Let’s cut to the chase: Is the possibility of a President Donald J. Trump really an “extinction-level event” to all that is good and decent about “liberal democracy and constitutional order,” as Andrew Sullivan claims in his widely read debut at New York Magazine? Not even remotely.
Indeed, if anything, the chaos Trump has rained down on the 2016 election may well accelerate the demise of not just the current moribund iteration of the GOP but also drive a stake through the heart of a dead-but-still-living Democratic Party. Here’s hoping.
After quoting long passages of Plato’s Republic (which, he informs us helpfully, he “first read” in “graduate school”) and name-checking the truly mediocre Sinclair Lewis’s meditation on U.S.-grown fascism, It Can’t Happen Here, here’s where Sullivan ends up:
Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.
I like and respect Andrew Sullivan tremendously, and I consider him a fellow traveler in a (very) broadly defined libertarian movement (indeed, the Christmas party he mentions attending in his story was at Reason’s DC HQ). Far more importantly, he’s a true pioneer in the world of new media and a thinker who brings an enormous amount of erudition and seriousness to political and cultural discourse (as much as any single individual, he reframed the debate on same-sex couples as one of marriage equality and his anti-drug-war stance nearly makes up for his pro-actual-war stances over the years).
But when it comes to Trump as an existential threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he is not simply wrong, but incredibly wrong.
I say this as someone who is as anti-Trump as his first two ex-wives and Rosie O’Donnell put together. The emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential frontrunner is many, many things and none of them is good. He’s an embarrassment to the Republican Party, which is simply reaping what the anger, resentment, and stupidity it has sown for years. He’s a cause of serious concern for illegal immigrants, especially Mexicans, and all of us who see relatively open borders and free trade as central to any definition of “American exceptionalism” that’s worth a damn. And he is a completely unqualified delusioniac whose grand-mal narcissism and radical inconsistency from one minute to the next is tougher to stomach than (I imagine) a Trump steak. But FFS, he in no serious way poses a threat, much less an “extinction-level” one, to liberal democracy, a society of laws-not-men, or limited government. However bad he might be as president, it’s unfathomable that he would be worse than his two immediate predecessors when it comes to flouting law and convention (this is especially the case since he would face pushback on every front and has no experience with how to govern).
The most important thing to understand about Trump is that he is not the start of anything new but the culmination of a long degenerative process that has been at work for the entirety of the 21st century. He is sterile mule in the end, not a jackass who might have hideous offspring. He is the effect, not the cause, of the ways in which the two major parties have destroyed themselves by refusing to take their own rhetoric or govern seriously. The Republican Party said it stood for small government when virtually every major action it has pursued at least since the 9/11 attacks has yielded the opposite. The Democratic Party, still trying to maintain a disparate collection of special-interest groups that started morphing and changing and expiring by the mid-1960s, lays claim to the mantle of caring about regular Americans even as its last three major presidential candidates (John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton) long ago achieved escape velocity from caring about anything resembling everyday reality.
And then there is simple fact that politics is less and less engaging to all of us, thank god. Do we need to keep pointing that fewer and fewer of us form our identities, our communities, or our meanings in life via political affiliation? The last time Gallup checked in, just 26 percent of us admitted to being Republicans and just 29 percent to being Democrats, figures that are near and at historic lows for the parties.
Who can blame us? And who can stop us? No one.
Despite serious economic issues (which have been extended and intensified by government interventions when not caused by them in the first place), our lives in the 21st century have been getting better and better thanks to an unstoppable mix of technological innovations, cultural shifts toward pluralism and tolerance, and the decline in all sorts of public and private gatekeeping institutions.
The “libertarian moment” that Matt Welch and I heralded in The Declaration of Independents is real and it continues apace in our personal and commercial lives. If you don’t think so, take a few minutes to recall what your life was life back in, say, 2000 or 2001. At every level of American society back then, people had less stuff and less options for life, even though the things we did have were spectacularly better than what we had in 1990 or 1991. I’m no Dr. Pangloss and I don’t material and social progress for granted; it’s just that I believe eventually Americans route around political obstacles to achieve a more perfect union. Ask Obama about his shifts toward legalizing pot, embracing gay marriage, and pursuing criminal-justice reform if you don’t believe me. He was pulled there by cultural forces that forced his hand politically.
