Do Trump and LePage represent the end of democracy in America?
About a month ago, New York Magazine published a widely-read essay by Andrew Sullivan which foretold our doom, the end of democracy in America, at the hands of an elected tyrant. The tyrant in question is Donald Trump; the cause, Sullivan writes, is American democracy itself.
Sullivan cites Book 8 of the Republic, in which Plato tells a story about the ways that corruption leads from one form of government, and one ideal form of citizen, to another. Oligarchy degenerates into democracy, Plato argues, which provides a culture rife with desire, egalitarianism, and diversity. The very rich come under attack; so, eventually, does paternal and social authority. The day will come, he tells us, when animals and foreigners will be seen as equal to citizens. The tyrant then uses this social chaos to flatter and bribe his way to power, and the egalitarian citizenry find themselves equal in their enslavement. Sullivan fears that Trump is just such a would-be tyrant, that American democracy has “ripened” to the point of rot, and that, as the title of his essay would have it, “America is a breeding ground for tyranny.”
Sullivan’s jeremiad is one of many these days. There have some pretty dire predictions about the consequences of a Trump presidency in the press. The Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan tells us that Trump is “how fascism comes to America”; Adam Gopnik, at the New Yorker, warns us that if Trump comes to power “there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over.” Dylan Matthews, at Vox, speaks with academic experts on fascism and offers the comforting consensus that Trump can be a “a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.” Trump, Matthews finds, is a “right wing populist,” a label he shares with the leaders of comparable political movements throughout Europe these days, people who are “anti-immigration and particularly critical of Islam, couching their bigotry as a reasonable precaution and stoking fear about homegrown terrorism.”
Sullivan’s argument is perhaps most disturbing in that he blames democracy for its own demise; in his reading, Trump is just the method we’ve chosen to commit suicide. I don’t think so. Let’s take a look, together, at our grim political moment: Our national legislature proudly refuses to legislate; economic inequality is, if anything, moving us closer to oligarchy, not farther away from it; and, significantly, the right to vote is under attack. Trumpism is not the result of an overly enthusiastic embrace of democracy and egalitarianism; it’s the result of a rejection of both.
Trump’s success is the result of a fight in the Republican Party over how to deal with our changing demographics. Part of the party has been arguing for years, since Goldwater in ’64 at least, that the GOP’s future is based on over-investing in the white electorate, keeping working class whites worked up, stoking and flattering their resentments, and that path leads to Trumpism. That is not the end of American democracy; it is, rather, one more chapter in our long, long story of exclusionary political strategies having unintended consequences.
And, contrary to Sullivan’s thesis, if that looks like anything in Athenian democracy, it’s not Plato’s fantasy of a corrupt egalitarian mob. There are rich bullies, angry demagogues like Trump, all over the “golden age” of classical democracy. They aren’t the end of the story, they’re at the heart of the story. No, the historical echo here is in the way that Athenian law constructed some people – foreigners, immigrants, resident aliens, and slaves – as non-Athenian, and some Athenians – women, specifically – as non-citizens, and built political membership and power on the basis of that exclusion. That may be the story of how our democracy ends; but it is without question the story of how our democracy, all too often, has operated.
As Jonathan Bernstein, at Bloomburg View, has pointed out, Trump’s form of representation has consistently been based on the promise that he will “designate,” and punish, “his enemies” so that America can “win.” And, like the rich bullies of democratic Athens who preceded him, he pretty clearly includes his fellow citizens who happen to be women on the list of the outsiders, one more class of the “them” who keep “us” from “winning.” (That’s a fairly remarkable strategy, given that, as Jonathan Chait has pointed out, women are around 53% of likely voters in the general election. “’Us versus them’ is a standard trope for demagogues,” he notes, ‘but demagogues usually grasp that the ‘them’ is supposed to be an unpopular subgroup, not a constituency that will cast a majority of the ballots.”)
So, speaking here with my professional political scientist hat on, I don’t see Trump’s rise as a sign of doom for my country. But I do see it as a renewed promise to use the power of American democracy, the resources of our shared government, to attack the rights and the lives of whole segments of our population. A Trump presidency will make life much harder all those who incur the wrath (or the self-pity) of the head of the executive branch, and for all those whose success does not directly profit him. And, fellow Mainers, that model of democracy should sound awfully familiar.
Let’s be clear about what the LePage governorship has meant for our state. It hasn’t meant the end of democracy, after all. It’s just meant that the chief executive officer of our state benefits from elections, and likes to claim mandates, but is easily provoked into abusive language, vulgar attempts at revenge, and public displays of self-pity when he encounters democratic give-and-take. He uses the resources of our shared government to target and attack the portions of our population that he fears or hates, and when he doesn’t attack them, he tells lies about them. He doesn’t care to negotiate legislation, and he disdains compromise. That doesn’t make him fatal to our democracy, but it certainly reflects, and celebrates, what is worst about our history.
Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, informed Politico that Donald is not Hitler. OK. But can anyone reassure me that he won’t be a bigger, and more devastating, Paul LePage?
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