What's Driving Donald's Derangement of Democratic Discourse?
February 05, 2017
To understand why Lyin' Donald is perpetrating such an unprecedented crisis upon the American republic, let's consider the difference between what children say and do on playgrounds, where they rough out rules for cooperation and competition, and what grownups learn and uphold in order to make a society work.
As the columnist Walter Lippmann put it almost a century ago, adults learn to practice “social control, not by authority from above… but by a common law which defines the reciprocal rights and duties of persons. Thus in a free society the state… administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs."
Trump’s notions of freedom and control—so childish, so thuggish, so corrosive of an adult freedom that sustains freedom itself—aren’t merely a personal, clinical problem; they reflect what’s happened to a broad swath of the American people and political culture. Deposing Trump is an urgent necessity, but it won’t save the democratic way of life we’ve relied on more than we seem to have realized. We may have to jump-start that way of life in order to depose him.
Adults understand that what a Constitution rightly protects in our freedoms of speech, a strong civil society rightly moderates in its everyday life: Not every insult and vulgarity may be uttered just because it’s legally protected. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau explained this in 2015 when he criticized (instead of canonizing) the slain writers for Charlie Hebdo, who, he rightly noted, had repeatedly “punched down” poor, pious Muslim immigrants by lampooning their prophet, thereby handing their terrorist murderers a gratuitous provocation and excuse.
What does a strong society need instead of a verbal free-for-all that collapses into a free-for-none?
“It’s not self-censorship, it’s emotional intelligence. Society has to decide collectively what’s untouchable,” as Trudeau put it. Neither law nor autocratic diktats can substitute for that spirit of deliberative decision-making in daily life. Conservatives once understood this, and indeed, insisted on it. So did most Americans and liberals. There were times to break taboos, of course, and there were times to exercise restraint. Free-marketeering has corrupted that understanding.
Trump’s cooptation of the Republican Party and much of the conservative movement is Exhibit A of that corruption. By lowering adult public conversation to the level of a playground he's dragged us all down to the often-juvenile Hebdo of yore.
When Trump boasted that he could shoot someone without losing public support, and that “Second Amendment people” should go after Hillary Clinton, he excited a roiling horde of “militia” members, authoritarian police, “Stand your ground” and “concealed carry” enthusiasts, and so on. By now he has alarmed even the decorously well-organized, conservative rich and their more “liberal minded” counterparts.
We need to understand why a ranter like Trump “cares nothing for reproaches that he is a criminal or a guttersnipe…. Where [he] knifes his opponents is by disarming them with a cynicism and stabbing them with a morality, [H]e twists and turns, flatters and gibes, lulls and murders. ….He raves about ‘the brutal and rude unscrupulousness of the parliamentary panders.’ He calls them job-hunters scoundrels, villains, rascals, criminals. He screams that ‘in comparison with these traitors to the nation, every pimp is a gentleman." We need to understand why “he boasts of his tricks: ‘Take me or leave me, my object, the resurrection of the … people, is so much more superb than any contrary principle that to bridle me with morals or sentiment is to lose…”
This plausible elaboration of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” wasn’t written by George Will or Tom Friedman, but by a literary editor of the New Republic, Francis Hackett, in April 1941, in his now-forgotten book, What Mein Kampf Means to America.
When Hackett wrote this, many Americans were still excusing der Fuhrer’s demagogic vitality, vulgarity and brutality. American as well as German businessmen still thought they could make deals with him. After all, Herr Hitler was shaking up the corrupt conceits and arrangements that had survived even after causing the Great War and the Great Depression. Not only that, he was keeping bolshevism at bay.
If Trump were more grandiloquent, he might justify his own demagoguery by adding that “all great movements are movements of the people, are volcanic eruptions of human passions and spiritual sensations, stirred [by] the torch of the word thrown into the masses, and are not the lemonade-like outpourings of aestheticizing literati and drawing room heroes.”
Those words were written by Adolf Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf, in 1926. When Trump commingles racist nationalism with what sounds like socialism by promising both a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and a cornucopia of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and full healthcare for Americans, we might recall that “Nazi” was an acronym for National Socialism.
Nightmares of the Elites
Stunned by the sheer audacity of hopelessness in Trump’s insults and boasts, political and business leaders became alarmed on the eve of the election. Fashionable though it was to disparage his early victories by remarking that no one had ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, Republican and Democratic elites went broke by underestimating the angry, embittered intelligence of millions of Americans who were backing Trump. Millions of them have been deserting both parties' establishments and the airless ideologies of the think tanks and their journals.