Arguably, the one thing that was indeed better at the start of the 21st century then now was the state of national politics. Due to a set of truly weird, unpredictable, and unrepeatable circumstances, a Democratic president and a Republican Congress that his early incompetence brought to power—unimaginably, at the time—somehow managed to govern semi-competently in a way that didn’t completely piss away the “peace dividend” that came with the end of the Cold War. That said, serious discusson of foreign policy went missing and nothing was done to rein in the old-age entitlement spending that is slowly bleeding the federal budget dry. Even back then the rancor and partisanship of that period was seen as historically high at the time, with Bill Clinton being called a serial murderer by characters such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Newt Gingrich, Clinton’s even-darker twin brother by a different mother, was chased from office for all sorts real and imagined crimes against decency. From the indefensible (and politically stupid to boot) impeachment trial to the eventual elevation of the child-molester Dennis Hastert to Speaker of the House, the negative spiral took over and whatever brief moments of patriotic solidarity emerged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—there was more bipartisan support for the completely unjustified (and Sullivan-approved) invasion of Iraq in 2003 than in 1991!—dissipated fast enough so that by 2004 the parties were once again at each throats.
This is not a small thing, but we too easily forget how each of the national parties completely betrayed its voters in various ways for the past 15-plus years. The century was ushered in under the single-most-contested election in U.S. history, with each party suddenly adopting the other’s philosophy in pursuit of victory. The Republicans called it a federal matter while the Dems wholeheartedly embraced state’s rights (this switcheroo would repeat itself in the Terri Schiavo affair). The deep-seated recognition by voters that each party is uncommitted to anything approaching its core values is what’s driving the 2016 election season. While enjoying complete control of the federal government for years under Bush, the Republican Party didn’t just go war-crazy but spending-crazy, regulation-crazy, and entitlement-crazy.
At the same time, the party’s leadership lied to the people again and again about how it was prosecuting and succeeding in the “global war on terror” and paraded frauds and incompetents such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in front of us as if they were grand statesmen. Even before he left office, Bush had delivered part of Congress to the Democrats, who immediately failed to follow through on their own promises to restrain government spending and act more forthrightly than the GOP had. When given his own super-majority amidst financial panic in 2008, Barack Obama got everything he wanted, from a useless and oversold stimulus to about the only truly major legislative reform bill passed solely by one party since the Civil War (and even then, Obama had to “sweeten” his health-care-reform offerings to the last Democratic holdouts so much that he damn near gave Sen. Ben Nelson sugar diabetes).
We should not forget how awful Obama was in his first two years—the opposite of the blandly inspirational “Hope and Change” candidate—and the sense of disappointment with him and his party eventually gave rise to yet another shift in power (a “shellacking,” Obama dubbed it, but it was really a swift kick in the pants). Like Bush before him, it’s not simply that Obama failed to deliver on campaign promises or rosy scenarios that folks hoped for. It’s that he openly alienated us by lying through his teeth about civil liberties and higher truths. The proprietor of the “most transparent administration ever” wasn’t simply letting his various apparatchiks enter lobbying immediately upon leaving federal service, the guy was running an extra-legal, secret “kill list,” for Christ’s sake, tripling troops in a losing and “dumb war” in Afghanistan, and actually prosecuting journalists under phony espionage charges. On top of it all, he was sending feds to raid medical marijuana dispensaries in California and deporting immigrants by the boatload.
I reprise a condensed version of the 21st-century parade of horribles not simply to wallow once again in the failures of the Bush and Obama years or to suggest a plague on both houses. We’ve been so long accustomed to absolute rancor in politics (at least back to the early 1990s) that we’ve become numb to the fact that both the Republican and Democratic Parties have had chances at governing and have not just done poorly but catastrophically. They refused to ratify budgets, make themselves accountable, and do anything other than bail out Wall Street and car companies and buy votes from this or that group.
That’s the landscape into which Donald Trump emerged, and Hillary Clinton too. These two wedding-party pals in no way represent a new turn in American politics but simply the end of the road for, on the one hand, a party that fielded more than a dozen candidates—including senators, governors, and sons and brothers of presidents!—who had so little to say that they withered under a real estate developer’s sophomoric put-downs. On the Democrat’s side, Clinton was nobody’s first choice in 2008 and still isn’t. Back then, it only took an anonymous senator with no track record to bump her off. This time, the only difference is that her party is so totally lacking in warm bodies that a 74-year-old socialist who still hasn’t processed the collapse of the Soviet Union (much less Chavez’s Venezuela) actually made a former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State sweat out her eventual nomination.
