The posting I had drafted on the assumption of a Trump loss began, “We have dodged a bullet.” Instead, the bullet hit its mark, fired by one-half of our almost perfectly divided country.
This series of blogs was motivated by my strong sense that a Brexit-like revolt was in the making, invisible to the polls, unseen by the pundits, and condescendingly dismissed by the establishment. I wrote that only complacency could open the door for a demagogue in 21st century America, and that is exactly what happened. Millions of Americans of all stripes dithered about whether they trusted Hillary Clinton instead of mobilizing to stop a dangerous demagogue from assuming power.
My basic argument was that Trump’s unprecedented combination of unpreparedness and demagogic populism was a threat that should transcend our normal partisan divisions. It should have, but it didn’t. Instead, the country doubled down on its recent politics where the animating force is angry antipathy directed toward the other team rather than positive ideological conviction or a rational consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates. It turned out, among other surprises, that Christian “values voters” are prepared to overlook values and character; that “movement conservative” voters, who previously had professed dedication to ideological purity, were prepared to support a candidate totally lacking in political ideology; and that white men with well-paying union jobs would embrace a union-busting, “right to work” billionaire. It turned out that what mattered more were the lies and half-truths that reverberate around the Internet, viruses that infected many good Americans with an unreasoning furious conviction that the other team must be defeated.
George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” America suffers from problems of historic proportions. Even before Trump, our political culture had collapsed into a hyper-partisanship not seen since the Civil War. The percentage of the population that has lost faith in our government and public institutions is at an all-time high. We are not educating our citizens to the minimum level required to sustain a democracy. The vigorous press we have enjoyed since our founding has withered and the very notion of professional journalism has been undermined, replaced by faith in the un-intermediated drivel bouncing around the web. We have a popular culture that is clueless about history, obsessed with celebrity, addicted to the superficial, bereft of critical thinking, disdainful of learning and expertise, and ignorant of basic civics. And Americans are now segregated, both geographically and in the virtual world, into echo-chambers of shared belief, where falsehoods and pernicious narratives spread at the speed of the web, making us vulnerable to manipulation by advertisers and demagogues alike. We cannot expect better in our politics and government until and unless these underlying conditions are addressed.
The lurid outrageousness of Trump’s campaign fed the media’s appetite for politics as entertainment, and gave him a free platform from which to instill a poisonous sense of angry victimhood in those fearful of demographic change and globalization. It was a campaign that gave voice to the nativism, prejudice, and misogyny that remain in the hearts of some of our fellow citizens, and that shamefully legitimized the conspiracies and stupidities that have long been confined to the fringes of our political life. The question now is whether the themes of his campaign also will be the themes of his government. We can hope they won’t, and Republicans in the administration and Congress will have a special responsibility to ensure that the worst of his ideas are abandoned (banning Muslims, killing terrorist families, mass deportation, etc.). But precedent does not provide cause for optimism. Populists usually try to do the things they said they would do.
I recommend to all of you the recent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton, titled What is Populism? Professor Müller’s study of historical and contemporary populist regimes around the world suggests that we can expect the following when any populist attains power:
· The populist demagogue in power continues to polarize the population and escalates his rhetoric to suggest that every political debate is a kind of apocalyptic confrontation between “the people” and their opponents.
· The populist remains in permanent campaign mode, attempting to maintain almost constant direct communication with “the people.”
· The populist claims moral authority derived from “the people” which justifies the muzzling of the press and the erosion of civil liberties, a type of “discriminatory legalism” which Professor Müller describes as “for my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”
· Populists in government are unable to actually implement many of their absurd promises, so they blame their failures on vast conspiracies by their opponents.
· Eventually and inevitably, even their most ardent supporters understand that they have been betrayed by a con man.
Taken together, the populist gives us an “illiberal democracy,” meaning a condition just short of full-on authoritarianism. “Illiberal democracy” is characterized by a gradual usurpation of state institutions by the populist and his “movement,” on the basis that the institutions are corrupt tools of the establishment, and that constitutional limits on his power are fundamentally undemocratic because they oppose the will of the people. All of us have two choices: we can understand the risk to constitutional democracy now or we can face it later once the damage has been done. We can battle to contain its earliest outbreaks; or we can come to our senses years from now and join the much harder fight then. The transition from a constitutional democracy to an “illiberal democracy” is gradual. Many will be inclined to overlook or forgive the first steps taken by Mr. Trump. Republicans have a special moral obligation to oppose their man when he attempts to transcend the limits of the law and the constitution, not to mention the bounds of decency.
As tempting as it is, I hope that the Democratic leadership in Congress does not repeat Mitch McConnell’s immoral and un-American error of announcing, when President Obama first assumed the presidency, that the entire GOP would be mobilized to oppose everything that emerged from the White House. Instead, Democrats should take their clue from Secretary Clinton, who graciously told the country – including the man who unforgivably said he would accept the election results only if he won -- that the people had spoken, we must all respect the result, and moreover, that we owe him “an open mind and the chance to lead.” Can you imagine what Mr. Trump would be saying if, like Hillary, he had won the national popular vote by almost 200,000 votes but lost in the Electoral College? Resisting the urge to descend to Mr. Trump’s level will be the hardest but most important thing for the half of of the country that is appalled and terrified by his election.
This blog made the case against Mr. Trump based not on policy or ideology, but solely on the basis of his narcissistic personality disorder and the lessons that history teaches us about demagogic populism. Nonetheless, I cannot end the series without acknowledging my despair at what we face with Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, even if his proposals that are plainly illegal or impractical are blocked. Among other things, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be revoked, and the Paris Agreement on climate will collapse. Environmental regulation will be gutted. Cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers. With a doctrinaire conservative majority on the Supreme Court, abortion rights, civil rights, and separation of church and state all will be eroded with drastic consequences for those living in red states. Read my novel Christian Nation if you want to know what that will look like. State gerrymandering, voter suppression, and campaign finance laws will be approved by the Supreme Court, ensuring another generation of GOP competitiveness without the party having to move to the center. I won’t go on.
I would like to close by saying that American democracy is strong and will survive Mr. Trump. I cannot. It is frayed and very much still an experiment that could fail. I would like to say that civilization is enduring, but we have been reminded again that the forces of darkness churn just below the surface. All I can ask is that you not take refuge in despair, or allow yourselves the luxury of disengagement. History provides few clear lessons, but one of them is that individual conviction and action is what changes the world. We all must do what we can.
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It is now time to resume work on my next book, a novel that explores the moral challenges of the most disruptive technology humanity has yet encountered, genetic engineering, which, by giving us the power to create and edit DNA, will allow us to hack evolution and shape the future of all living things on the planet. The book explores whether humanity is ready to wield this power.