in trade. For decades, Democratic presidents depended on Republican lawmakers to give them the fast-track negotiation authority they wanted and then they depended on GOP votes to help push NAFTA and other international trade pacts past the finish line.
No more. The Republican nominee is repulsed by global trade agreements, and the free-trade coalition — a sturdy part of establishment Washington theology — is in ruins.
“The unions never cared for NAFTA, but their opposition was tempered by the notion that they had affiliates in Canada,” said Arthur Wright, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Connecticut. “The idea was that no one would notice NAFTA. People just don’t believe that anymore.”
Big shifts in the profile of the two parties are underway. No one would be surprised if leading establishment Republicans acknowledge they will vote for Ms. Clinton, a prospect brightened by last week’s controversy involving Mr. Trump and the Khan family. Many blue-collar workers no longer believe their natural home is as part of a Democratic coalition that also includes minorities, professional women and university-affiliated liberals; Mr. Trump’s lead over Ms. Clinton among white working-class voters is far bigger than the margin former Mr. Romney had versus Mr. Obama.
No wonder the nation is bewildered. Our politics has become an inedible upside-down cake.