News and Views
Op-ed: More popular democracy is the only effective antidote to Trumpism
Much has changed since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States one year ago, much that is except Donald Trump.
When the news of his victory was announced in the early hours of November 9th 2016, many who were fearful of a Trump presidency hoped and prayed that the institution would transform him. Instead the opposite has happened. He has transformed the presidency, using it as a platform to promote a politics of fear, division and hate.
Personally, I never had any illusions that President Trump would become presidential. In the mid-1980s, when I was an undergraduate student at Columbia University in New York, I was vaguely aware of the Manhattan-based Trump as a publicity-seeking narcissist and bumbling but ruthless property tycoon who was perfectly happy to take a wrecking ball to other people’s lives in pursuit of his own profit and fame.
Then, in 1987, Trump published the book that would transform his reputation. The Art of the Deal spent 48 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, 13 at number one, and eventually sold more than a million copies.
Interestingly, the person who actually wrote the book, the journalist Tony Schwartz, subsequently expressed deep remorse for his role in creating the Trump mythology. ‘I put lipstick on a pig,’ he confessed in a New Yorker article in July 2016. Chillingly, he added that if he were writing the book in 2016 he would have titled it ‘The Sociopath’.
Having read Schwartz’s New Yorker article, and well aware at that point of Trump’s dangerous proclivities, I felt a moral obligation to speak out. I did so in an article published on October 1st 2016, in which I warned that the forces of reaction unleashed by the Trump campaign, what I called an ‘anti-politics’ of fear and hatred rooted in a contemporary ‘crisis of democracy’, would likely move from the margins to the mainstream.
Sadly, this prediction has come true. Under the tutelage of his combative former advisor Stephen Bannon, accurately described by a senior Republican strategist as a representative of ‘the racist, fascist extreme right’, Trump soon revealed the white supremacist and kleptomaniac claws hidden beneath his populist sheep’s clothing. Whereas candidate Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington and end the influence of big corporate money in politics, President Trump moved quickly to assemble a cabinet composed of plutocrats and far right white ethno-nationalists.
Over the past year we have seen a U.S. president who has completely abdicated his unifying head of state role, who rarely even pretends to govern on behalf of all the people, and who instead has acted as president of, by, and for his angry white conservative political base. This is evident in his economic policies and pronouncements, which are aimed at dismantling social protections, drastically re-distributing wealth from the lower and middle classes to the very wealthiest, transforming government into a business managed by corrupt plutocrats, and eviscerating environmental regulations. It is abundantly clear in his social pronouncements and policies, including demonising Muslims and Mexicans, demeaning women and mocking the disabled, announcing a ban on transgender people serving in the military, constructing a new fortress America, dismissing all proposals for meaningful gun control legislation in the wake of multiple mass shootings, repeatedly playing the race card, and engaging in what he has characterised as a ‘war’ on certain segments of the media while exhibiting a flagrant disregard for truth and fact.
It is apparent in his divisive political policies, especially those aimed at voter suppression and a crackdown on dissent. And in the areas of foreign policy and defence he has laid waste to the American diplomatic apparatus, drained the Treasury to support an enormous peacetime increase in the military budget, expanded the national security state, and engaged in war mongering and nuclear brinkmanship from Iran to North Korea.
Trump’s complete and total abdication of the role of head of state was perhaps nowhere more evident than in his ugly and morally vacuous response to events in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he equated those courageously resisting fascist violence with its neo-Nazi and white supremacist perpetrators. Ironically, as commentators at the time pointed out, Donald Trump the neo-Nazi sympathiser achieved what Donald Trump the president has singularly failed to do: unite the nation.
And yet, in spite of all the pain and damage caused by the Trump presidency, some of his most trenchant critics still fail to understand the complex and as yet unresolved reasons why he was elected in the first place. If one is to believe Hilary Clinton, for example, she would have won the election but for Russian meddling, interference by former FBI Director James Comey, and the Bernie Sanders campaign. Other liberal critics continue to decry the ‘stupidity’ of the American electorate and Trump’s populist ‘dumbing down’ of the presidency, and call instead for a return to elite-led liberal democracy.
I maintain, to the contrary, that the only effective antidote to Trump’s demagoguery and the politics of fear and division it has unleashed is not less popular democracy but more. Elite-led liberal democracy gave us Trump, Brexit, obscene levels of wealth inequality, the global refugee crisis and a global crisis of democracy. If we want to avoid more of the same, then we need to think seriously about progressive alternatives to politics as usual.
Importantly, this is precisely the message of resurgent grassroots democratic social movements in the United States that continue to challenge both the Trump administration and the corporatist Democratic Party establishment. From the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration to widespread protests at airports over the Muslim travel ban, the Tax March, marches for science and on behalf of the Paris Climate Accord, protests against cuts to healthcare coverage, refugee solidarity actions, the Black Lives Matter movement, indigenous people’s campaigns, and anti-fascist coalitions uniting anarchists, democratic socialists, feminists, LGBT campaigners and many others, Americans are taking to the streets in record numbers and beginning to demand a democratic revolution that would transform American politics and society and make its institutions once again responsive to the people.
Perhaps even more importantly, these very diverse campaigns exhibit a common characteristic that is the very antithesis of Trumpism. The same shared value is deeply rooted in Irish history, and as the recent marriage referendum proved, it lives on despite decades of economic greed and political corruption. Ironically, if we survive the Trump presidency, the spirit of democratic solidarity it has engendered may well be its most lasting legacy.
Laurence Davis is College Lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at UCC, where he specialises in the area of US politics.