Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Andrew Sullivan Takes on Trump the Demagogue

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Ross Douthat starts the conversation
Ross Douthat's recent blog entry commented on a piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine about Donald Trump. Douthat's piece was interesting; Sullivan's article essential. 




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Andrew Sullivan: a medium for Plato
Sullivan, for those not acquainted with him, is an emigre from the UK to the US who's been in the thick of American political discourse since the early 1980s. He served a stint as editor of The New Republic, and he became a prolific blogger at The Atlantic, The Dish, and then on his own website, until he decided to hang it up 2015. He considers himself a conservative, but he supported Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012, and he was an early and influential supporter of gay marriage from a time when it seemed unthinkable. Among other attributes, Sullivan is gay, Roman Catholic, a Harvard Ph.D. in government, and a student of Michael Oakeshott, the mid-20th-century British philosopher. Sullivan has been known to change is mind about some subjects, such as the Iraq War and Republicans for president. Having recently joined the staff of New York Magazine, he has written perhaps the most singularly impressive article on Trump and Trump's movement that I've come across. While I'll provide some excerpts and commentary below, I urge you to read it in full (here). 


Shall I compare thee to . . . ? Hmm, could be, doc. I see some likeness.
The place to start is Sullivan's conclusion: 


For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.
But while I start my consideration of Sullivan at the end, Sullivan starts his analysis at the beginning--with Plato. Plato experienced the Greek democratic polis and as a result of his acquaintance with democracy, he wrote The Republic, which includes a scorching critique of democracy. Sullivan summarizes and quotes Plato's portrait of a demagogue: 


He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Does this remind you of anyone? Sullivan echoes Plato's complaint that democracy can develop--tends to develop--an inordinate trend toward equality that jettisons authority and leaves elites bereft of power. (I think that Sullivan could have mined the Federalist Papers for similar insights, but he notes that they'd read their Plato, so I quibble.) 

Sullivan recognizes that elites can abuse their power, and he accuses American elites of having done so. He writes: 


An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.
While I think that Sullivan overestimates the importance of "massive and increasing public debt" (Obama has reduced it significantly and of itself it's not a pressing economic issue), his underlying point remains valid: American elites have let down a segment of the population; in particular, white, working class males. Sullivan and I realize that for many, sympathy with white males in our society hardly seems warranted, but for a significant segment of them, it is. Sullivan does an excellent job of discussing what's happening to this group--the core of the Trump constituency--and how they have arrived at a place where Trump's demagoguery became attractive to them. 

Sullivan draws on the work of Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here and Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951) to reveal the psychology and motivations behind mass movements. These references work to great effect. Sullivan also contends that Trump's movement has "fascist elements" but doesn't qualify as true fascism, at least yet. I agree with his assessment. Trump, at least for now, is more Berlusconi than Mussolini, but we can't be complacent. I appreciate Sullivan's careful parsing of terms such as "fascism" because such parsing is essential to meaningful analysis and dialogue. 

Yet, Sullivan also knows how to craft an insightful observation:


Tyrants, like mob bosses, know the value of a smile: Precisely because of the fear he’s already generated, you desperately want to believe in his new warmth. It’s part of the good-cop-bad-cop routine that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
It's Putinism more than fascism or Berlusconi-like antics that I fear from Trump. 


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Putin & Berlusconi: Trump role models? 


Finally, I can't resist this insight from Plato that Sullivan channels: 


[L]ike all tyrants, he [Trump] is utterly lacking in self-control. Sleeping a handful of hours a night, impulsively tweeting in the early hours, improvising madly on subjects he knows nothing about, Trump rants and raves as he surfs an entirely reactive media landscape. Once again, Plato had his temperament down: A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life ... is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.” Sound familiar? Trump is as mercurial and as unpredictable and as emotional as the daily Twitter stream. And we are contemplating giving him access to the nuclear codes.
Sullivan has written an exceptionally perceptive and persuasive piece, and I join him in urging everyone concerned with the well-being of our Republic to take heed of his warning. This is no longer an issue of party victory or a time to gloat over the collapse of any semblance of respectability in the GOP. It's more serious than that. Much more serious.