But Trump’s detractors, from Tea Partiers such as Ted Cruz and neoconservatives such as David Frum and Robert Kagan to neoliberal Democrats such as Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, can't face their own long complicity in the omnivorous marketing and other modulations of greed that have made his demagoguery alluring by pumping so much distress and heartbreak into American life.
Trump has shredded the credibility of not only conservatives who've fantasized about restoring the capitalism of William McKinley and even John Locke, but also leftists who've fantasized that a precariat-proletariat will rise again. But he’s no Hamilton or Madison, struggling to devise an order capable of balancing conservative wealth-making with republican power-wielding and democratic, pluralist truth-seeking. He's no Lincoln, envisioning a new birth of freedom; no Teddy Roosevelt birthing a “new nationalism” more ecumenical and progressive than Europe’s at the time; no FDR, cobbling together a New Deal.
None of today’s claimants to any of these legacies seems prepared to dive into the abyss Trump has opened. Like Czarist generals desperately flogging serfs to war against the Kaiser in 1917, today's would-be champions of American democracy are pirouetting at the edge of the abyss their own policies have opened, shrieking and waving their arms while admonishing a bereft, bedraggled citizenry to rise to its duties.
Instead they're confronting the popular rage against all would-be Good Shepherds and their consultants and scribbling minions.
“Right before our eyes, like something on the screen, the vast social fabric [of the republic] has crumbled…. On its ruins, with the speed of a world’s fair, [he] and his confederates have run up a political front of startling and provocative modernity… [His movement’s] hand has been so much quicker than the democratic eye, and for his violence we have so little precedent.”
Again, this is Hackett in 1941, but today’s elites have been unwittingly clearing the ground for Trump’s great encampment, as Mitt Romney revealed by calling millions of Americans “takers” in 2012 and as Hillary Clinton did by calling others “deplorables.” Takers and deplorables they may be, but some of them are also shrewd, angry, bitter, and desperate. Although Romney was right enough to call Trump a fraud, he and his cohort would have to be a lot less fraudulent themselves to discredit him.
Trump is only the match lighting the tinder that others have prepared—the Clintons and the Schumers among us as much as the Bushes and Mitch McConnells, the “lemonade literati” of the prestige magazines and the David Frums, Robert Kagans, David Brookses, William Kristols, and Pat Buchanans. They’re part of the reason why so many of millions of citizens are willing to gamble so pathetically that Trump will deflect the aggressively marketed civic mindlessness and malevolence that, with these people's encouragement, have been groping us, goosing us, intimidating us, bamboozling us, indebting us, tracking us, and in so doing, imprisoning us.
The armed racist goons and drooling fools (some in uniform) circling America’s proverbial town meeting democracy weren’t born to do what they’re doing. Nor were they all disposed to do it back on the playground. The quiet little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt that accumulated in tiny increments in their young lives as their parents lost jobs, pensions, homes, mutual respect, and public moral standing have blossomed into open resentment seeking the right target.
Their losses had many causes. One is that too many of us writers (and some of you who are reading this now) have ignored or dismissed or disdained Trump’s supporters, compounding their distress with turns of a phrase, clicks of our brokers’ mouses, arching our eyebrows in faint disdain, or simple civic inattention that we excuse with genteel stereotypes and solicitous sighs over depictions of Bubba’s distress. Hedge-fund wunderkinds who've turned to philanthropy haven’t yet faced the truth that the legal premises, protocols, and practices under which they grew wealthy have done far more damage to the citizenry than their philanthropic ventures can offset or repair.
In 2015, the columnist Thomas Edsall wrote in a column titled, “Why Trump Now,” that “the share of the gross national product going to labor as opposed to… capital fell from 68.8 percent in 1970 to 60.7 percent by 2013” and that the number of manufacturing jobs dropped by 36 percent, from 19.3 million in 1979 to 12.3 million in 2015, while the population increased by 43 percent, from 225 million to 321 million.
“In other words, the economic basis for voter anger has been building over forty years,” including the stagnation of net upward mobility after 2000 and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which has “imposed far larger costs on American workers than most economists anticipated.”
