Who Is Trump and Why Is He Dangerous?

Since the election of Donald Trump last month, much has been written as to what this means for American democracy going forward. Generally, I think, the response can be broken down into three camps: those who contend that the country must resist Trump because he is an authoritarian in sheep’s clothing; those who argue that the best way to deal with such an abnormal political figure is to normalize him; and those who see Trump as part of the worldwide phenomenon of anti-democratic populism (and no, this description is not a contradiction).

What I seek to do here is present the case for these three views. But I also want to go beyond the competing contentions and explain that such arguments are missing the larger story about why American democracy is in danger. I will suggest that Donald Trump and his presidency may fit into a lesser known and recognized narrative, and I will present part of that story here.

The Case for Trump as an Autocrat 

Of all the writers who have discussed the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump, I am most impressed by Masha Gessen. Her writing appears, among other places, in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Gessen applies to her writing a life-long experience of living in Soviet and post-Soviet authoritarianism in Russia. Gessen has made no secret of her impression that Trump is an autocrat, as she made clear in an NYRB Daily article two days after his election:

But Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. 

From there Gessen goes on to provide six rules for surviving autocracy, which I will summarize here:

  1. Believe the Autocrat. If Trump promises that he’s going to set up a registry of Muslim citizens, believe it and prepare accordingly.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. These only serve to distract the public from the changes being made by the autocrat.
  3. Institutions will not save you. Autocrats are especially adept at transforming democratic institutions into authoritarian ones.
  4. Be outraged. Outrage at Trump’s authoritarianism will not be hysterical or hyperbolic. It will be democratic.
  5. Don’t make compromises. When you deal with the devil, so to speak, prepare to lose your soul.
  6. Remember the future. “Nothing lasts forever.” Trumpism will not last, no matter how powerful it is or will become in the next several years.

On November 27, Gessen wrote another piece for the NYRB Daily, this time invoking her family’s experience during World War II and the Shoah in eastern Europe. Here she seemed to soften her depiction of Trump as a Putin-like authoritarian, but she nonetheless made the point that trying to be a realist in the face of Trumpism may be a fool’s errand:

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics.

Gessen then argued that the best strategy in dealing with Trump is to frame it as a moral fight: “Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy [of authoritarian crimes in the twentieth century], we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future.”

Whether Trump will be as autocratic as Gessen seems to believe is a question worth raising. But no matter how we answer it, she is correct in concluding that at stake are profound moral questions related to the very meaning of democracy in a pluralistic society.

The Case for Trump as an Eccentric Yet Normal Politician

Not all pundits concerned about democracy agree with Gessen’s notion that Trump is an authoritarian perhaps a few shades less gray than Vladimir Putin. For some, a better likeness to the kind of politician that Trump seems to be is Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy. Like Trump, Berlusconi was a wealthy businessman who possessed an extraordinary talent for manipulating the mainstream press. Moreover, Trump and Berlusconi have tended to subscribe to a similar kind of crony capitalism whereby public service is seen as a way to enhance one’s brand, if not one’s own pocketbook. Both also are political populists, in the sense that they know how to capitalize on popular anger over the status quo, and direct that anger toward elites and groups often considered as “other” to an homogeneous social group.

In an article for Vox, Matthew Yglesias makes a compelling case for how opponents of demagogic populists have defeated them in some democratic countries:

To beat Trump, what his opponents need to do is practice ordinary humdrum politics. Populists in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere that casts the populist leader as persecuted by media and political elites who are obsessed with his uncouth behavior while he is busy doing the people’s work. To beat Trump, progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.

Trump genuinely does pose threats to the integrity of American institutions and political norms. But he does so largely because his nascent administration is sustained by support from the institutional Republican Party and its standard business and interest group supporters. Alongside the wacky tweets and personal feuds, Trump is pursuing a policy agenda whose implications are overwhelmingly favorable to rich people and business owners. His opponents need to talk about this policy agenda, and they need to develop their own alternative agenda and make the case that it will better serve the needs of average people. And to do that, they need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump’s choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.

Yglesias specifically invokes the observations of Luigi Zingales, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who had a ringside seat to the Berlusconi phenomenon. As Zingales noted about Berlusconi, “In a country where corruption and lack of meritocracy has all but killed the hope of intra-generational mobility, citizens chose to escape from reality and find consolation in dreams. Berlusconi adeptly fosters the illusion that he can turn everyone else into billionaires. His political career is something like Trump’s Apprentice program, only on a national scale.”

