I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times. It’s usually part of an otherwise banal conversation, but if a conversation lasts long enough it will eventually lead to some good-natured probing related to one’s career. “I’m doing a PhD in Political Science,” I’ll usually respond. Then, almost without fail, some version of the question will follow.
Graduate students are supposed to be good at elevator pitches and dinner party abstracts. But, as someone who has spent the last five years gazing in awe at a national car accident, it’s been hard to offer a concise analysis in response to such a complex and constantly evolving disaster. So, with Trump leaving office but not completely leaving our minds, I want to offer three key takeaways from the Trump era of American politics.
First, the Trump phenomenon is not new. In fact, the threat posed by demagoguery has been recognized for as long as democracies have been around and this criticism of democracy can be traced all the way back to the political philosophy of Ancient Greece. The inescapable weakness of political equality – providing everyone the means for affecting collective decision-making – is that the relatively uneducated and inexperienced have the same influence as the educated and experienced.
Plato famously used the metaphor of a ship sailing at sea to illustrate the problem. If you were on a ship with your fellow citizens, who would you want to be captain? Those who are well trained and experienced in seafaring? Or those who can win a popularity contest by convincing a majority of their citizens that they are best suited to the task, irrespective of their objective qualifications? An easy choice, I think.
The broader point is that we need to make some distinctions between the ‘elite’ and expertise. The former has become a catch all term for anyone and everyone that seems like they’re undeserving of their power, authority, and legitimacy, but the latter is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy. When we undermine expertise itself, and not just those who claim it, we do so at our own peril.
Second, Trump surely unleashed a torrent of racial resentment and then rode that wave throughout his presidency. In an impressively short amount of time, Trump managed to make it acceptable to not just be a public facing bigot, but to take pride in that fact. Nonetheless, racial fault lines in American society cannot solely explain the Trump phenomenon.
Most Republican pundits and strategists were actually worried that Trump’s less apologetic xenophobia – so casually claiming that Mexicans were rapists, for example – would tank their electoral fortunes. If Ann Coulter thinks you’re going too far, chances are you’ve comfortably entered the absolute fringes of public discourse. Trump’s gambit, then, was that a groundswell of distrust in every hallowed American institution could somehow be reconstituted into an unthinking dedication to just him. He didn’t win the popular vote, but he cultivated a distinct base and further radicalized traditionally conservative voters towards more extreme and less realistic public policy options.
While not discounting the potency of racial resentment, especially anti-Black racism, another important factor is the systematic gutting of the American working class. The United States is one of the most affluent societies to ever exist, yet it still denies universal health care to its citizens and consigns most to obscenely low paying jobs. Northern Ontarians will reflexively identify with the experiences of the so-called ‘fly over states’ to the south, the ones where a middle-class existence has all but evaporated and the streets are littered with the broken promises of politicians. It’s not difficult to understand why someone like Trump would resonate with these voters. When you have limited electoral options and previous experience reveals a completely broken economic and political system, a wildcard amateur doesn’t seem so risky, especially since you can always bask in the chaos that ensues.
Third, and finally, the Trump phenomenon has highlighted, in the most dramatic way possible, the fragility of democracy. The United States, like most democracies, is beset by a deep contradiction. The American Declaration of Independence reads, in part: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How, then, could the drafters of such a lofty statement not see the tension between allegedly inalienable rights and owning slaves and denying women the vote?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the United States is one of the most remarkable democratic experiments in all of history, but it still remains deeply flawed. If it can’t figure out a way to close the gap between its lofty ideals and the stark realities of economic and racial inequality, among others, it will continue to spiral through a crisis of legitimacy. Without some basic and collective agreement about core democratic principles, no polity can survive. Too often, the demands from those who suffer from these inequalities are seen as the problem and not the inequality itself.
Even though fear and division is seemingly infinite at the moment, we ought to cherish even the smallest signs that honesty, decency, and equality will gradually replace the sheer weight of a bully.