There is something very odd and bizarrely impressive about Donald Trump’s approach to democratic politics: it is quite obviously undemocratic. Indeed, if anything, his campaign is fueled by anti-political sentiment and populist slogans. It’s strong stuff. So strong that it deserves to be recognized in the form of a new political ideology: “Trump-ism” Eponymous…and yet also synonymous with the failure and farce of American politics. I’ve tried so hard not to write a piece about “you know who” Trump. I really have! It’s just too obvious and to some extent just too easy but as his apparent popularity in the United States grows so does my concern about who might actually hold the most powerful political office on the planet.
But in many ways my concern has nothing to do with partisanship, less to do with politics and everything to do with democracy.
I don’t care what party Mr Trump belongs to, I know that politics is a worldly art, but it strikes me that Donald is not democratic.
Indeed, so far Trump appears distinctly undemocratic and strangely anti-political (in his approach to securing the very highest elected political office in the world). You might respond with the common refrain ‘only in America’ but the rise of anti-political populist politicians and parties seems a far more widespread phenomenon. And yet there is something stunningly brutish about “Trump-ism” (every good politician wants to be associated with an eponymous ideology so let’s just make him happy).
Let us compare the concept of democracy with the ideology of Trump-ism.
Democracy is an institutionalized form of conflict resolution and risk reduction: nothing more, nothing less. We all agree to have limits placed on some freedoms and to contribute some of our money to common pot in return for the freedom to live in a society in which certain basic standards and expectations are upheld. Put slightly differently, democratic politics is about the art of compromise. We all give a bit and we all benefit (from public education, healthcare, social protection, policing, etc.). The system is not perfect and forms of inequality persist but overall the great beauty of democracy is that it provides a way for increasingly diverse and inter-dependent societies to live together. What is also important is that failure and disappointment are to some extent inevitable because no system can please all of the people all of the time.
Trump-ism, as far as I can understand it, appears almost the opposite of democracy. It seems to deny the existence of basic limits, it seems set on antagonism rather than resolution, it seems to philosophize with the subtly of a sledgehammer. More worryingly it seems to rejoice in the identification of “others” who are to blame for the ills of modern America, it promotes a politics of fear and a politics of pessimism, and it promises simple and pain-free solutions to complex problems (when there are no simple solutions). Deal-making and compromise is the grease and the oil that allows democratic politics to work and yet Trump-ism seems to reject such mechanisms as signs of weakness.
And yet the politician who refuses to compromise is not a democrat. He or she is an authoritarian, the anti-thesis of a democrat. (Question of the Week to the Reader “Trump-ism is little more than authoritarianism dressed in a thin veneer of democratic politics?” Discuss at leisure.)
But as David Brooks suggested recently in the New York Times (“The Governing Cancer of Our Time,” 26 February 2016), there is something deeper, possibly more dangerous at play. In recent weeks the Trump campaign has in several cities promoted a strong public response, especially by sections of society that feel potentially isolated or threatened by Trump-ism. The response of Trump when a protestor interrupted him mid-speech in Nevada – “I’d like to punch him in the face”– suggests a bludgeoning approach to politics or a heady mix of hubris syndrome and schoolboy bully that combines to create Trump-ism.
The real problem with Trump-ism as a model of democracy rests not with the man but with the public that cannot see the dangerous game they are unwittingly playing. Psychologists have for several decades revealed the manner in which normally calm and rational individuals can be caught up in the emotions of a crowd or a mob to the extent that they lose their sense of perspective. In Nevada the crowd roared in approval and so – never one to disappoint – Trump told them, “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
Punching and violence is exactly what democracy is intended to avoid but Trump-ism seems bound to a masculine and testosterone-fuelled politics that appeals to a very specific type of individual. In this regard the research of the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams possibly tells us more about the principles and values of Trump-ism than Trump himself – the only single statistically significant variable that predicts whether a voter supports Trump is not race, income or education but authoritarianism. “That’s right, Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations,” MacWilliams concludes, “and because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow.”
This really is the failure and farce of American politics. Trump that!
Featured image: “White House” by Tom Lohdan, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.