Then came the financial collapse of 2008, “which many people left and right felt was caused by reckless financial engineering on Wall Street” and which left those who’d not “benefited from the previous boom years” to become “easy pickings for populist rhetoric” because “trust in government was destroyed” by a “widespread sense that all the elites in Washington and New York conspired to bail out the miscreants who caused the disaster and then gave them bonuses."
In 2010, the Citizens United ruling invited the miscreants to inundate public decision-making processes and institutions through which citizens are supposed to decide how to license and regulate and channel the very forces that are enslaving us. The excuse for Citizens United was that, as Romney would put it in 2012, “Corporations are people, too,” entitled to the same freedoms of speech that citizens enjoy. “If dancing nude and burning the flag are protected by the First Amendment, why would it not protect robust speech about the people who are running for office?’’ asked Theodore Olson, counsel for Citizens United, the corporation that produced the movie to swift-boat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The subtext: Let people rant, as long as we can drown them out with expensive megaphones and words that titillate or intimidate while they get laryngitis from straining to be heard, and while we buy off or intimidate their public officials at election time.
No wonder that, by September 2015, as Edsall noted, a survey “asked voters if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that ‘More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.’ 72 percent of surveyed Republicans concurred, compared to 58 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats.’”
The volcano rumbles
Some of us saw this coming in 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. What worried us wasn’t only that, in the name of fighting terrorism and advancing democracy around the world, Bush and his neoconservative operatives and Vulcan advisers were spending the country into crushing debt that would drive the social compact back to the 1890s.
Nor were we wrought up only because the Republican ticket, led by two draft-dodgers (as defined by every conservative Republican since the late 1960s, when both Bush and Dick Cheney did their dodging), was now “swift-boating” Vietnam veterans such as senators John McCain, Max Cleland and Kerry himself. The republic had survived excesses like that before, if barely.
What really worried some of us in 2004 was a foreboding that the republic couldn’t outlast the eerily disembodied swooning and cheering we were seeing at Bush’s election rallies, where the candidate sometimes campaigned in a baseball cap, the kind of guy other guys thought they’d like to have a beer with.
Two veteran conservative diplomats, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, assessed these scary developments in “America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order,” in which they compared the American people to "a frog placed in a bowl of cool water as it is slowly heated over a fire. At the point the frog realizes the danger it is in, it is already too weakened to get out. It is boiled alive. Americans today find themselves in water with the temperature rising. To date, the political discourse, impregnated as it is with neoconservative formulations, has led them to acquiesce in the demands of those who are stoking the fire."
The analogy wasn’t wholly accurate. Frogs are more acutely sensitive than humans are to encroaching danger. But by 2008, some people were jumping around as the water approached full boil on the floor of the Republican National Convention.
Although the party was nominating a decent if limited man (whom Trump would mock eight years later for having been captured in Vietnam), John McCain found himself facing an unnervingly large contingent of young white men whose repertoire of political expression on the floor consisted solely of shouting "USA USA USA!"
They dominated the convention’s reactions as McCain delivered his nomination acceptance speech, bellowing “USA!" even when the nominee was trying to say something thoughtful or poignant. These guys were desperately seeking moral clarity in the fog of ongoing, unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They hadn't all curdled into fascists or even racists. A thwarted decency and clueless love in them, a yearning for something slipping away, was struggling to find some political defense against the affronts and distortions their love had suffered. Countless encroachments on their freedom and dignity had generated not only family breakdown and drug abuse but also stresses and humiliations that erupted in road rage, lethal rampages at store openings on sale days; extreme fighting or cage fighting, the gladitorialization of college and professional sports, and escapist, demoralizing entertainments, including reality TV and Trump’s own "The Apprentice." Americans who still think that he'll avenge them are headed for a let-down too wrenching and violent for the American republic to bear.
How Resentment Politics Works
“Trump’s brand of resentment politics,” as New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns called it during the campaign, rides ressentiment (pronounced ruh-sohn-tee-mohn), a public psychopathology in which gnawing insecurities, envy and hatreds nursed by many people in private converge in public in scary social eruptions that present themselves as noble crusades but that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big.
In ressentiment, the little-big man seeks enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his sense of exploitation by powers he’s afraid to challenge head on. Ressentiment warps the little-big man’s assessments of his hardships and opportunities. It stokes and misdirects his frustrations.
Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” such as the Khmer Rouge, or a strain of political correctness that grips a particular community, ressentiment’s most telling symptoms are always paranoia, scapegoating and bursts of hysteria and violence.
