There is a lot of doomsaying about the rise of Donald Trump, with people declaring this is the end of the republic. Consider Andrew Sullivan’s recent piece in New York magazine, arguing that the nation is ripe for despotism—and Trump will deliver.
But what if this were not the case? What if it were in fact the opposite? What if ‘President Trump’ sparked massive and renewed political energy and interest—protest and newfound vigilance, in contrast to the alarming political apathy on display in much of the electorate today?
This thought occurred to me in a recent conversation with my college students, when considering Tocqueville’s remarks upon the immense political energy and investment of the early Americans. So impressed was Tocqueville that he declared, “almost the only pleasure which an American knows is to take a part in the government, and to discuss its measures.”
This sounds very distant to our ears—not at all like the country we know today. What happened, I asked my students? Where is this political energy, much less interest, today? And why the special indifference in the population that is the future of this democracy, the 18-24 year old demographic? Only 40% of them voted in the 2012 elections; barely 20% in 2014. My students offered a familiar litany of excuses and explanations: politics is uninteresting, uninspiring, and often frustrating; they are turned off by the constant bickering, petulance and nastiness of political exchanges; like many segments of the population, they feel their votes do not matter; above all, they report, they don’t have time. It takes time to be a properly informed voter, but students must balance coursework with second jobs, and young adults toil long hours to pay off college debt and move up the career ladder.
Some admit they are too lazy to make time for political attention. Some are disillusioned, and think ‘why bother?’ Apparently, they have not learned from their parents to prioritize voting—the fruit, perhaps, of 30-plus years of anti-government rhetoric, kicked off by Reagan’s claim that government is the problem, not the solution.
At this point I inform them that voting is but the bare minimum of political involvement, in Thomas Jefferson’s view. A democracy requires so much more, he believed. Jefferson perceived a “mortal danger to the republic” because he feared that “the Constitution had given all power to the citizens without giving them the opportunity of being republicans and of acting as citizens,” philosopher Hannah Arendt tells us. Jefferson wanted us intently active at the local level, in the township, and political power would ripple outward from there to the federal government. Voting without such activity is insufficient; it is too easy for con artists and demagogues to corral votes, effectively buying off citizens with prospects of short-term gain, or altogether false sales. If people are intimately involved in the work of politics, they will gain some understanding of what is truly necessary, what is wanted, and most importantly, what is feasible. Jefferson’s vision is a high bar for democratic citizens—seemingly too high for 18-24 year olds today.
I asked my students—as I always do—what might turn around this political apathy? What might prompt them and their peers to feel differently, and take avid interest in politics? What might cause them to be truly active, as Jefferson sought—and divert time from personal and professional indulgences, in favor of civic duties?
One student rose his hand: he said ‘President Trump.’
This is a surprising proposition, a tantalizing silver lining to what would otherwise be a disastrous development for millions of Americans. Polls indicate it is unlikely Trump would win, and yet, we are reminded, he defied everyone’s predictions in defeating the Republican slate of presidential contenders.
For many, a Trump presidency is unthinkable. The words ‘demagogue,’ ‘fascist,’ and ‘tyrant’ –also ‘racist’ and ‘misogynist’—routinely arise in connection to the candidate. And not without merit. Trump’s policy positions are shockingly empty and prone to change. He surges on a cult of personality, the aura of impetuous strength. Hardly a day goes by without a caustic remark issued by the candidate.
Trump has urged violence on his devotees. He has endorsed policies sure to offend our neighbors and allies around the world. If he follows through on renegotiating the federal debt, Trump will make shock waves on Wall Street and threaten the global economy. He has made a habit of poisoning relationships with politicians on all sides—but especially in his own party—offering a preview of the tumult he would bring to Washington. Trump has embraced torture more forcefully and nakedly than even Dick Cheney, and vowed to assassinate the families of terrorists. Regarding the latter, Andrew Sullivan contends that Trump would make “Cheney’s embrace of the dark side and untrammeled executive power look unambitious.”
Trump is a political controversy machine waiting to happen. It’s hard to imagine a more divisive, disruptive, destructive personality in the White House—with access to nuclear codes, Obama reminds us.
A Trump presidency might be just the thing to shake us from our political malaise, snap us to attention, and energize millions of American voters—reminding us just what is at stake in all these tedious elections. Trump will likely prompt many a march on Washington. Especially if he is inclined to see through some of his most notable promises, such as building a wall with Mexico, deporting eleven million illegal immigrants, or banning Muslims from entering the US. These initiatives would require massive shows of government force and intrusion, sure to rile people; they cannot be done surreptitiously, quietly or delicately. Perhaps a Trump presidency will incite people to take the reins of government where they can, at the local level for example, to beat back the insidious influence of the Trump movement.
At the very least, the ascendancy of a vapid, boorish narcissist like Trump ought to prompt much soul searching in the electorate, and inaugurate a newfound commitment to arrest such embarrassments in the future.
Maybe this is all too hopeful. If Trump rises in the first place, many will say, this indicates there is something very wrong with our democracy; it is gravely ill—can it recover? This depends on our appetite for a fight. For that is surely what democratic action under Trump would require. There will surely be threats of violence, if not from Trump, then from his supporters. It will be ugly. But the most memorable and effective mass movements usually are. Democracy is not pleasant. And perhaps this is the illusion from which our younger generations must be cured. They are turned off by all the empty showmanship on the campaign; they reject the constant fighting between candidates and pundits, sinking into ugliness at times. They say they expect more from our politicians. Many voters will agree; they have been gravely disappointed by the tenor and discourse of this campaign, especially in the way Trump dispatched his opponents, and they swiped back at him—often crudely.
This, too, is democracy. It is not supposed to be pretty. We have been deluded in thinking that it is supposed to be polite, smooth—culminating in harmonious, or resigned, compromise. To be sure, democracy is not supposed to lapse into violence; this is what distinguishes it as such. Democracy emphasizes negotiation, but so long as it is between diverse populations, of different backgrounds, perspectives and social classes, it will necessarily be messy. We cannot expect democratic exchanges to be rational, void of passion and prejudice. Tocqueville noted that the early American democracy was raucous and rough.