Yglesias also underscores the fact that Trump would not have been elected without winning over the vast majority of mainstream Republicans in the United States. He compiles a list of long-sought policy goals that Trump signaled he would support:

According to Yglesias, if those on the left want to defeat Donald Trump they need to keep the focus on his policies, many of which are losers among most of the American electorate: “Defending the basic norms of American constitutional government is important, but doing it as a partisan agenda won’t work . . . his opponents need to find ways to turn attention away from the Trump Show and focus it on his basic policy agenda and the ways in which it touches millions of people.” Message to press: quit dwelling on the shiny new object.

The Case for Trump as a Global Populist

Yglesias is correct to point out that just like Berlusconi, Trump rode to power on a wave of populism, which now seems to be infecting much of the democratic world. But to understand what this populism is all about, we might take a cue from Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and his book on the subject:

. . . populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. Think, for instance, of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declaring at a party congress in defiance of his numerous domestic critics, “We are the people. Who are you?” Of course, he knew that his opponents were Turks, too. The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moralWhen running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognize any opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also  implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure. Put simply, populists do not claim “We are the 99 percent.” What they imply instead is “We are the 100 percent.”
For populists, this equation always works out: any remainder can be dismissed as immoral and not properly a part of the people at all. That’s another way of saying that populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist). What follows from this understanding of populism as an exclusionary form of identity politics is that populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once put it, “the people” can only appear in the plural. And it’s a dangerous  fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarization; they also treat their political opponents as “enemies of the people”and seek to exclude them altogether.

The threat that Trump poses to democracy is due, at least in part, to his avocation of an anti-democratic populism, as Müller further points out:

The danger to democracies today is not some comprehensive ideology that systematically denies democratic ideals. The danger is populism—a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (“Let the people rule!”). The danger comes, in other words, from within the democratic world—the political actors posing the danger speak the language of democratic values. That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly antidemocratic should trouble us all—and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.
Though I agree with Müller that populism’s danger is perhaps the most immanent, I nonetheless hold that such a phenomenon would be politically impotent were it not for the inequalities exacerbated by neoliberalism which, alas, has a dear friend in the person of Donald Trump. Neoliberalism “systematically denies democratic ideals” precisely by creating conditions in which anti-democratic populism can thrive.
Neoliberalism Matters Most

At his core, therefore, Trump is neither a Putinesque autocrat, nor a Burlesconian media magician, nor even an opportunistic populist. Rather, he is first and foremost a champion of neoliberalism–even as his brand of populism exploits what neoliberalism has wrought in the United States, above all in the rust belt of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In order to defeat (Yglesias) or resist (Gessen) or properly contextualize (Müller) him, we first must acknowledge how fundamental neoliberalism is not only to Trump’s electoral success but also to his presidential blueprint going forward.

Nine days after the election Cornel West wrote an op-ed for the Guardian, which I think was inappropriately titled, “Goodbye American Neoliberalism. A New Era Is Here.” West argued that the election of Trump was effected by the neoliberal policies embraced by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations. Never a strong supporter of Obama, West wrote that “Obama chose to ignore Wall Street crimes, reject bailouts for homeowners, oversee growing inequality and facilitate war crimes like US drones killing innocent civilians abroad” and therefore presided over “the last gasp of neoliberalism.”

While I concur with West’s assessment of the role neoliberalism played in creating the conditions that elected Trump, I fail to see how the election marked an end to the reign of neoliberalism. If anything, Trump’s election reinforces the worst of what neoliberalism has to offer, and one can see this already in the number of cabinet and high administrative positions to be held by current or former executives from Goldman Sachs.

Gessen, Yglesias, and Müller are all, in a way, correct in how they see Trump. And this is already evident in how he has built a cabinet consisting of generals (authoritarianism), right-wing Republicans (an alliance with normality), and opportunistic plutocrats (seizing on populism). But each of these authors is failing to take notice of the larger problem: neoliberalism. Donald Trump is indeed dangerous for democracy–but not merely because of his autocratic tendencies, his ability to distract the press from what really matters and forge an alliance with conventional Republicans, or his penchant for capitalizing on populism. Rather, the real threat lies in how he will enable neoliberalism to thrive in the United States for many years to come. This, in turn, will only exacerbate social and economic inequality and further cause one group of Americans to turn on others. He is well on his way to creating creating a milieu in which democracy will work even less than it is now.

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