What should be explained instead is how civil our recent contests have been, for as a society America has always been attracted to ruthlessness. It might be defined not just as hard competition but as the deployment of unfair, unethical and distasteful (if often technically legal) methods. American culture blended a Protestant sense of mission and virtue with a pragmatism that could countenance slavery and Indian removal.
Secession sought to protect not just the plantation owners’ way of life but also the aspirations of Southern yeomen to slaveowning wealth, following the career of the populist military hero and president Andrew Jackson. And after the war, the robber barons were as much admired as condemned for their tactics.
Politically and economically, Americans are very likely to remain of two minds. Even after Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, one of the best sellers of the 1970s was Robert J. Ringer’s “Looking Out for Number One.” Whoever will be elected in November, the attraction and repulsion of ruthlessness to Americans is unlikely to change.