A portion of our country also managed to fall deeply in love with Donald Trump — a “reality” TV star who maintains an even more tenuous relationship with reality than did his hero, the much more lovable Ronald Reagan. Trump and Reagan have opposite temperaments — Reagan eternally sunny, Trump ever dark, but both sell similar societal delusions. Trump manages to be truculently wrong on every existential question facing humanity — denying global warming, encouraging pollution, promoting resource depletion, enjoying saber rattling, opposing population and gun control, escalating obscene inequality, and trampling on civil rights protections. He has the demeanor of a circus barker, the integrity of a con man, the temperament of a neighborhood bully, the breathtaking ignorance of an arrogant know-nothing, the political instincts of a führer, and the policies of a tribal nationalist.
All the problems that are inherent in American exceptionalism are now very badly compounded by Trump exceptionalism. Trump doesn’t qualify for a mental disorder, but he does present with one of the world’s best-documented cases of lifelong failure to mature. He is a boy/man who expects everything to go his way and experiences the world as an extension of himself. Other people exist only to do his imperious bidding, admire his great deeds, and gratify his enormous wants. This is perfectly age-appropriate behavior in a young child, but is perfectly inappropriate in a president. Trump fancies himself the nation’s Big Brother, but he is really our neediest Big Baby. Trump is bad, not mad, but we the people are mad for having elected such a terribly flawed person to the most powerful position in the world. His heady rise was surprisingly undeterred by his consistent pattern of boldfaced lying; constant flip-flopping; irresponsible incitement to violence; and self-congratulatory bigotry, racism, and sexism. Blustering, bullying, and bravado play well on reality TV but can be disastrous in real life when you are running a country. No one less qualified to be president has ever won the office. No one so dangerous to our democracy has ever been given its most powerful position.
Trump is an unlikely messenger bearing an unwelcome message about the sanity of our body politic. He has revealed and unleashed a deeper streak of delusional denial in a larger segment of U.S. society than even I would have thought possible. Thomas More’s hope for a utopian America has decayed into a Trumpian dystopia. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” (stolen, appropriately enough, from Ronald Reagan) disguises policies that in fact make America small, fearful, angry, petty, and vicious. Karl Marx once quipped, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” The Trump phenomenon marks what I dearly hope will be a bottom in both American tragedy and farce.
Democracy is a precious, but historically infrequent and perilously fragile method of governance. Athens initiated democratic government, but its brief experiment ended in failure when the people were seduced by demagogues into disastrous decisions. Plato believed democracy to be so unworkable an institution that he banned it from his ideal Republic. When forerunners of Western democracy began emerging four hundred years ago, the philosophers Hobbes and Vico predicted they would inevitably lead to chaos and a return to all-powerful central control. The last three hundred years have proved democracy to be the best of governments when it works well, the worst when bedeviled by divisiveness, disorganization, chaos, and corruption. The world now contains dozens of failed “democracies” in the midst of, or verging toward, civil war, anarchy, and/or totalitarian takeover. There is an old Islamic quotation: “Better one hundred years of the Sultan’s tyranny than one year of people’s tyranny over each other.”
Apart from our own brutal Civil War, U.S. democracy has seemed a charmed bedrock of stability — surviving mass migrations, periodic depressions, and stark economic inequality. But the future holds no guarantees. When, forty years ago, Henry Kissinger began making small talk on first meeting Zhou Enlai, he asked his opinion on the French Revolution. Zhou replied: “too soon to tell.” Likewise, it is too soon to tell whether American democracy can survive Trump’s attack on it. He may be no more than a blowhard and buffoon, but Trump has proven to be no joke. He has embodied and unleashed forces that seriously undermine our democratic principles and institutions. Because of Trump, the Freedom House 2017 ranking of democracy has dropped the United States to the thirtieth in the world and has us trending downward.