That syndrome was described more recently by George Soros in an assessment of “the power of Orwell's Newspeak” and “the aversion of the public to facing harsh realities” in America today.
"On the one hand,” Soros writes, “Newspeak is extremely difficult to contradict because it incorporates and thereby preempts its own contradiction, as when Fox News calls itself fair and balanced. Another trick is to accuse your opponent of the behavior of which you are guilty, like Fox News accusing me of being the puppet master of a media empire. Skillful practitioners always attack the strongest point of their opponent, like the Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry's Vietnam War record. Facts do not provide any protection, and rejecting an accusation may serve to have it repeated; but ignoring it can be very costly, as John Kerry discovered in the 2004 election."
"On the other hand,” Soros notes, “the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal.”
But why? In 1941, Hackett noted that people who are stressed, humiliated and dispossessed become easy prey for demagogic orchestrations of “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit reality to which there was a violent, instinctive response. For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fiction as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.”
Ressentiment’s gusts of collective passion touch raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal, Murdoch-inflected journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse. In the 1976 movie Network, which depicts the profit-driven derangement of television news reporting, manager Diana Christiansen tells her staff, “I want angry shows” because Americans want “a mad prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time.” A demagogic network anchor rouses his viewers to shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” even as he herds them like sheep.
When ressentiment is only starting to gather strength, it assumes disguises of civility at first, so as not to incur decisive reproach from a public that isn’t yet too weakened to ward off the disease. Soros cites Fox News’ winking assurance, in ads it posted 10 years ago, that it was “fair and balanced”—a dog-whistle to the little-big man that, “Together we’re going to crush those pious, hypocritical liberal journalists who prattle on about objectivity and fairness.”
Drip, drip, drip: Story after story teaches viewers and readers to fear and mistrust one another, souring the spirit of trust and curiosity that sustain democratic dialogue into the cynicism and defensiveness that clear the way for the strongman. Ressentiment’s gloves really come off once there are enough angry little-big men (and little-big women) to step out together en masse, with a Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck. Now Trump is leading little-big men across the Rubicon, declaring that he’ll mow down anyone and anything in his way.
Until this moment in American history, the legitimate grievances that fuel ressentiment have sometimes driven its eruptions to a fleeting brilliance, as when Sarah Palin tapped deeply into currents of thwarted love and hope in her speech to the shouters at the 2008 Republican convention. Like her public persona, such gestures always curdled and collapsed, tragicomically or catastrophically, into their own cowardice, ignorance and lies.
But now? "The kind of self-education which a self-governing people must obtain can be had only through its daily experience," wrote Walter Lippmann, who was Francis Hackett’s colleague at the New Republic. “In other words, a democracy must have a way of life which educates the people for the democratic way of life.” Is there any way to re-weave such a way of life? In America it has always involved a rickety balancing of wealth-making, power-wielding and truth-seeking. What new balance might achieve a liberal-democratic revival?
The late Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World recounts how ordinary, unarmed people and inspired leaders have made it happen time and again, against terribly daunting odds, in British India, apartheid South Africa, Soviet Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union itself. But that revival hasn’t always lasted, and it has always needed rediscovery and rejuvenation, often at some individuals’ heroic sacrifice.
You can read a lot about its twists, turns and demands in the face of demagogues even worse than Trump, in Politics in Dark Times: Encounters With Hannah Arendt, a collection of essays by Schell, Arendt and others. Every year I tell my undergraduates that liberal democracy often seems implausible but that it equally often proves irrepressible. Part of the reason lies ineradicably in the human heart, which is always divided against itself and the world in ways that a good liberal education illuminates but can't eliminate.
One thing it teaches is that neoliberal claims that the world is flat can’t be reconciled with the deeper claims of America’s founders, both Puritan and Constitutional, that the world has abysses that open unpredictably beneath our feet and in our hearts. A good society needs coordinates and commandments strong enough to plumb those abysses, confront the demons in them and in ourselves, and affirm our capacity to live in truth and love against our tendency to worship the self and the Golden Calf.
Trump is at once the embodiment and a parody of a society that’s lost that balance. Removing him will require re-weaving and affirming civic myths and coordinates “that people cannot help but love,” as Schell puts it. Who can summon the courage and talent for that? All of us and each of us, some by inspiring and leading others, as Schell and Arendt have described. That won't happen without some elites' agreement to reconfigure a Trumpian, soulless capitalism so thoroughly that Adam Smith, who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations, could recognize it.