Unpleasant facts need to be faced, as Orwell reminds us. Here’s one that sort of jumps out: a petulant, vain, cretinously incurious bully is making a serious run for the U.S. presidency. It is not an issue we can duck and call ourselves self-respecting democrats.
The problem is not Trump himself. American society has long had repellant tycoons in its upper crust, and ordinary Americans have occasionally picked one out and valorized his wealth as a sign he had what it took to reform or even transcend our politics. Schwarzenegger, you may or may not recall, said he would “blow up boxes” in politics. I’m not sure what that meant, but Californians wanted it, and the Schwarzinator seemed eminently in a position to do it.
The unpleasantness of Trump himself masks two even less pleasant facts. The first is that we like him: we have put Trump in a position to contend for the presidency. He is, in a deeply democratic sense, us. But the question must force itself on us nonetheless: How has Trump happened? Scabrous buffoon that he is, how can he have won the support of staunch, freedom-loving republicans (small r) descended from Jefferson, Franklin and Thomas Paine? Have we become Yahoos?
Let’s put off that painful question and attend first to some comforting abstractions.
First to point out is that Trump followed a “natural” path to appeal to our savage, pre-political selves. Before we are democrats, we are Hobbseian primitives who seek security above all else. Whether Trump has calculated it or not, he has tapped into one of politics’ primal motives–the need to band together in dislike of others.
It feels good to form a group based on shared animosity. Original hatred was the formative force behind the first hunting packs of Homo Sapiens, and it is the cause of children’s otherwise inexplicable ability to form cruel cliques and to bully weaklings nearly to death. With rare exceptions, it is not adults who teach children such wickedness. Our instinct to rally comrades by baring teeth together at the nearest perceived threat has a million-odd years of survival value behind it. Without those first fearful groups, we wouldn’t be here today. It is in part—indeed the worst part of–our biological legacy as social animals that makes it so hard to shake our Trumpishness.
The humanist may here feel like protesting: but all of culture tells us we can transcend our base origins. Philosophy, literature, and some of the world’s religions preach that our primal hatreds are well worth shedding; that even if the battle is a losing one, our lives are nobly spent getting over cruelty and scorn and nurturing goodwill instead. This high-flown ideal is, in a sense, what it means to be human. But Trump, in a sense, knows our secret: he knows it feels good to hate. (Dostoevsky knew this too, so don’t think it is only demagogues who happen upon this dark discovery. The luxuriousness of cruelty is a theme that menaces the reader throughout The Brothers Karamazov.)
Do you wonder why Trump’s petty insults and thuggish threats to audience members have gained rather than lost him support? If you don’t mind my putting it so archly, for the same reason Hitler’s foreigner-baiting invective bouyed him up so winningly in Munich’s beer halls. Hitler‘s frank contempt for “normal”politics and his direct denunciations of alien pathogens transported his countrymen to that exquisite primeval place where they could feel the glowing hatred of others expanding inside them into a brave new ideology. They would make Germany great again: a truly Wagnerian moment that must have been. How good it must have felt for politics to flow, for once, naturally from their instincts!
Fearful populism, by the way, has been a very successful vehicle for Vladimir Putin. Indeed Putin could be called a virtuoso in this field where Trump is a clodhopping understudy. Putin’s rise to power and steady acquisition of authority directly under the noses of people who are increasingly becoming his subjects has been based on his expert cultivation of fear and contempt. Before Russians could rise again from the ignomy of the USSR’s collapse in 1991, they needed to name new enemies which would be worthy of unifying and actuating their national will. Putin provided these. In the end, the specific list of threats—NATO, homosexuality, Pussy Riot—didn’t matter all that much. What mattered was that Putin could reliably find a majority of his countrymen to hate and fear them.
The most curious feature of the Trump phenomenon is his enduring support from evangelical Christians. On paper, Christianity is designed to overcome, or at least resist, fear and hatred of others. Its practitioners profess, among other things, that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Paul, the leading Christian saint, disliked sex, and the desire for it. He said the noblest thing to do with lust was to extinguish it through meditation on the sacred, or, failing that, just get married. Once. It was better than burning in hell. Paul would have–I think I am safe in saying–seized up and stopped writing epistles had he ever been cheered by a pal to grab the next Corinthian nymph by the pussy. At least one likest o think it. And yet Paul’s acolytes today condone Trump’s unrestrained raunch.
By what dizzy-making exertions of dialectic have evangelicals come to support a man who appears determined, in word and deed, to debase their principles and then smirkingly grind their faces in the detritus? It is unseemly. Although a few evangelical opinion leaders have stepped up (rather late in the game, one would say) to break with Trump, the Don’s approval rating among evangelicals—avid, apparently, to forgive and overlook a whole host of sins—has barely dipped below the 70 percent mark for months.
Before I cock the stern eyebrow of reproach even further upward, though, I feel compelled, by the milk of human kindness to offer another comforting abstraction. In his landmark book on journalism, Public Opinion (which all Americans should read), Walter Lippmann points out a vastly underappreciated fact about the structure of political choice in a democracy. No matter how deeply, accurately and consciensciously a country’s thought leaders expostulate a vital issue—on war, taxes, choice of leaders, etc.—the matter ultimately comes before the voters or legislators as a crude binary choice. Even the best-informed citizens must bow to the tyranny of the two-place ballot, weeping, as they do so, for all the nuance that the democratic process churns up and throws away.
And so the evangelical can take comfort in the fact that she faces a forced choice between two compromised candidates, one of whom must be made out to carry one’s banner with less hypocrisy than the other. This is where the dialectics come in, in all their Hegelian subtlety. Despite leading a life that seems designed to outrage all Christian principles, Trump, the evangelicals believe, is being used by a higher intelligence to advocate for the very values he personally trashes. God carries this out by being particularly wily, even deeply mysterious. And so, when America produces the closest thing it ever has to a National Socialist candidate for the presidency, you need not shudder or gawk open-mouthed to see half his supporting ranks filled out by the lambs of God. It’s all part of God’s plan.
Yes, well. How do the rest of us get by? Not very well. Here is my last comforting abstraction. While it is not quite fair to say we get the candidates we deserve, it is true that we have more or less passively witnessed the evolution of a political system that is now only capable of elevating criminals, or at least deeply morally compromised people who are constantly contemplating criminal acts, to its top. You cannot run without lots of money, and you cannot govern without dancing to the two-line harmony played by lobbyists who pay you handsomely to jigger the law and regulators who advise you how to do it. It has been going on long enough now that anyone wishing to become a politician today knows full well s/he is joining a criminal enterprise. If you’ve been waiting for it, this is the second, even uglier fact that the Trump phenomenon forces on us.
Of course it was not always this way. The law was once made in a chamber where parliamentarians debated one another, sincerely, one likes to think, with an eye to maximizing the public good. But please see this highly interesting article by George Packer which describes how law-making happens today. Spoiler alert: lawmakers spend the vast majority of their time raising funds and consulting with lobbyists and regulators, only gathering together for astonishingly brief and infrequent sessions in which no meaningful debate takes place. If you have more time on your hands, and you want a serious answer to the question how we have ended up with two species of lout contending for our highest office, read Francis Fukuyama’s The Decay of Political Institutions. It will repay your efforts generously, but it will also lead you to face a fact much more disquieting than the rise of Trump—that our political institutions are breaking down and, without deep reform, possibly even revolution, they will keep producing Trumps or other kinds of moral atrocities as their champions.