Trump markets himself as the law-and-order candidate but has displayed a regal contempt for law whenever it contradicts his interests, impulses, whims, and grudges. He feels entitled to squash critical press, throttle judges who don’t see things his way, force the military to torture in violation of international law, and break treaty obligations. Trump doesn’t understand or respect the delicate balances built into our constitution and feels no compunction whatsoever in distorting them out of all recognition. Trump says or does at least one obnoxiously autocratic thing almost every day, but never has to pay the expected political or personal price. He once bragged, probably accurately: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose my voters.” It is but few steps from this attitude to an attempt at dictatorship.
To believe that our democracy is secure forever requires blindness to the current resurgence of antidemocratic trends in most of the world’s democracies, including our own. Fueled by fear, uncertainty, nationalism, economic distress, xenophobia, and racism, right-wing radical parties and policies are quickly gaining votes, traction, and respectability. The reflexive overresponse to terrorism has been to diminish civil rights and ramp up surveillance. Democracies historically fail when they make incompetent decisions, or suffer from a paralysis of indecision, leading to chaos and hostile takeover by a strongman. Trump’s governance has put on full display not only his own breathtaking bias and ignorance, but also the blatant unpreparedness and incompetence of his sycophantic cabinet cronies, who are all too eager to bow to his worst whims and support his most unsupportable prejudices. Our country already suffers from a widespread distrust in government. The burlesque disorganization of the Trump administration may realize the worst fears of many that democratic government no longer works, creating a vacuum to be filled by someone who can make the trains run on time.
There are precious few institutional obstacles to a complete Trump takeover. The Republican Congress daily abdicates what should be its primary patriotic duty (providing a check on Trump’s autocratic ambitions) and instead cynically chooses to use him as facilitator of its right-wing agenda. Not surprisingly, Trump’s most furious attacks are aimed at the two remaining bastions of American democracy—its free press and its justice-protecting courts. The most frightening of all Trump’s frightening tweets: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Trump sets himself up as defender of the American people as he mounts the charge against their most fundamental freedoms of speech and thought.
Trump’s second-scariest tweet was “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” He was reacting to court decisions questioning the constitutionality of his banning travelers from Muslim countries and, even more important, his claim that the courts have no jurisdiction on his acts because he is protecting the higher value of national security. Trump has handed himself a win-win situation. If the courts decide in his favor, he can use the national security excuse to assume dictatorial powers. If the courts provide a check on his autocratic disrespect for the Constitution, they (not he) are to be blamed for any terrorist act — and he can respond by claiming emergency powers. Let’s hope we never see how the military would respond to such a Big Brother Trump order. It certainly can happen here — we are now vulnerable to the imperial ambitions of an impulsive, rabble-rousing con man who does not feel bound by the checks and balances built into our constitutional limitations.
Trump is our first Demagogue-in-Chief, a man with no respect for American democratic institutions. His administration is considering new legislation that would liberalize libel laws to muzzle the press and change congressional procedures to reduce the checks and balances that protect democracy from becoming tyranny. It is especially scary that Trump never met an autocrat he didn’t like and want to emulate — Putin of Russia, Erdogan of Turkey, el-Sisi of Egypt, Modi of India, Duterte of the Philippines. He supported the anti-Semitic and neo-fascist Marine Le Pen of France and even has kind words to say about Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
Many people fret about Trump’s motivations, psychology, and possible psychiatric diagnosis. I think these are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that much whether Trump is crazy, crazy like a fox, or just an incompetent boob who keeps getting lucky — or some combination of all three. What does matter greatly is stopping him — and stopping him now before it is too late. This is a tipping point, a time of trial for the soul of America—we will protect our democracy from Trump’s frontal assault or we will lose it. My friends teased me that I was crying wolf about the risks of an American brand of fascism when the dark Bush/Cheney team exerted executive power in ominous ways in 2000. Now those friends are as scared as I am. More tellingly, Norman Ornstein, the wisest and most objective political observer in Washington, is also scared. “We don’t have a conventional president. We’re seeing behavior that could lead us right down the path to martial law or authoritarian rule.” We must stand up to Trump or he will trump our democracy.