When I teach Comparative Politics I point out that democracies are hard to create, and very difficult to maintain. Without a strong civil society and a culture supportive of democracy, systems fail. A culture of democracy requires people to recognize that disagreement is good and to listen to other opinions. You cannot see opponents as evil, but an ‘essential opposition.’ It needs to be OK to lose an election, respecting the institutions and rule of law as more important than political power.
This current election campaign reflects a democracy in trouble. Many Trump supporters see themselves as part of a movement, with the “left” and “Hitllary” being not just the opponent, but evil. Trump even called the Democrats “devils,” and said Hillary should be in jail. In fact, prosecuting and jailing his opponent is one of his most popular lines.
What’s happening? It started seeming like a joke. Donald Trump running for President? Trump has been around for decades, Bloom County made fun of him in the 80s (famously having Trump’s brain placed in Bill the Cat’s body). He was always the same – a narcissistic con man whose businesses spiraled into bankruptcy while he managed to extricate himself in order to run another con. His last memorable act on the political stage was to claim he had hired an investigator who found “shocking things” proving Obama was born in Kenya.
The latest controversy – Trump saying yet another thing proving he disrespects women and is at heart a narcissistic bully – isn’t especially telling. His response to the uproar is. As always he doubles down, goes on the attack, and shows no remorse.
Back in September before the first debate he was drawing even with Hillary in the polls. He had won over the right wing nationalist crowd, and now to get into the oval office he had one task – keep the Republican party united, and show himself to be Presidential. He had a couple good weeks, taking the media focus off him and allowing negative stories of Hillary to spread.
He knew that debate one would be watched by 100 million people and probably be the biggest event of the campaign. He could have prepared well, determined to show the country a man they could trust as President. If he had pulled that off, this campaign would be in very different territory, and the pussy tape would not have done as much harm.
He couldn’t. He refused to take time to prepare, preferring to hold as many rallies as possible. He was undisciplined, off message and had the worst Presidential debate in history. There have been gaffes and poor performances before, but given the stakes, it was amazing to see Trump so ill prepared.
The next four weeks will be less like a traditional campaign and more like World Wide Wrestling. Trump’s attacks on Bill Clinton are pure ego on his part. When those scandals were fresh they couldn’t stop Bill from elected elected twice as President, and the public didn’t find his accusers especially convincing. To use him against Hillary? There are no new votes in that territory, he’s simply trying to make himself look better by saying, “hey, he’s bad too.”
The election is disturbing because it is what it is. Someone like Trump should not even be close to winning.
Trump is not a real Republican. He’s a con man. Many Americans are fearful about the way the world is changing. The change isn’t Obama’s or Bush’s fault, or Bush’s fault. Globalization and the information revolution are reshaping society and rendering old political and social structures obsolete. People sense that what we have isn’t working; out of fear they look to find someone who can set it right – a strong leader who can “fix things.” In Political Science we call that “Bonapartism” – after Napoleon who rose as such leader in the wake of the French revolution.
It’s also the strategy Adolf Hitler used to grab power in Germany during the Great depression. Not every Bonapartist is a Hitler – I don’t think Trump has a real agenda, he’s just a narcissist – buta threat to democracy, especially when the emotions of the movement push people to see politics as good vs. evil, demonizing the other side. That concern is why so many Republicans are refusing to support Trump.
This brings to the forefront very ugly aspects of American culture – showing the real extent of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that remains hidden as many people self-censor, not wanting to show others their inner hates and fears. By being bombastically open about them, Trump says it’s OK – and the result is a torrent of hateful speech and actions.
It also shows that our democracy, while resilient, isn’t magic. It can fail. If politics remain more reality show than thoughtful process, if we continue to yell more than listen, then our Republic will fray at the edges and be vulnerable when the next crisis comes.
There is no easy way out. We are living in one of the most important and consequential times in history (which is why I started this blog eight years ago). The pace of change will only increase, the pressure on economic, political and social structures will grow. If we can’t find a way to work together to make meaningful reform, the future could be bleak. .
This is not just a bizarre election, it’s an omen – a warning shot. Yes, defeat Trump – I think the American people are up to that. But if we don’t fix the larger problems, it’s just the first act of a democracy in crisis.