The 1996 presidential election, pitting President Bill Clinton against U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, was sometimes dubbed the "Seinfeld election" — an election about nothing. The 2020 election is an entirely different affair. It is an election about everything.
American elections often have an overriding theme. The 1828 election was about Andrew Jackson's redemption after the "corrupt bargain" that placed John Quincy Adams in the White House. The 1860 election was about the extension of slavery. The 1932 election was about recovery from the Great Depression. The 1960 election was about the virtue of vigor versus experience. And the 1980 election was about the purpose and size of government.
This coming election offers no facile handle. It is, to be sure, about the economy; most American elections are. But it is also about the wealth gap. And taxes. And the place of America in the world. And about the utility and durability of international institutions.
And it is, above all, about Donald John Trump — his style, his inclinations and impulses, his priorities, his fitness for office, his instinct for populist themes and language.
Here are some of the fault lines in American culture, some of them preceding Trump, some of them prompted by Trump, some of them widened by Trump:
• Who is an American, and what does it mean to be an American? It is tempting to say that in more tranquil times this was a question that answered itself. But in truth this has been one of the enduring questions in our national life, with landmark immigration bills alternately constricting and widening the gates to the United States and to American citizenship.
Even so, this remains one of the fundamental issues of our time, smoldering during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama years but bursting into full flame in the Trump years. The current president is seen to have an antiquated conception of American citizenship that views as alien to the American ideal those whose family origins are in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
• What is the place of guns in the American character? Our national mythology puts guns — muskets in Puritan Massachusetts, rifles on the wide open Western plains, even revolvers in the hands of Chicago mobsters — at the very center of our culture. The spate of mass killings, from schoolchildren in Connecticut and Florida to worshippers in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, has rekindled a long-simmering debate about the Second Amendment and the notion of the right to bear arms.
Now those mass shootings are prompting great divisions in the American electorate and, pointedly, among Republican voters. A survey of 1,000 Republican voters in competitive suburban House districts reaching from Virginia to Colorado, commissioned by the Republican Mainstream Leadership, found that nearly three-quarters of the women polled advocate stricter gun laws. These suburban women also rated gun violence as the top issue facing the country today.
• Is Donald Trump presidential? Trump's political style is unlike that of any American president with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, whose portrait the current chief executive hung in his White House office. Like Jackson, Trump styles himself a friend and spokesman for average Americans and for the millions, principally in rural areas, who feel alienated and dispossessed.
And yet that style is deeply divisive. The president unloads candid and often biting criticism in his tweetstorms, insults opponents and former aides and offers language that critics contend is racist.
But the coming campaign will be principally about Trump's behavior and, implicitly, a referendum on whether Americans' conception of the presidency matches Trump's comportment — in public, on social media, at international summits. In short, is Trump an aberration in the presidency or has he begun a new conception of presidential conduct?
• Just who are the Democrats, and for that matter, who are the Republicans? The answers won't come simultaneously. This election is an inflection point for the Democrats, who must decide how far left to lean, especially on health care and economics, and whether or how to avoid the "socialist" label. A party led by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is a different party than one led by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
This election will offer no such clear choice for the GOP, for only after Trump has departed the scene will Republicans decide whether to remain a populist insurgency, appealing to the sort of voters who once were comfortable in the New Deal coalition, or to be the home of that group's natural rivals, who favor free trade, economic frugality and balanced budgets and who provided massive support for 1960s civil-rights legislation.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.