I first started to think about this piece during the primaries, in late 2015. Listening to a friend (Jim) rail away on the tragicomic nature of a Trump candidacy I couldn’t help but try to find an upside to what was, admittedly, the odd combination of amusement and anxiety that the thought of a possible Trump presidency brought to both of us. Jim at least had a candidate he could root for in the guise of Bernie Sanders. For myself the entire enterprise was a wasteland. Gary Johnson had not yet emerged (brief hope) no less self destructed (yes Gary there are 196 other recognized countries on the map). The rest of the candidates left me with a range of feeling that spanned all the way from misery to nausea. That being the setting I started to think about whether there was any positive I could take away from the whole mess. It’s at moments like this that my tendency to retain various arcana will occasionally work in my favor. The prospective election was already pulling people into conflicted camps with very little in the way of common ground between those with differing likely votes. There was however one thing that found a fair amount of consensus. Most people I had spoken to saw Donald Trump as a genuinely disruptive force. The more I thought of that, the more I thought of Candy Cummings.
Mr. Cummings was a 19th century baseball player, generally credited with being the inventor of the curveball. I know, I know, the connections are obvious but for the few of you who have no earthly idea of what Donald Trump and a man whose professional baseball career began in 1870 might have in common, let me do my best to lay it out. When Cummings first began throwing the curveball the idea that a man could make a pitch change direction in midair was considered a scientific impossibility. But there it was. What started as heresy became a standard part of a pitcher’s arsenal. Eventually other breaking pitches ( slider, screwball) developed and few, if any men could hope to make a living throwing a baseball without also being able to make it change plane or position on its way to the batter. Cummings’ own career was short (five years) though solid and his eventual enshrinement in the hall of fame was entirely a function of the pitch he is credited for having discovered/created. Close to 150 years later his imprint is still all over the game. He is no less a presence at a ballpark than Edison is in a movie theater. When his disruptive moment occurred he was seen as either a charlatan or a freak. If that impression had persisted the sport would have been different enough to be unrecognizable today, if it would have survived at all. It’s difficult to imagine parting with hard earned money to sit through what might only be a slightly elevated version of beer league arc-ball. How fortunate then that baseball let go of its suspicions and adapted a specific idea which completely altered the dynamics of the game. Cummings is largely forgotten now, a fact which is at once sad and hopeful. Regardless of his own anonymity the changes he brought to the sport are now completely inculcated within the game.
So here’s the Trump part of it. The chaos he brings with him is scary and entertaining by turns. By now everybody has their own greatest hits list; no point in going over it. Understandably, the vast majority of the conversation his behavior has generated has focused on its intrinsic histrionic quality, how poorly it reflects on Republicans in general, or what machinations the Democrat party needs to engage in to regain their political footing. Perhaps there’s something else we can get out of this, regardless of our partisan leanings. We could demand that our ruling class be more responsive to those they don’t necessarily see eye to eye with. We could demand that our saviors have more to offer than ” I hate every one you hate” as a rhetorical thrust. We could try and wean ourselves away from the seductive nature of personality cult leadership in general. Or we can push for a fundamental change that offers us the possibility of turning this remarkably disruptive moment in electoral history into a future where our basic mode of voting activity is so different from where we are at now that everything that follows will change as well.
This is not about to turn into a diatribe concerning the electoral college. What I’m thinking of is more closely related to what seems to be the real issue here; the primaries. As much as many people seem to resent the concept and or system of electoral votes our greatest danger now is that the primary process has become more and more driven by fringier elements of the voting public. The reason for this is the structure of the event. The idea that a country that selects it leader by having everyone vote at the same time would think it a great idea to choose the candidates for that contest in a sequential series of votes on a state by state basis seems a little bit odd to me. That’s a procedural issue. A larger problem is that the primaries, regardless of how they are structured, are at this time a rolling circus of unbounded pluralistic mud fights. Under those circumstances someone with a narrow but deep appeal can end up winning with larger and larger minorities of the vote until their ascendance is a fait acompli. You can probably supply your own example here. President Trump saw that hole and paraded through it without breaking a sweat. No one had ever seen anything quite like it before, which strikes me as a defining element of a true disruption. What made this instance unique is that we were not being exposed to a radical new idea which we could all better our lives by adopting, but rather a novel exploitation of dangerous fault in an institution meant to enhance our citizenship. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can shorten the initial campaign period. We can vote simultaneously just as we do in the general election. More to the point we can, at least for the primaries, put an end to the winner take all slugfest this has become. If we voted in even as little as two rounds with the top three candidates advancing after round one the remaining hopefuls would most likely have to demonstrate some rudimentary skills in negotiation and consensus gathering in order to gain the nomination. Better candidates would have to yield better results. It’s up to us.
Candy Cummings invented the curveball. Donald Trump threw us all one. Major League Baseball made the most of their disruption, let’s not blow ours.