For years Republican politicians told us that the People resent government. The voters’ fondest desire, they said, was to loosen the state’s grip on private pocketbooks. Right-wing representatives therefore voted to choke off the flow of revenue in order to starve the beast, curtail state power, and strip away burdensome regulations, thus emancipating the creative genius of the individual.
Then came the candidacy of Donald Trump, and suddenly the state was rehabilitated. It would build a wall to shut out immigrants. It would outsmart wily enemies and with sheer business acumen claw back foolish concessions from trading partners. Growth would soon come roaring back, reversing a decade of stagnation. Hostile elements abroad would be dispatched forthwith, yet at the same time the country would somehow be delivered from unwanted foreign entanglements. All wrongs would quickly be righted. America would be great again.
No need to specify in advance precisely how all these things would be accomplished. Indeed, nothing can be specified in advance, on principle, for in the mind of the willful leader secrecy is essential to the art of the deal. Whether in war, business, or relations between nations, the “element of surprise” is paramount—so much so that the candidate felt the need to repeat the phrase and invoke the ghosts of Generals MacArthur and Patton in all three debates. The adversary, he suggested, must always be kept guessing. Hence language has to be expedient and instrumental. You don’t—you can’t, you mustn’t—say what you mean. You must instead say whatever needs to be said at any given moment to work your will. The will is everything, the words are nothing.
It is for the candidate’s expression of Will that the crowds cheer, not for his words, which are inconsistent, contradictory, meandering, and incoherent. His stage presence is the very embodiment of Will: the upraised chin, the four-square stance, the stony expression, the folded arms.
The candidacy of Donald Trump represents the Triumph of the Will. What distinguished Trump from the other candidates was not the size of his hands but the magnitude of his will. Of the obduracy of his will the Wall was the perfect symbol. Once put in place, it would stand, inviolable and immovable, deflecting the intentions of others, yielding nothing.
In democracy the implacable power of the will is a constant temptation to the sleeping sovereign. The monarch is the physical embodiment of the abstract will. If the Sovereign People fill the void left vacant by the absence of a monarch, it is only natural that they should from time to time experience the royal hubris that tells them they can always have what they want, merely by asserting it.
Over the past year a substantial part of the American electorate has experienced such a sovereign delusion. Trump promised to ban Muslims and Mexicans, deport millions of the undocumented, force billions of foreign traders to their knees, command the economy to recover, and jail his opponent, and tens of thousands of people cheered. Wherever a world beyond our borders or opinions outside our canon troubled their tranquility, the self-designated People embraced the promise to negate the disturbance by sheer force of will. Wherever so-called experts pretended that physical, economic, and social systems might be recalcitrant, the People preferred to shut out the dissonant voices of their reviled antagonist, the Elite, guilty of impudently separating itself from the People by its arrogant claim of knowledge.
In the eyes of Trump voters, nothing could long stand as an obstacle to their will as he articulated it. The impotence of other approaches was obvious. Had not Trump’s opponent been in government for 30 years? Yet unsolved problems remained, even after all that time. How could she now claim to solve them? And his supporters cheered wildly, as if they, too, fully subscribed to the view that the Triumph of the Will requires nothing more than its forceful articulation, as if Clinton’s proximity to power should have endowed her with the capacity to do exactly as she wished, as if the Will, merely by existing, becomes invincible.
In French there is a word for this philosophy of governance: volontarisme, whose meaning is transparent because of its link to la volonté, will. “Voluntarism” exists in English, but its primary meaning has more to do with “volunteering” than with willfulness. Yet the French word is useful, so I will stick with its anglicized form in what follows.
Voluntarism as a philosophy of government is a recurring affliction of democracies, especially democracies as constitutionally hamstrung as ours is, with innumerable checks and balances that are as much the system’s bane as they are its genius. They are particularly baneful in times like these, when the electorate is deeply divided, frustrated by the consequent governmental gridlock, and impatient to escape from discomfiting economic stagnation, demographic change, and deepening inequality.
In such circumstances the People turn sullen and surly and become furious with their representatives. Like adolescents, they believe their Will could be done by placing a monarch on the throne long enough to rid the court of its self-serving courtiers. Deliberation and debate become unnecessary, the People think when they sink into such a funk. Each individual takes his or her own estimate of the central issues to be the general estimate, and the candidate who promises to cut through the Gordian knot and dispose of “the problem” once and for all is the one who wins the voters’ favor.
It was this sullen, petulant, impatient mood that brought us the Trumpian Triumph of the Will. If the echo of the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film about the rise of Hitler calls fascism to mind, it is only as tragedy to farce: This recent reprise of triumphal voluntarism might rather be called the Trumph [sic] of the Will, Triumph minus the I—for despite Trump’s abundant ego, he is too much of a narcissist and a showman to be an evil genius of Hitlerian proportions. And in all likelihood he will lose.
But a large question remains. Will his loss dissipate the voluntarist impulse he embodies? Will the illusion that the state can do whatever it wants if only it can muster sufficient will at the top survive when its current avatar recedes into the void of celebrity from which it sprang? I am by no means sure, because we see similar manifestations of the Triumph of the Will elsewhere in the world.
What was Brexit but a desperate assertion that nothing can stand up to the unfettered expression of the People’s Will? In a way, the voluntarist fantasies of democracy are even more manifest in Europe than in the United States, because the peculiarly divided sovereignty imposed by the European Union creates the impression that if only full sovereignty can somehow be “taken back,” all problems, all external constraints, all impediments to democratic voluntarism will disappear.
“People in this country have had enough of experts,” declared Brexit campaigner Michael Gove prior to Britain’s vote to leave the EU. The experts’ predictions that all might not proceed swimmingly merely because the popular sovereign wished it so failed to persuade a majority. Yet that same majority may now be experiencing victors’ remorse owing to the precipitous fall of the pound, the loss of EU support for research and foreign student tuitions, the growing likelihood of Scottish secession, and the possibility that Britain may have to give ground on the issue of controlling immigration that drove the vote to Leave. Even when the Will is triumphant, its victory may prove to be pyrrhic and short-lived.