No one who is serious about politics, and about the potential of politics to change society for the better, should be happy that Donald Trump is the Republicans’ presumptive presidential candidate. For Trump is the embodiment of anti-politics. He represents, in big hair, bluster and badly delivered one-liners, the turn against politics, the 21st-century trend for seeing everyone and everything connected with politics as suspect, and politics itself as futile. Trump has got to this position, not by putting forward a political vision, but by cynically exploiting the anti-political mood. He’s a classical demagogue, rejecting the reasoned or indeed passionate business of politics in favour of appealing to people’s feeling of exhaustion with the entire project of politics.
Trump’s most vocal supporters, in sections of the right-wing media and among ‘alt-right’ movements, make great claims for his rise. He symbolises an uprising against PC, they say. He’s the corrective to American declinism, they argue. He’s making a strike for liberty, they insist, against the modern trend for hiding from reality in ‘safe spaces’. Even at face value, none of this adds up. Far from seeking to resuscitate knackered American liberty, Trump promises to be an architect of a new authoritarianism, with his plans to wall off Mexico and shut down the internet to work out how to ban Islamists from using it. Anti-PC? His campaign is a hall-of-mirrors version of the racialised politics of victimhood at the heart of PC, with his talk of whites feeling pained and neglected and needing him to make them feel better. As to rectifying declinism: nothing has contributed more to a feeling of American declinism than Trump’s own obsession with the idea of decline. He, more than anyone, has painted an inaccurate picture of America as exhausted, finished.
And at a deeper level, too, the claims of the Trumpites don’t stand up. Trump hasn’t so much posited something — whether it’s robustness against self-doubt or freedom against PC — as he has benefited from the lack of something. His rise has been facilitated not by politics, by any renewed American vision, but by the absence of politics. Most obviously, he’s the beneficiary of the institutional decay of the GOP, which has meant that even this man who was a Democrat until recently, and who’s disliked by leading Republicans, can now be the Republicans’ public face. The inability of the Republicans to say or signify what they’re for anymore, or even to conceive of themselves as a coherent collective requiring a figurehead who speaks to that collectivity, has created the space for the rise of Trump. More profoundly, he derives his energy from the dearth of energy in American and Western politics across the board. He appears dynamic only because the others, pretty much all political leaders, seem so inauthentic, so programmed. Trump’s ascendancy is a story, not of politics, but of the vacancy of politics.
However, much of the political and media elite in the US, who are horrified by Trump, are drawing the wrong lesson, and a potentially disastrous one, from his rise. Many of them see his success as evidence that democracy itself doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. This can be seen in the endless handwringing over what are viewed as the rednecks and ruffians who attend his rallies. Ironically, many observers describe these Trump followers as racist, while unwittingly exposing a few racialised prejudices of their own, particularly against the ‘white trash’. And it can be seen even more acutely in the increasingly upfront calling into question of the practise of democracy, with many now saying out loud that Trump’s candidacy proves that it’s wrong to trust ordinary people to discuss politics reasonably and to select presidential candidates.
Consider Andrew Sullivan’s anti-Trump essay in New York magazine, which has been highly praised by the media elite and widely shared by the Twitterati. Its headline is a giveaway: ‘Democracies end when they are too democratic.’ Sullivan bemoans what he views as the decay of the checks and balances on democracy introduced by the Founding Fathers, which were meant to tame ‘the passions of the mob’. The American system is supposed to ‘cool and restrain temporary populist passions’, he says, but in recent years democracy has become too ‘direct’, meaning that people’s ‘untrammelled emotions’ can now shape political discourse. The rise of the internet has assisted the expression of mob passion, says Sullivan, echoing a recent Guardian campaign highlighting the alleged threat posed to rational political debate by open online discussion: we’re witnessing a ‘collapse of… reasoned deliberation’, says Sullivan, and its replacement with ‘feeling, emotion’. He calls for the rebuilding of the ‘elitist sorting mechanism’ that allowed American politics to remain somewhat distant from the urges of the demos.