Andrew Sullivan, writing in the current issue of New York Magazine, calls the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency “an extinction-level event,” the life-form under threat being American democracy. That’s a pretty severe threat level for a species that’s been around, for better or worse, for more than two and a quarter centuries, and which has been the model for every other democracy on the planet. It’s a question that deserves to be considered, because the idea of a Trump presidency is in fact gaining credibility, and even respectability, by the day.
How did Trump get this far, as the only major party candidate other than Wendell Wilkie to have been neither a professional politician nor a military hero? Wilkie, of course, ran as the liberal Republican alternative to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. He waged a sporting campaign, and supported Roosevelt’s war effort before and after Pearl Harbor. In short, he was, by his lights, a gentleman and a patriot. No one would accuse Trump of being a gentleman, and if by a patriot you mean someone with a decent respect for his fellow countrymen, their traditions, and the Constitution, you don’t mean the Donald either.
Of course, we’ve had racists, demagogues, and crackpots run for president, and draw votes, too: Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, Ross Perot in 1992. None of them have ever made it to the top of a Republican or Democratic ticket before though: and Trump is more than a little of all three. We’ve also had, in recent years, a remarkable dumbing-down of our candidates for public office. Remember Sarah Palin, now a Trump enthusiast? And how about Ben Carson on a presidential debating stage, with his quaint theories about who built the Pyramids? One good reason for the ascent of Trump was the quality of the hucksters opposing him. When it came down in the end to Ted (“Lucifer in the Flesh”) Cruz—the most hated man in the Senate against the most hated casino operator in Atlantic City—the blackjack table won after all. And, as for the Democrats, after a due canvass of the available talent, whom do they come up with but the most viscerally despised woman in American politics?
We are getting Trump, in short, in good part because of the level of the competition.
Some of this has to do with the leveling, Reality TV quality of our political culture. It’s been several decades now since we started electing show people to high office, notably Ronald Reagan. Trump, when he flies in for a rally, lands his plane to the theme of Air Force One, the film where Harrison Ford plays the president. And what got Hillary the only juice of her campaign was sitting down to dinner with George Clooney.
It’s always been the fashion to laugh at politicians, and that is generally a good thing, particularly in a democracy. It’s the only profession, in fact, whose participants sit down annually to laugh at themselves. But the thralldom of both major parties to Wall Street, and the new Gilded Age they have abetted and enabled, is no laughing matter. In Italy some years ago, a prostitute was elected to the national assembly. If you ask most people, Congress consists of nothing but prostitutes. It would be a difficult thesis to disprove.
The result of this perception is that most politicians campaign now as anti-politicians, or, to use the term of art, outsiders. They don’t fool anyone, and they haven’t since Richard Nixon told the country that he wasn’t a crook, but what choice do you have when your approval rating hovers around 10%? Tax collectors aren’t loved. Nor are Robo-callers who interrupt you at dinner. But no one is more genuinely and heartfully despised than a politician.
That, too, explains Trump. He’s sniffed around politicians for a long time, but he clearly isn’t one of them. He says whatever comes into his head whenever it strikes him to. He changes his tune from day to day on every subject under the sun, and gets credit for candor. He publicly admires people we’ve officially labeled tyrants, such as Vladimir Putin, and wins votes when he does it. Putin, after all, doesn’t have to worry about his legislature. What Trump is telling us is that he doesn’t intend to worry about his, either. Try, if you like, to imagine a Ted Cruz shutting down the government on a President Trump. There’d be martial law, and a padlock on the Capitol Building.
The country is ready for Trump because, one way or another, he promises to get things done. Just what things they are no one can be quite sure, but they’d be interesting, and most people think they’d be a little different. We know that as of now nothing at all gets done except at the behest of the plutocratic elite we’ve taken to calling, with fair statistical accuracy, the 1%. Why should things be any different under Trump, a certified member of that class? Because the Donald is always different, from day to day. And one of these days might—who can tell?—just be your day for a change.
Whereas the only day Barack Obama ever offers you is a Monday. And Hillary Clinton promises more of the same. She’d keep her word, too.
Barack Obama’s presidency has been a study. Politicians lie, but he is the only one whose compass is true south: whatever he says, you know he means the opposite. When he says we’re going to get a handle on climate control, you know he’s about to announce oil drilling in the Atlantic, or the Arctic, or the lunar Sea of Tranquillity. When he says we’re going to get out of a country we’ve been bombing for a decade, you know we’re loading the next rack. When he says we’ve got to be humane in our treatment of undocumented workers, you know we’re about to ship some more children back to hell.
Trump is refreshing because what he says is so outrageous that you know he can’t mean it in the first place—or can you? In a political world that consists of nothing but slickly packaged lies, the unpredictable will at least keep you tuned on the Leader. Which is, come to think of it, the very definition of tyranny: a world without certainty because it is a world without rules.
So, would a Donald Trump presidency qualify as an extinction-level event for our democracy? It would likely be a constitutional crisis from Day One. What else, though, have we got on our hands already? Mr. Sullivan thinks that what he calls “late democracy” is characterized by the retreat of educated elites, the vulgarization of politics as entertainment, and bizarre demands for egalitarianism in all walks of life regardless of effort or achievement. All of these things, it is true, have occurred, but what lies behind them is an age of radical inegalitarianism, the looming destruction of work, and the rise of a technofascism that, worshipped in the educational curriculum as STEM, has hollowed out citizenship and left a culturally illiterate population at the mercy of giant corporations and their political servants. At least, in Donald Trump, we can see the face of the beast, and in his very crudity and vulgarity the reassuring sign of some humanity, however debased.
Sullivan ends his essay by calling for the good old Republican establishment to turn its back on Trump, find another candidate, and save its soul even at the cost of an election. Too late. The Republicans, after a brief start of horror at finding Trump their nominee, have climbed on his bandwagon, and the Republican electorate has followed suit. That’s because he has provided the Party bosses assurance lately that he will give them their jollies, starting with a Supreme Court reactionary to replace Antonin Scalia, and because they smell in him not a disaster but a winner.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, looks more and more like a loser. She has nothing to offer but more of Obama, which is what got us Trump in the first place. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party establishment is absolutely determined to reject the one candidate who consistently outpolls Trump. But the Democrats have been losers for a long time now.