I have been writing occasional opinion pieces about Donald Trump since his presidential run began three years ago. Like most commentators, I assumed it to be a vanity candidacy, and saw it as part of a trend in the marginalization of politics as a profession. If moneyed elites ruled government at every level, career politicians would inevitably be seen as hired hacks doing anyone’s bidding but the people’s. Rank amateurs, even ignoramuses, at least had clean hands.
Donald Trump clearly qualified on these latter grounds, even if his hands were hardly clean in his own line of work. But Trump had a basic perception that eluded his sixteen Republican rivals. He understood that the working class base Ronald Reagan had captured in the 1980s had grown terminally alienated, and were ripe for a populist who would affirm their grievances and voice their anger. By the time Trump had won the Republican Party nomination, I thought he had a chance at the presidency, particularly after the Democrats decided to commit electoral suicide by nominating Hillary Clinton as his opponent. Clinton was four to eight more years of a status quo that had already driven anti-establishment insurgencies on both the left and right. She was a deeply unpopular and in some quarters a despised figure. That description, to be sure, also applied to Trump. But his partisans were passionate. Clinton’s were merely resigned. He had, I thought, a puncher’s chance.
Trump had the further advantage of being completely untethered to the party that nominated him. He could thus embrace an agenda—bringing back coal and steel, hiking taxes on the rich, disengaging from empire—completely at variance with the establishment. No one knew what Trump would actually do, least of all himself. But it was a chance enough voters were willing to take to squeak him through the Electoral College, the Founding Fathers’ tripwire against democracy.
I continued to follow Trump through a first year more appalling than anything ever imagined in our national history, and into this second one of further disaster. Indifferent to opinion—his tariff war would most savage his so-called base—he cannot properly be classified as a demagogue. Without any true goal or focused ambition other than daily ego gratification, he isn’t a dictator either. He is best described as a tyrant, a man who rules by whim.
Most of what I write has nothing to do with Donald Trump. My personal interests are far from him in time and place; I am not, except incidentally, a public commentator. I welcome the sanity of this. At the same time, Trump is in a certain sense inescapable. He is certainly omnipresent in a way that no other American political figure has ever been. More importantly, he is the end result of the long degradation of our democracy, and of the democratic ideal in the world at large. We face this crisis—the long defeat of social democracy’s fatally compromised struggle with capitalism and runaway technocracy—at a time when ecological disaster threatens the human future as such. I hoped, when young, to leave the world a better place than I found it; I demanded that it be so. Gradually, I fell back on the hope that it would not become worse too fast. Now, I dread imagining what may await future generations, and what remains of my own.
Trump’s a mere symptom, of course, although the damage he does is all too real. It is easy to dismiss the corruption of our public discourse as the shredding of hypocrisy. Politicians lie, and if you were to define politics as the art of lying—as Machiavelli did for the Italy of his time—you would not be far off the mark. But Machiavelli himself had a vision of republican government in which truth and honor could have their place, even if more in the breach than the observance. The Founding Fathers, for all their flaws, had such a vision too, hedged by laws and institutions. The most optimistic of them were prudently skeptical of their own creation. But truth has never been quite so endangered, at least in America, as it is now: not of dying, but of simply becoming irrelevant, the joker in an ever-changing pack.
We have lost faith in government for another reason too. Insofar as it is not the instrument of elites, it seems increasingly an end in itself, its vast powers of coercion and compulsion concentrated in an essentially unaccountable executive—the imperial presidency, which grows whichever party is in power or policy in favor. This hasn’t happened by accident either, but as a response to the pressures of globalization as well as the regime of universal surveillance made possible by technology and actionable in a commercialized society. It is no accident that Congress fawns over a Mark Zuckerberg, who has perfected privacy as an object of profit. Merely collecting vast databases in search of supposed terrorists seems so, well, unlucrative by comparison. Of course, it does have its uses for thought control and totalitarian manipulation.
Whether we can restore—or create—a meaningful concept of citizenship for our present world is a question. In itself, it will hardly do the trick of addressing the planetary-scale crises we confront. Without it, however, we face a future as administered populations under authoritarian despots, if not worse. If nothing else, Donald Trump has focused the mind powerfully on just what that can mean.