Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich has provided the most devastating and accurate analysis of What Trumpism means for democracy, in The Guardian. Bacevich argues, and I agree, that Trumpism is a severe threat to American’s party system and constitutional institutions. Should Trump be elected American democracy as we have known it will cease to exist.
I have my differences with Professor Bacevich but I highly recommend a careful reading of his article. Let me run through some of his most important points and my thoughts.
“Fantasies of a great president saving the day still persist”
Professor Bacevich decries this fantasy in the context of Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all claiming that only he can save the republic in the wake of the Obama disaster, just as each of them ignores the condition of the country left to Obama on January 20, 2009. The yearning for people who feel they are facing a dire and near apocalyptic future is not new though, nor is our desire to turn to the fantasy of the transcendent leader. In his Perpetuation Speech in 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln warned:
Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path.
Professor Bacevich recognizes this danger in the event of a Trump win in November:
“In all but name, the United States will cease to be a constitutional republic. Once President Trump inevitably declares that he alone expresses the popular will, Americans will find that they have traded the rule of law for a version of caudillismo.”
“From “day one”, on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration to the environment, the Republican candidates vow to do exactly this. With the stroke of a pen and the wave of a hand, it will be a breeze.”
We’ve long since accepted the television advertisement as the dominant form by which our leaders communicate with us, and thus we have acquiesced to the architecture of the thirty second commercial. The political ad brings us the frightening problem – e.g., black and white video footage of ISIS fighters – and then the solution, in full color, flags waving, the candidate promising strength. As Professor Bacevich says, it will be a breeze. He adds:
The spectacle of televised “debates” has offered Trump an ideal platform for promoting his cult of personality. Once a solemn, almost soporific forum for civic education – remember Kennedy and Nixon in 1960? – presidential debates now provide occasions for trading insults, provoking gaffes, engaging in verbal food fights, and marketing magical solutions to problems ranging from war to border security that are immune to magic. For all of that we have Trump chiefly to thank.
Trump has exploited the debates magnificently but he is not chiefly to blame. We’re Massachusetts, the state where a 2014 gubernatorial debate featuring the question “When was the last time you cried” threw the race into a spiral of trivial obsession. Media debates thrive upon brief and pointed confrontations, and if candidates can be lured into “trading insults, provoking gaffes, engaging in verbal food fights,” all the better. But these shortcomings are baked into the format and would prevail with or without Trump. Nonetheless, he is keenly aware of what his presence does for ratings and thus, ad dollars.
“To an extent unmatched by any other figure in American public life, Trump understands that previous distinctions between the ostensibly serious and the self-evidently frivolous have collapsed. . . .
in contemporary America, celebrity confers authority.”
From Lincoln, Political Announcement, March 9, 1832: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”
Lincoln’s law partner said that Lincoln’s ambition was an engine that knew no rest. But it was an ambition that demanded not just esteem, but of being worthy of esteem. Today, “celebrity confers authority.”
“If Trump secures the Republican nomination, now an increasingly imaginable prospect, the party is likely to implode. Whatever rump organization survives will have forfeited any remaining claim to represent principled conservatism.”
Whatever Mitt Romney does later today, it is increasingly likely that the modern Republican Party will break up. George Will, Bill Kristol, numbers of Republican officials are rejecting Trump. Will there be a period of competing conservative parties, one populist conservative (European right wing?), one ideologically conservative, one presidential, one congressional - itself split into conservative and Tea Party factions? We don’t know. But the institutional structure of American politics that has sustained us for over 150 years is imperiled.
“American democracy has been decaying for decades. The people know that they are no longer truly sovereign. They know that the apparatus of power, both public and private, does not promote the common good, itself a concept that has become obsolete.”
Citizens United isn’t a revelation, it’s a confirmation. Public opinion must be the very definition of a lagging indicator. American oligarchy has been in place for some time, as the academic works of Martin Gilens, Gilens and Benjamin Page, Lawrence Lessig, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Thomas Piketty, and many others show. As to the common good, the left chipped away at that with if it feels good do it, and the right contributed with individualism and the magic of the market. We’re a nation of rights -- to do as we wish, with our personal or property liberties. America has two languages, that of individualism and the market, and that of biblical scripture and community. An extreme version of the language of individualism and the market has prevailed.
“Trump has cultivated a mass following that appears impervious to his missteps, miscues, and misstatements.”
America has produced an inexhaustible supply of hucksters and manipulators but twelve score years into this experiment we have fallen peculiarly vulnerable to Trump’s transparent demagoguery. Why? Two reasons. We watch television, and we don’t read. The screen is endlessly fascinating, tempting, seductive, always with the promise of something more entertaining. The book is slow, ponderous, and laborious – thought is work. Fox, MSNBC, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – we have more choices than any people in history, and inadequate means to resist them. During the Lincoln–Douglas debates Lincoln complained that Douglas was misrepresenting his prior arguments. At the fifth debate at Galesburg Lincoln stated: “I take it that I have to address an intelligent and reading community, who will peruse what I say, weigh it, and then judge whether I advanced improper or unsound views, or whether I advanced hypocritical, and deceptive, and contrary views in different portions of the country.” Reading requires perusing, weighing, judging. Television flickers and Twitter supplements it with snark. It’s momentarily satisfying, but empty. We’re left with Trump.
Lincoln’s Perpetuation Speech and his Temperance Speech were about the political and moral requirements of citizenship. In order to reject the man on horseback, citizens must have political and moral maturity. Instead we have daily footage of Trump rallies where crowds cheer as he mocks the disabled or attendees rough up protesters, to Trump’s glee.
This is our democracy in the time of Trumpism. Should he be defeated in 2016, our bottomless money politics and televised trivia will await the next, more skillful demagogue.