Photograph: Gage Skidmore
One of the two major political parties in the United States has chosen an ignorant, unqualified, strutting game-show host as its candidate for president. An upper-class scion cultivated in the cloistered hothouse of inherited wealth now posturing as a populist-nativist, Donald Trump is a dangerous huckster drawing on the dog-eared pages of the demagogue’s handbook, rallying his supporters with the timeless tropes of fearmongering and scapegoating. The only thing that makes this pampered princeling stand out from the rogues’ gallery of his predecessors (and his global peers) is that he comes across as even more vain, entitled, and thin-skinned than the average preening Mussolini pounding his chest from the balcony.
This horrifying turn of events (and if you are not horrified, you have not been paying adequate attention) is unprecedented—and it is un-American. A Trump presidency would not make America great again; it would make America ordinary, for the first time. Know-nothing nationalists spouting empty promises and rousing mass hatred have at one time or another held the reins of power in almost every corner of the globe. But never, ever in the United States. Only two moments in the past century come even remotely close to such disgraceful dishonor. The crude, race-baiting America-first nativist Charles Lindbergh flirted with a presidential run in 1940, and what he represented was not mysterious. “If I should die tomorrow,” President Roosevelt confided to a close advisor in May of that year, “I want you to know this. I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.” And in 1968, with the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy leaving the Democratic party in ruins, the breakaway third party of white nationalist George Wallace (“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) garnered almost ten million votes and won five southern states in an election Nixon won by half a million votes.
Other countries now have to consider the real possibility that U.S. power will be placed in the hands of a spoiled, petulant, impulsive man-child.
Despite these two minor exceptions (in fact demonstrated by the modest and exceptional nature of these episodes), know-nothing authoritarian-nationalism was something simply not done in America. (A notable exception would be the ultra-nationalist American Party—the so-called Know Nothing Party—which, following the collapse of the Whigs, rose to capture 20 percent of the popular vote in the 1856 presidential election.) Yet we now find ourselves faced with a candidate—a man who could be elected president—who represents the antithesis of everything America has stood for throughout its history (even if it often fell well short of living up to those aspirations). Proffering incoherent, fantasy-based policies, willfully dishonest and with a heedless disregard for rational analysis, Trump spews an endless stream of vile utterances that would have disqualified any previous presidential candidate—not because they were “politically incorrect,” but because they were so mendacious, ill-informed, and beyond the pale of reason or civilized discourse.
We are thus confronted with the possibility of the end of everything. With the prospect that we have reached the limits of our ability to capably govern ourselves. With the chance that we will devolve from a liberal republic to mob rule—or worse, if we elect a president who bears more than a passing dispositional resemblance to General Garcia, the megalomaniacal dictator from The In-Laws. Even if he is not elected, Trump has wrought real damage. The world is a more dangerous place when the United States can no longer be counted on to act as the adult in the room. Trump’s wild statements about defaulting on our debt and the proliferation (and use) of nuclear weapons may come to nothing (fingers crossed here), but other countries now have to assess their interests, security concerns, and foreign policies to account for the real possibility that U.S. power will be placed in the hands of a spoiled, petulant, impulsive man-child.
This is a 9/11 moment, a watershed when everything suddenly changes for the worse. On September 11, 2001, Americans woke to find themselves in a new and frightening world, filled with uncertainty and a vulnerability to horrors that they always knew had been visited on distant others but which now confronted them directly and personally in a way they had never thought possible. This same gut-wrenching feeling is my reaction to the rise of Trump. We are now living in a domestic political environment fraught with millennial dangers that I previously thought inconceivable.
How did we get here? We need to think this through, in the hope that the worst might still be avoided and that we might find a way to cautiously draw back from the edge of this awful abyss. Three hypotheses come to mind.
The Republicans Did It
As a lifelong Democrat, I am painfully aware of the dysfunctionality of my own political party, pathologies that seem only to get worse, not better. And Democrats need to be wary of reassuringly locating the source of our problems in the folly of our political opponents. But it is at least very plausible that Trump is the result of an existential crisis of the Republican Party, one it might not survive, at least as we know it. The modern Republican coalition has depended on a foundational alliance of social conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and tax-averse, welfare state–opposing wealthy individuals and business interests. But you need a majority to win, and many rank-and-file Republicans (regular folks who must form the backbone of any mass political party) are not passionate about social issues and tend not to prioritize foreign affairs. They are uninterested in dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that have insulated the working and middle classes from economic insecurity and poverty. And so, it needs to be acknowledged, the Republican Party has also embraced race-baiting—seen most plainly in the Southern Strategy of Nixon and Reagan—to maintain its mass appeal. In this narrative, Trump is little more than a crude, exaggerated, and explicit extension of the party’s own rhetoric, come home to roost.
