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Our ‘emotional hyperdemocracy’ produced Donald Trump

In a brilliant essay, Andrew Sullivan warns America is now a breeding ground for tyranny.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at a campaign victory party at Trump Tower in Manhattan, N.Y., on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Regular readers of this space may be excused for wondering whether your humble and obedient ink-stained wretch is obsessed, to the point of excess, with contemplating the meaning of the Trump phenomenon. In his defense, said wretch refers you to a long, nay epic, but brilliant exegesis of Trumpism by Andrew Sullivan in the current issue of New York Magazine.

Sullivan, one of the pioneers of blogging, is a mostly conservative but sometimes seemingly liberal British deep thinker with a scholarly, Catholic bent who retired from blogging last year and has been generally absent from the commentariat during the rise of Donald Trump. But in this piece, headlined “Democracies end when they are too democratic,” Sullivan starts with Plato and ends with this paragraph:

Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

If that doesn’t make you want to click through, don’t say Sullivan didn’t try to warn you.

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Plato, apparently, wrote about how democracies tend to end in tyranny (and how tyrannies generally come into existence out of the collapse of what Sullivan — and, I guess, Plato — called “late-stage democracy,” which is the stage of democracy through which Sullivan fears America is now passing).

Starting with ancient Greece, as you might guess, Sullivan’s piece runs very long. Be prepared for that. But don’t deny yourself Sullivan’s view of the kind of circumstances that has produced a white working class so angry that it is ripe for the picking by a Trump-like figure. As in:

This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread. It’s a period in which we have become far more aware of the historic injustices that still haunt African-Americans and yet we treat the desperate plight of today’s white working class as an afterthought. And so late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain — and has actually helped exacerbate.

For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges.

Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in [20th century working-class philosopher Eric] Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

Trump, according to Sullivan, has been planning this candidacy for many years, has made himself into a perfect vessel to harness the resentments bred by the situation described above. And he has chosen the perfect moment to capture the craving of this large working-class for a strong leader to save them, as similar groups have wanted in the past:

What’s notable about Trump’s supporters is precisely what one would expect from members of a mass movement: their intense loyalty. Trump is their man, however inarticulate they are when explaining why. He’s tough, he’s real, and they’ve got his back, especially when he is attacked by all the people they have come to despise: liberal Democrats and traditional Republicans. At rallies, whenever a protester is hauled out, you can almost sense the rising rage of the collective identity venting itself against a lone dissenter and finding a catharsis of sorts in the brute force a mob can inflict on an individual. Trump tells the crowd he’d like to punch a protester in the face or have him carried out on a stretcher. No modern politician who has come this close to the presidency has championed violence in this way. It would be disqualifying if our hyperdemocracy hadn’t already abolished disqualifications.

Sullivan mocks Trump’s actual policy ideas, at least as to their merit, but not for their power to capture the pain and hopes of his target audience. Thus:

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Mass movements, Hoffer argues, are distinguished by a “facility for make-believe … credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible.”

What, one wonders, could be more impossible than suddenly vetting every single visitor to the U.S. for traces of Islamic belief? What could be more make-believe than a big, beautiful wall stretching across the entire Mexican border, paid for by the Mexican government? What could be more credulous than arguing that we could pay off our national debt through a global trade war? In a conventional political party, and in a rational political discourse, such ideas would be laughed out of contention, their self-evident impossibility disqualifying them from serious consideration. In the emotional fervor of a democratic mass movement, however, these impossibilities become icons of hope, symbols of a new way of conducting politics. Their very impossibility is their appeal.

Sullivan doesn’t shy away from the F-word (that’s “fascism”), but says Trumpism doesn’t fit it perfectly:

To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. This is the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

Of course, it’s not as if the old elites, who have run the country over recent decades, are in such a great position to defend themselves based on their record, Sullivan says. He refers (I’m telling you this essay makes many a surprising reach) to a 1935 Sinclair Lewis (of Minnesota) novel called “It Can’t Happen Here,” about the rise of an American fascist to the presidency. In that novel, a member of the old journalistic elite (shortly before he ends up in a concentration camp) notes that “we respectables” had this coming because of the way they mismanaged things.

That sets up Sullivan’s review of the recent performance of the current respectable U.S. elite:

An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.

Sullivan warns against Democrats who rely too heavily on early matchup polls that show Hillary Clinton beating Trump:

That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class — and Democrats must listen.

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And he ends with a plea, which I would have saved for the ending here if I hadn’t used it already at the top, for a massive anyone-but-Trump coalition. Even the no-hopers whom Trump has crushed in the primaries must keep fighting, he says, because the future of Democracy in America is at stake. Of course, he wrote this before the Indiana primary.

In case you are ready and willing to read the whole Sullivan tour de force, and don’t want to go all the way back to the top of this to get the link, here it is again.