In his New York essay, Sullivan likens Trump to Vladimir Putin, thereby appealing to Trump’s own vanity while revealing an overdeveloped sense of drama:
Tyrants, like mob bosses, know the value of a smile: Precisely because of the fear he’s already generated, you desperately want to believe in his new warmth. It’s part of the good-cop-bad-cop routine that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
But in fact, unlike Putin (or Bush or Obama or Clinton), Trump hasn’t ever killed anyone, whether in a KGB operation or via an execution chamber or a battlefield decision. Trump may win the presidency, but he will face not pliant lackeys but bitter clingers to the shreds of the tattered old Democratic and Republican Parties. Beyond that, as even Sullivan acknowledges, he is already moderating his views on everything from his disgusting plan to deport 12 million illegals to banning abortion to killing the children of terrorists. A reverse Teddy Roosevelt, Trump will speak loudly and carry a little stick everywhere he goes.
That’s because for all his bombast, fabulism, and crudeness (making fun of a handicapped reporter, suggesting Ted Cruz’s father was friends with Lee Harvey Oswald, any comments regarding Megyn Kelly, pretending to have seen Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey), Trump is actually not channeling a true tyrannical or fascistic urge among Americans. His signature promise that he “will make America great again” has been widely misunderstood, I think. It’s less about dropping bombs and invading foreign countries or poking the Chinese in the eye and more about something far less frightening.
As Peggy Noonan puts it at the Wall Street Journal, Trump stands out in this election season not because he is dangerous but because he is the only candidate who seems to give a shit (my words, not hers) about the lives of regular people. Remember when he thanked the “poorly educated” after winning in Nevada? When’s the last time they were even acknowledged as something other than a problem to cured? Noonan observes that where Bush and Obama were all about ideology in one form or another, about pushing grand visions of right and wrong and using regular people as markers in a game of Risk, Trump is either pre- or post-ideological and the only thing he cares about is the country writ large:
You could see this aspect of Trumpism—I’m about America, end of story—in his much-discussed foreign-policy speech this week. I have found pretty much everything said about it to be true. It was long, occasionally awkward-sounding and sometimes contradictory. It was interesting nonetheless. He was trying to blend into a coherent whole what he’s previously said when popping off on the hustings. He was trying to establish that there’s a theme to the pudding.
She calls what Trump is performing “simple patriotism.” It’s certainly simple-minded but it’s also a revelation at this late date in the American Experiment.
He certainly jumbles up the categories. Bobby Knight, introducing him at a rally in Evansville, Ind., on Thursday, said that Mr. Trump is not a Republican or a Democrat. The crowd seemed to like that a lot.
Those conservative writers and thinkers who have for nine months warned the base that Mr. Trump is not a conservative should consider the idea that a large portion of the Republican base no longer sees itself as conservative, at least as that term has been defined the past 15 years by Washington writers and thinkers.
We can add to this that most Americans are as sick of conservatives who say they want small government while doubling budgets as they are of liberal Democrats who bomb foreign countries and prosecute the drug war and deport immigrants. If Trump was actually channeling something other than the public’s disenchantment with two failed parties and with politics itself, it might be worth getting worried about him. But unless you are a Republican who worries that his heading up the ticket will make it hard for your own preferred poseur to win re-election or a Democrat who deep down knows that Hillary Clinton is a terrible person and would be a terrible president, lighten up already. One of these two people, Trump or Clinton, will be president come next year. Either of them will almost certainly be terrible, but that only makes them the latest in a line of terrible presidents who subverted the Constitution and increased the size, spending, and scope of government in ways that are still not yet fully understood.
Trump’s victory tonight in Indiana—and possibly later in California and Cleveland and maybe even in November—will thus only speed up the evacuation from partisan politics that’s been taking place since the 1970s, when far higher percentages of Americans defined themselves as Rs or Ds and dutifully went along with all that entailed. As political consultant and ABC News analyst Matthew Dowd has noted, Trump is not so much a threat to the future as he is the end of line for parties that need to be disbanded or completely transformed. “This cycle,” wrote Dowd a couple of months ago, “is likely to be an accelerator for the success of independents locally and at the state level-developments that can only be good for our democracy.”
Precisely because he is showing how weak the Republican Party apparatus actually is, Trump may even be the least-bad outcome in November, for his victory will force us finally as a nation to move into the 21st century politically as we have culturally. We have started growing up when it comes to sexual orientation and pot legalization; we’re embracing school choice for poor kids as well as rich ones and we’re confronting the damage done by locking up entire generations of young men. Most of us (Gallup again) want the government to do less and for individuals and businesses to do more. Politics—the systematic organization of hatreds, as Henry Adams put it—has long gotten in the way. With Trump at the helm (or for that matter), it will be more attractive than ever for us to figuratively leave D.C. behind and get on with our lives out here in the rolling fields of the Republic.