I don’t talk about national politics much on here. This is partly a reflection of my political priorities, as I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog before: if people spent half the time they do moaning about national politics on building up their own communities, they could make a much bigger difference than people in Washington ever could. This is also partly a calculation to avoid having my other work judged by any simple conclusions people might pull from my complicated thoughts on these matters. I think it is sad how much some people judge the character of others in completely unrelated arenas of life based on their political views, but it is what it is, and I try to avoid it.
We’ve now reached the point where I am compelled to write about Donald Trump. His candidacy has been an absurdity from the start, and at first I hoped not to write about it so as to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of making his antics the center of political attention. No one has done more for Trump’s candidacy than the media figures who blow up his every single stunt while the candidates who play by the same old norms got lost in the shuffle. The outrage machine that is American political commentary created a perfect storm, and Trump has negotiated it masterfully. His maneuvers are some of the cleverest in the history of American politics, and now we must talk about him.
There are plenty of causes for his rise. There is a party that has stoked the anxieties of the voters who gave them their Reagan Revolution without ever giving them much of anything in return. With some, it clearly does tap into latent racial or ethnic animus, all still very much alive in American politics. On the left, we can blame a conscious move to largely write off the white working class, and the dismissal of a swath of the country as “clingers” to guns and religion whose share of the electorate will grow smaller and smaller over time. The cluelessness and lack of concern among liberals can be a sight to behold. We have a country that has gradually sorted into more and more rigidly defined society, with everyone separated by place and education and any number of other factors. The façade of a unified (white) middle class is falling away, and jilted, the people at the bottom are realizing they have no reason to buy in to a system that has left them behind. All of that in a time of ascendant mass democracy, when anyone’s opinion can get blasted about the internet and cause a reaction, makes the situation ripe. Along with the sensationalistic culture, though, I’d add a politics of protest. Alasdair MacIntyre:
[P]rotest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility…the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises…the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.
Trump is a protest candidate who will never be able to enact most of his proposed policies, to the extent that he has any. Even a fair number of his supporters understand that; they simply want to make it clear that they’re fed up with the status quo, and want to stick it to the “establishment.” It’s cathartic, I’m sure, and I’m jaded enough by Washington that I certainly appreciate the instinct to watch it all burn. But the unknown of what would follow should worry anyone, and when we stop to mull what pent-up forces the ensuing chaos might turn loose. Thousands of years of history suggest the track record is not very good for anyone who’d like to see a peaceful change. Democracy does a good job of funneling human emotion into respectable debate, but it’s all still there simmering beneath, and given the proper catalysts, there’s no reason the whole enterprise can’t collapse.
The protests on the left to Trump’s candidacy seem to affirm this whole dynamic. The clashes between the Trumpistas and the shut-it-down Chicagoans only seemed to empower Trump, and push his votes over the 40 percent threshold he’d previously failed to clear. The other secret to Trump’s success: the extent to which people go to trash him or shut him down creates a counter-reaction. This gets to the core of my gripe with left-leaning current of protest since it began occupying things a few years ago: these activists are speaking a language that only they understand. I’m well-aware this is an attempt to escape the narratives of power and forge one anew, but when one can only speak one language and the other “side” is not versed in it, the result is incoherence, and no one should be surprised when it only alienates people further. Questioning power is a necessary exercise, but when it simply aims to prop up an alternative form of power, we’re left with a power struggle in which all morals and sense of common humanity are liable to go out the window. I fear many people take the stability of the American system for granted, and for all its inequities and gross failures, we are all still incredibly lucky.
One thing is clear enough, from the words of MacIntyre and this well-written takedown of the “Trumpenproletariat” by Adam Garfinkle: this is not a rational campaign. It is its antithesis. It is an emotional volcano, a reach into the depths that taps into the dark side of daemonic passion and lets it explode outward. It’s exhilarating for those it has empowered, and given a chance at greatness: they haven’t had this sort of voice in politics in decades, if ever. This is the double-edged sword of belief and ambition, of the power of collective action toward some sort of final ideal. Trump exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s still an integral part of the human psyche, and trying to cut it off will prove as successful as trying to recreate the 1950s. Instead, American politics must learn to channel it toward genuine outcomes that reduce the alienation, or, if all else fails, to shut it down in the defense of a stable state.
The Democratic Party is hardly immune to these broader trends, though it is a few years behind in the cycle. The Democrats, too, may be approaching their reckoning, as Hillary Clinton is probably the end of the line for Third Way Clintonite liberalism, in one way or the other. We see looming hints of rebellion in the far left, and though that movement has yet to manifest itself in a political figure of its own. (Instead, it settled for a grumpy old socialist from Vermont, whose staying power despite some misgivings from the people of color who make up an increasing share of the party base shows what power he has.) It may never manage to coalesce into an electoral movement; never underestimate the radical left’s ability to implode in internecine warfare. But even if it doesn’t, a revolt against the establishment could yet lead to lasting damage. Either the party’s hold on the presidency will renew itself—and it has a chance to do so, perhaps through Clinton’s Vice Presidential pick—or it will come to an end. The Democrats’ bench at the moment is not especially deep.
I’m not a declinist; I think it’s always been a delicate balance to maintain an open and fair democracy, and have some faith that there are still enough checks on presidential power to keep this from getting too ugly. As long as there is no violence, this whole fiasco could use some levity. This does have the chance to be a wildly entertaining election cycle, as our caricature of silver spoon entitlement and crass nouveau riche lifestyle rides into battle on behalf of the downtrodden masses. As much of the rest of the world can tell us, sometimes we just have to shake our heads and get on with our lives as best we can.
Sooner or later, however, we are going to need a politics at some level that resists protest, Manicheanism, and spectacle for its own sake, or it will all stall into lethargy. I’m about as politically aware as people come, yet I didn’t even attend an Minnesota caucus this year, since I was so ambivalent about the options before me. I may feel the need to speak up in the coming months, and I’m willing to spend some effort battling to defend a stable state. But it’s good to have an escape plan, and the woods of northern Minnesota are looking more and more like a pretty good place to be for the next four years.