Many have now found themselves miming: ‘America is weird’. Of course, censuring America is a favourite international pastime. Almost every nation of every continent and every clime think that it has a divine right to analyse the American psyche. America demands critique. It is a land which exudes such contradictions that even the most mediocre observer finds a furtive Tocqueville thudding within his bosom. And nothing has so astonished the world as the political rise of Donald Trump. That a man of such absolute insolence is the President of the United States of America has perplexed many, and has even led some to question the rationality of democracy.
The rise of Trump transcends Trump: it links the anger of the past with fear of the future. Trump has emerged from the howls of living. He may be the purveyor of anger, but this anger is not of his making. He is a demagogue, but democracy cannot be extricated from demagoguery. Demagogues outwit their opponents by indulging in humour, and democracy metastasises humour into horror. A learned Italian philosopher Gaetano Mosca – now largely forgotten and little read – had once warned against those inherent democratic propensities that ‘pamper popular sentiments and prejudice’. But the wisdom of philosophers is ignored before the mutiny of the multitude. The critics critique in vain. It is tempting therefore, in an apoplexy of elitism, to dismiss Trump’s supporters as vulgarians, an amorphous mirror-image of that cerebral epicene himself.
These bemused blamers, however, should blame themselves. By simply portraying Trump as a nefarious nabob, they have forgotten that Trump is only a manifestation of majoritarianism. Trump’s supporters do not consider him to be a saviour, but a messenger. His supporters are not as ‘stupid as is usually supposed’. They are aware of his truculence, they know his mendacity, they even lament his congenital vulgarity. They are not allured by his truculence, still less by his mendacity or vulgarity. They are so desperate that they rather prefer his spontaneous petulance to the establishment’s contrived punctility. Hillary was disliked not because she was a Clinton, but she embodied that much hated meticulist demeanour of Washington. Like all demagogues, Trump manages to evade himself by refracting others’ fears onto himself, and thereby twisting their anger into new expectations.
Trump supporters at a rally during the 2016 Presidential election
Rightly or wrongly, Americans realise that their power has reached its nadir, and like the Greeks and the Romans before, they desperately expect the deliverance of greatness. They think that America’s past greatness can be restored only by rejecting the trajectory of last three decades; and since Trump is misperceived to be politically pure, they reckon that he can restore the Lost America. Not only he ventilates the understandable rebellion against Wilsonian interventionism, but he has broken two political taboos: ethnicity and economic protectionism. Only the political heretics had hitherto had fanned the flames of ethnic majoritarianism. Only the extremes of the Left and the Right had opposed free-trade. In explicitly proposing banning all Muslims from America whilst simultaneously espousing economic protectionism, he has made these flawed concepts reputable. Tribal politics and cavemen economics go well together.
Of course the problems of America goes much deeper than the ego of Mr Trump. Besides its structural deficits and the fatigue which clots all superpowers, America has a punditry which perils the public discourse. America’s mass media – from popular radio and television broadcasts to political satires – pitch to the extremes and the absurd. Nuances are unnoticed, salient points subdued. And so emerged Mr Trump with few simple promises amidst this cacophony of anger and fear and the general political haze. His vulgarity was forgiven for insouciance. Many were amused by his sheer effrontery. His supporters still believe that animus against Trump is attributable to intellectual snobbery. But they ignore that Trump cannot restore the Lost America because that America never existed: never was there an America of undiluted peace and composed homogeneity, never was there an America of unqualified and unquestionable economic prowess, never was there was an America of utter isolationism.
Hillary Clinton – Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential election
Yet those who have known Trump are shocked by his perilous pronouncements. Their shock is the citizenry’s lesson. Americans need not trouble themselves by reading the Athenian Plato or the British Burke or the Austrian Hayek, for America’s most original political theorist, John Adams, had long ago detected this perennial danger lodged in democracy: ‘Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide… Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty’. The Founding Fathers knew their Locke and their Montesquieu, and so understood that absolute democracy and healthy republic cannot coexist. Indeed America is now a republic only in name. Trump’s presidency is only the conclusion of the process which had begun with the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a project of majoritarian democracy.
Even the greatest of institutions are only as good as the ethos of the society and the efforts of the people. America has long been on the verge of being an unconstitutional democracy. That America is in its political and economic decline is widely accepted. In not too long a time, Americans will learn that they have reached their constitutional decline also. This crisis will probably burn itself out before Americans realise that they never had that which they desperately needed: true conservatism.