Against Trump, for democracy

His shallow, illiberal campaign is the sordid end result of anti-politics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics USA

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.

Sullivan’s deeply anti-democratic cry has touched a nerve among other anti-Trump observers, because they share its central conviction: that Trump is what happens when ordinary people are given too much say in the political realm. This is the same misanthropic belief that motored every elite reaction against the expansion of democracy in modern history, from the backtracking that followed the American Revolution to the fury with the demand for female suffrage in the early 1900s. Women have difficulty ‘forming abstract ideas’, said The Anti-Suffrage Review a hundred years ago, and ‘government by emotion quickly degenerates into injustice’. The same is now said by the Trump-fearing media elite about people in general: they lack the ability to reason, and are overrun by emotion, and this nurtures unjust, authoritarian government.

This is utterly wrong. The Trump phenomenon shows, not that America and the West are ‘too democratic’, as Sullivan and his cheerleaders say, but that they are not democratic enough. Trump’s success is a result of the crisis of democracy, the hollowing-out of democracy. Democracy is not simply about voting — it’s about substance, discussion, the masses determining the future political direction of their societies. And this has withered, over decades, not at Trump’s hand but at the hands of those now railing against him: the political and media elites. Democracy, in the sense of true, weighty, open debate over how society is organised, has been replaced by technocracy, the rise of expert cliques, the increasing influence of the judiciary over political and moral matters, and the ascendancy of quangos that now play a significant role in shaping public life. This is anti-politics, and it comes, not from a deranged mob, but from the very top of society.

This is what the anti-Trump elitists fail to understand: that today’s anti-political mood, the mood Trump exploits, is an accomplishment of the political elite itself. It is they who have replaced reason with a narrow, pseudoscientific empiricism, and democracy with technocracy, and who have self-consciously come to depict political life as unclean somehow. The style of the modern politician is to set himself against politics, against the establishment, even as he’s in the establishment. Democracy has been dented, severely, not by the hollering or unreason of the people, but by the crisis of the elites, by their eschewing of a genuine, substantial politics in favour of an expert style that invariably and increasingly elevates politics above the demos. Politicians, not the public, created anti-politics.

Some anti-Trumpites now say Trump is a monster made by mainstream politicians, and they’re half-right. What they tend to mean is that politicians have ignored the public for too long, and Trump is cleaning up by saying: ‘I will listen to you.’ But the link between the mainstream and the Trump phenomenon is more intimate than that: it was the mainstream that laid waste to politics, the substance of democracy, and now Trump is exploiting the corresponding anti-politics. He’s a demagogue, not in the sense that he feeds off the passions and prejudices of the rabble, but in the sense that he’s making hay from the anti-democratic, anti-political outlook of the modern West itself. spiked is against Trump, meaning we oppose both his illiberal, misanthropic agenda, and want to challenge and change the battered political terrain upon which it is built.

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked.

Picture by: Joe Raedle / Getty Images.

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Topics USA


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