The 2016 presidential election reflects our country’s cultural shift — and not in a good way

Houston Chronicle, October 16, 2016

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I want to believe that one day we will get back to respecting one another and the office of the presidency.

With our election for president less than a month away, a discussion of the office of the presidency is in order.

The president of the United States must be a person of virtue and talent who can speak clearly to the American people and set a standard of ethics and moral leadership. The president must be able to win the admiration and confidence of the country, to speak to the people with a clear, unifying voice to alert us of danger as well as opportunity — and all too often to console us. The president is our face, our voice to the rest of the world.

Town Hall presidential debate, Oct. 9, 2016

Town Hall presidential debate, Oct. 9, 2016

Our political system with its three coordinate branches of equal powers is brilliant. In The Politics of Hope, Arthur Schlesinger wrote (page 9): “Only strong Presidents have been able to overcome the tendencies toward inertia inherent in a system so cunningly composed of checks and balances.”

But it’s a tough job. In America and Americans (page 46), John Steinbeck wrote in 1966 — when a female president was unimaginable — “We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up …. He is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.” A dark interpretation, but it certainly contains truths. Presidents must have a tough skin and extraordinary resilience.

Until this election cycle, presidential election campaigning has maintained a certain decorum. Primary debates had been for the most part substantive — opportunities to get to know the candidates and their positions. The Democratic debates were like that this cycle.

But the Republican debates were nasty, name-calling affairs that bottomed out when a sitting U.S. senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio, insulted the genitalia size of an opponent, who took the bait. The debate audiences were just as bad. The nastier the primary debate got, the louder and more raucous the audience became, cheering on their favorite as if attending a world wrestling smackdown.

The tawdry spectacles ultimately produced Donald Trump as their nominee, a man who brags about sexually assaulting women and keeps proving himself over and over again to be a racist, sexist, rude and crude, cruel, ignorant, arrogant, name-calling, self-serving, inconsistent, undisciplined, hot-tempered, inarticulate and impulsive extremist with no vocal filter and no respect for the truth. Not to mention the unpresidential comb-over.

I watched the Republican primary debates, the Republican convention and Sunday’s debate through my fingers feeling like I had come upon a terrible wreck and shouldn’t gawk.

I’m not surprised that there are men like him; we all grew up with a few of his ilk. They were called bullies. I am totally surprised, though, that so many of my fellow Americans — nearly half the electorate — believe that such a nasty character is suited for the office of the presidency.

Our society seems to have undergone a cultural shift where we’ve lost our sense of reverence and decorum. What happened? The anonymity of the internet has surely contributed. Alone in front of computer screens, people can say ugly things they would never say out loud in public or private.

In the evening, do families spend too much time in front of a television, perhaps watching violence, gore and gunplay? Do children see their parents reading books? Do children get the message that education and intellect are valued?

I wonder if Trump supporters feel the promise of America has left them behind. If so, how can electing a confidence man make things better?

I don’t believe that the cultural shift we’ve undergone is permanent and irreversible. I want to believe that one day we will get back to respecting one another and the office of the presidency.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.