Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who achieved fame in the early 19th century with his portrait of democracy in America, thought that democratic societies were transparent places whose citizens clearly understood one another. “In America, where privileges of birth never existed, and where wealth confers no particular rights on those who possess it, people who do not know one another easily frequent the same places. … Their approach is therefore natural, frank, and open.”
Tocqueville would therefore be stunned by the sight of America in 2016. Indeed, any presidential election year is likely to reveal that Americans do not know one another nearly as well as they, like their French visitor, often assume. Democratic societies are by no means transparent. For all sorts of reasons, people remain oblivious of the deep feelings of vast numbers of their fellow citizens until some event forces them to confront reality. Whites were stunned when the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial revealed that many African Americans believed Simpson had been framed by racist police. Democrats opposed to the war in Iraq were surprised when the 2004 election campaign revealed that a majority of America still supported President George W. Bush despite the disastrous consequences of his policies.
Now in this election year 2016, Americans complacent in the belief that this country is immune to the social pathologies that tore Europe apart in the last century have been taken aback by the behavior of Donald J. Trump’s enthusiastic supporters: When urged by Trump to raise their right hands in a pledge of support, they did not hesitate to give what looked like a fascist salute; they have cheered the candidates calls for waterboarding and “even worse” forms of torture; they have applauded their champion’s blunderbuss attacks on Mexican and Muslim immigrants; and they have beaten protesters at Trump rallies.
Yet many commentators argue that these manifestations of hostile passions are misleading, a kind of Trump-l’oeil, as it were, and that what really is driving the Trump phenomenon is a very rational and reasonable set of economic grievances. George Friedman, president of the national security analysis consultancy Stratfor, argues that it is “the simultaneous economic disaster and deligitimation of [the] values” of the lower middle class, due largely to the decimation of manufacturing industries by globalization, that has triggered an angry backlash.
Thomas Frank contends that because “Trump appears to be a racist,” pundits are too quick to assume that “racism must be what motivates his followers,” whereas the issue that really agitates both the candidate and his supporters are “destructive free-trade deals.” A trio of comparative politics scholars notes that Trump is actually “riding waves of socioeconomic and cultural change that have swept over many nations” and that the United States is but one of many countries that have witnessed the emergence of “a reaction against globalization” with the same characteristic mix of economic grievances and racist trappings that Trump exemplifies. These same scholars also observe that these right-wing populist movements tend to draw support disproportionately “from people with lower levels of education.”
So the Trump candidacy has revealed both an ugly emotional undercurrent of hate-filled, incipiently violent rage and a serious but rationally explicable class cleavage between those whose livelihoods remain largely unaffected by globalization and those whose whole way of life is threatened by the disappearance of the industries that formerly sustained it. But it has also revealed something else, something less familiar than these two lines of analysis—the one economic, the other sociocultural—suggest. The third dimension of the Trump phenomenon is political: It is anti-democratic.
This may seem a surprising assertion, given that Trump has emerged from one of the more directly democratic rituals in the entire American political system and expresses the grievances of an identifiable segment of the electorate. What could be more democratic than the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primaries? These are places, after all, where candidates spend long months speaking directly to ordinary voters in small gatherings. They short-circuit the alienating packaging and poll-driven marketing typical of the era of televised politics. Voters in the early primary states look candidates in the eye and exchange views in town-hall meetings not unlike those that Tocqueville so admired for the way they encouraged active citizen participation, for him the sine qua non of liberal democracy based on “natural, frank, and open” exchanges among free and equal citizens.
Yet the reason that Tocqueville placed such high value on natural, frank, and open exchanges was that he believed they were necessary to instill respect for minority opinions. Without such respect, tyranny threatens. But Trump has perverted the Tocquevillean ideal of naturalness, frankness, and openness. For him, “natural” means bluff and uncensored. He simulates frankness by demonstrating blunt disrespect for anyone who disagrees with him. People who do not see things his way are “weak,” “losers,” “pathetic,” and “small.” He intimates (“You’ll see!”) that swift retribution awaits any person, leader, or country that resists his will. If his knowledge of any area of policy is questioned, he quickly dismisses the issue of competence by saying that he will hire only “the best people” to advise him, as if his want of personal judgment could be compensated by the marketplace.
Some observers have argued that Trump exemplifies the authoritarian personality, who answers his supporters’ craving “for order and a fear of outsiders,” but that is not the right way to think about Trump. He is not an authoritarian but a celebrity.
The French historian Antoine Lilti has described “the invention of celebrity” in the late 18th century. For Lilti, celebrity is a phenomenon of fusion. The relationship of admirer to celebrity is a mediated one, but in the mind of the admirer the mediation disappears: She becomes one with the object of her devotion, his desires becomes hers, his fulfilments as well. What he detests or fears, she detests or fears. One sees this urge to identify, to erase critical distance, in this video of a group of young women being shown around Trump’s penthouse. One sees it in his assumption that the things (and women) he collects are what everyone else covets as well. One sees it in his followers’ belief that no opposition will be capable of resisting him, because he has mastered “the art of the deal.”
“The deal,” ultimately, is the trumpenproletariat’s answer to the potential for paralysis that the Founding Fathers built into the American Constitution to allay their fears of faction and tyranny. To prevent a faction or a tyrant from seizing power, they installed checks and balances into our system of government and sought to ensure that no individual or group would likely be able to control every possible veto point. But in recent years this veto-ridden system has shuddered to a halt. Immobilized, the great engine of government has failed to respond to the needs of many groups of citizens, not just those who see their salvation in Trump.
With celebrity and the illusion of omnipotent wish-fulfilment it bestows, Trump now promises to slice through this Gordian knot. He has made a career of portraying himself as a man who gets things done, who builds buildings, beds women, pummels opponents, hires and fires apprentices. His followers want things done and, having identified with his self-presentation to the point of fusion, they have convinced themselves that with him their wishes, no matter how contradictory, will all be fulfilled. They mistake their man’s celebrity for the kind of power and mastery needed to unfreeze the system. And why shouldn’t they? As Thomas Hobbes put it, “Reputation of power is power.” Thanks to his reputation of power, Trump’s ignorance of government, of foreign policy, of economics counts in his favor, because as Hobbes also said, knowledge “is small power,” since the truths it contains are evident only to “such as in a good measure have attained it.” Ignorance cloaked in celebrity appeals to the many, while knowledge, with its frustrating acknowledgment of difficulty and of incompatible goods, does not please crowds.
Trump’s celebrity is thus the ultimate Trump-l’oeil. It deceives his followers into thinking that if they elect him, opposition both political and material will simply melt away. Citizens and hero will simultaneously occupy both the White House and the penthouse and squeal with joy at the commanding view. Losers will give way to winners, the weak will succumb to the strong, and everything will be as “beautiful” as the megalomaniacal Trump-tower lair when all the lilies have been gilded with the Midas touch of Donald J. Trump.