There is likely some truth in this, and it fits with the failure of scorched-earth fiscal conservatism (“real conservatism”) to gain traction during the primary season. But it is a bit too easy, offers little comfort or path forward, and does not capture in full the distinct madness that is this election season. The Republican Party might not collapse; it might simply become a white nativist/white nationalist party. The intellectuals would leave, and it is important to acknowledge those Republican intellectuals who have stood up and said, “This is not my party.” But the career politicians are likely to do what career politicians do: put their fingers to the wind and figure out how to stay in power. Thus the disgraceful and humiliating rallying around Trump by those who once recognized him for what he is: illegitimate. Regardless of the role and unfolding disposition of the Republican Party in crisis, two additional explanations for the rise of Trump need to be considered.
The Internet Did It
A less comforting possibility, at least for self-satisfied Democrats, is that Trumpism is a consequence of the contemporary media environment and of the new dominance of the Internet in particular. What we might be witnessing are the limits of self-government: representative democracy works—embedding governance in robust institutional structures with firewalls to protect civil liberties—but direct democracy doesn’t. Rather, direct democracy invites devolution into mob rule, a latent threat that the founding fathers greatly feared. Trump emerges from this messy cacophony not due to the venality of his character or the minefield of his policy proposals, but because the Internet plays to his strengths.
The Internet, especially Twitter, fosters an environment that encourages the attention-seeking outrageousness those weaned on late-century cable television have come to expect but dials it up by orders of magnitude. Entry is free; the field could not be more crowded; the idea of vetting and fact-checking mid-twentieth-century anachronisms. It is an arena in which extremism is interpreted as authenticity, information mistaken for knowledge, and repetition confused with confirmation. Perhaps worst of all, consumers of the Internet (that is, all of us) are apparently so in need of validation of our existing views that we click on like-minded links with the intensity of drug-addicted lab mice that prefer cocaine to food. Never before has it been so easy to behave as Paul Simon described: “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
All this surely bodes poorly for functional democracy. It should be noted that the problems of self-righteous echo chambers—and the appeal of easy slogans over serious policy proposals—are not limited to the right wing of American politics. But it is a pressing problem for the Republican Party, and thus for us all, that a reckless, opportunistic liar has been able to emerge triumphant from this mess.
Thankfully, there is a third, somewhat more manageable possibility—at least in theory.
The Plutocracy Did It
It may be that radical inequality is incompatible with liberal democracy. For nearly two generations now, the rich have gotten fantastically richer while middle- and working-class incomes have stagnated or worse. The factors that contributed to this state of affairs include not only the usual suspects—globalization and technological change (problems for which there are no magical solutions)—but also the erosion of the social norms of the first three decades of postwar capitalism. The trauma of the Depression, the shared national sacrifices of World War II, the still fresh barbarism of interwar fascism, and the hint of chastising philosophical anxiety nested in the Cold War confrontation with communism all tempered the extremes of uninhibited, press-the-workers-until-the-pips-squeak Dickensian capitalism. But the passage of time and less forgiving economic conditions have allowed for the re-emergence of a rapacious “shareholder-value” incarnation of socially indifferent capitalism. This new Gilded Age has empowered the wealthy while leaving others adrift.
From money flows power and influence, and from there the perception and, in many instances, reality that the governing class has become servant to the interests of the wealthy. A crucial turning point was the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession, which was visited upon a still-suffering public by unrepentant bankers—fantastically wealthy gamblers who talk a good free-market game but were only too happy to be shielded from harm by massive government bailouts.
For the record, there was no alternative to saving the financial system; without those emergency measures, we would have had another Great Depression. The mistake was letting the bankers off un-chastened and releasing them back into the wild, a failure for which Democratic and Republican political elites share responsibility. It is likely this episode catalyzed an anything-is-better-than-this backlash against the comfortable guardians of the status quo, a sentiment ripe for exploitation by a power-hungry demagogue with a gift for public theater.
But anything, if it takes the form of Donald Trump, is not better than this. It is worse. Much, much worse. It is also profoundly dangerous and would visit potentially irreversible damage upon a great and exceptional nation (and it is high time that Bernie Sanders’s supporters come to recognize this). If Internet culture threatens to turn us into a fragile, violent fiefdom, egregious concentrations of wealth and a philosophy of no-holds-barred capitalism present the danger of turning us into the world’s most advanced banana republic. These are traps from which it is not easy to escape. We must do everything we can to avoid falling into them in the first place.