Voting Donald Trump out of office was crucial, but it will not be enough to save the American experiment.
Many critics have used the words “authoritarian” or “fascist” to describe the president’s mode of politics, as if he were an invader from outside our democratic way of life. In fact, Mr. Trump is a creature native to our own style of government and therefore much more difficult to protect ourselves against: He is a demagogue, a popular leader who feeds on the hatred of elites that grows naturally in democratic soil. We have almost forgotten how common such creatures are in democracies because we have relied on a technology designed to restrain them: the Constitution. It has worked by setting up rules for us to follow, but also on a deeper level by shaping our sense of what we are proud of and what we are ashamed of in our common life. Today this constitutional culture has all but collapsed, and with it, our protection against demagogues.
For most of the history of Western political thought, writers focused on demagoguery only in the context of arguing that democracy was a poor form of government. Aristocratic critics such as Thucydides and Plato blamed popular leaders for dismissing experts, exploiting the poor and soaking the rich, sparking factional violence, and starting foreign wars to distract the populace from their tyrannical tendencies. Since these writers thought it obvious that democracies were natural breeding grounds for demagogues, their strategy for eliminating demagoguery was to support alternatives to democratic government: If you don’t like wolves, don’t create a wolf habitat.
The framers of our Constitution were not satisfied with that anti-democratic view, but they were persuaded that a democracy would not work well unless it found ways to defang demagogues. They thought of their constitution-making as an experiment to see whether they could “refine and enlarge” the democratic will, in Madison’s words, civilizing the inevitable conflict between popular leaders and elites and channeling it into a sustainable form of politics. Right now, the experiment is not succeeding.
The language Mr. Trump uses, his willingness to insult, his refusal to follow the standard conventions of polite society or decency — his crudeness — is not a superficial sideshow. It is his defining trait, both a rebuke of Madison’s experiment and a giveaway that he is a demagogue.
Look for the common thread in his otherwise unconnected actions: Associating ordinary immigrants with rapists and murderers was not necessary to demonstrate a commitment to lowering crime or saving American jobs; it was a way of showing he would say what others would not. Tearing a mask off on the White House balcony did not help the economy; it was a declaration of independence from the rule of experts. Trolling the media on whether to accept the results of the election; refusing to offer, on a journalist’s command, the requisite statement opposing white nationalists; and declining to apologize as if backing down would compromise his principles — these are positions whose substance should not be ignored, and I find them morally appalling — but we understand the fundamental political dynamic better when we focus less on their content and more on their motivation: He is determined to show that he will not be shamed.
To allow oneself to be shamed is to admit that you are subject to and ruled by society’s arbiters of what is acceptable. Demagogues, as a rule, insist that they will not be so ruled; that is part of their democratic appeal. Shame is a constraint, and so is an affront to freedom. Shame condemns from a moral high ground, and so is an affront to equality. The demagogue follows these impoverished understandings of freedom and equality and concludes that conventions and laws are for suckers. Part of his pernicious influence is to persuade even his opponents that moral and constitutional scruples are forms of weakness.
The demagogue’s own weakness lies in the fact that most people, even most of his supporters, tend to live by the conventions that he disdains. He needs their support and craves their adoration, making him dependent on people he holds in contempt — in this case, on evangelicals and suburban women. In both his shamelessness and the political dilemma it creates for him we can see how well this president fits into the classic demagogic type.
Historians and political theorists differ about how and when we abandoned the constitutional culture condemning demagoguery. Some blame Newt Gingrich’s strategic decision to have congressional candidates campaign against the very institution they aimed to join, while others point to the McGovern-Fraser Commission’s democratization of party primaries after the 1968 Democratic convention. Some claim that well-meaning efforts at governmental transparency have allowed lobbyists, campaigns and advertising-hungry media to ruin the prospect of real deliberation in congressional committees, while others look further back, blaming Woodrow Wilson for arguing that the Constitution had to evolve to allow stronger presidential leadership. Or did the societal disgust for demagoguery last through all of that, only to be finally dissolved by our rush into the pandering algorithms of social media and the tribalism of Twitter?
Whichever story we tell about the past, the work in front of us remains. We could start by repairing the parts of the constitutional structure that were supposed to insulate our leaders from the temptation to be demagogues and give them incentives to take responsibility for long-term results. The constitutional framers hoped that distributing power among the states, channeling political ambition toward offices with clearly circumscribed but overlapping powers, keeping the Senate small and senators’ terms long, and filtering presidential elections through state legislatures would all help contain demagogues.
It is a national embarrassment that these anti-demagogic parts of our constitution were sullied by their use to defend slavery and Jim Crow. In acknowledging that historical fact, however, we can’t let ourselves off the hook for dealing with the general problem they were meant to address. Any serious constitutional reform would consider not only which party benefits from these institutions, but also how best to balance responsiveness and responsibility. Political parties and the media regulatory environment need reform too — but in devising strategies we should be thinking not only about openness but also about how to create the conditions in which we, the people, are most likely to resist demagogic appeals and make our own best judgments.
The college-educated elite and well-meaning technocrats may say that expert rule is the only alternative to demagogues, but they are wrong. When we allow them to rule, we fuel popular frustration and drive people into the arms of demagogues in reaction. The real alternative is to strengthen our ability to govern ourselves well by supporting the kinds of schools and jobs that train us in the habits of citizenship, by creating the background conditions in which we can solve more problems in our families and communities, and by reforming electoral systems and legislative procedures to strengthen the incentives for politicians to move beyond demagoguery. Too many of us are guilty of prioritizing immediate policy outcomes over the work of maintaining a system of self-government that will bring out the best in us over the long term.
These sorts of reforms will only work, however, if they help us find our way out of a demagogic society and into a constitutional culture in which leaders feel ashamed for not helping us “refine and enlarge” our political passions. Plato wrote that demagogues were like the makers of pastries who give us what we crave in the moment but not what will make us healthy. Do we now allow the modern equivalent of pastry chefs to dominate our society? Literally, yes: We subsidize corn syrup and pay the price in health care. Figuratively, yes: We refuse to regulate social media even as it titrates dopamine in a way designed to distract us from serious projects into one click after another. Economically, yes: We rely on ever-growing consumer demand, confusing freedom with the ability to increase the size and intensity of our desires in a way that ensures we are never satisfied. We cultivate in ourselves impatience, impertinence and insatiability — the very qualities of a demagogue.
Allowing our desires to grow always larger is like spending our lives trying to fill a sieve, or welcoming a lifetime of itchiness so that we can always have the satisfaction of scratching ourselves again. These are Plato’s analogies from thousands of years ago, meant to make us feel ashamed for not aiming at something higher.
Once the election is over, shame may be a more constructive emotion than anger. Anger will continue to set us against one another in cycles of blame and vengeance, but shame could bring us together into an effort at self-correction. If the intensified demagoguery we have seen lately comes about partly from our own mismanagement of our constitutional democracy, then a solution will require a hard look in the mirror. The demagogues themselves will not do this, but demagogues can be managed through their dependence on us. Will we become ashamed at having allowed ourselves to be so caught up in scratching our own itches that we let a critical mass of our fellow citizens think a vulgar charlatan was their last, best hope? Could it be that we’ve had the leader we deserved? We should aim to deserve better. The first step toward self-government is to recognize that the challenges do not all, or even mainly, come from fascistic authoritarians foreign to democracy but from ourselves and our way of life.
Bryan Garsten is professor of political science and the humanities and chair of the Humanities Program at Yale University. He is the author of “Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment.”
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