Just weeks before the Iowa caucuses Donald Trump was subjected to a barrage of criticism from Republican commentators. New York Times house conservative David Brooks, who has threatened to move to Canada if Trump becomes president, called Trump a “solipsistic branding genius whose ‘policies’ have no contact with Planet Earth.” The National Review devoted a whole issue to parsing Trump’s manifold flaws and dangers to the Republican Party and the country: “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”
And those were the nicer comments.
This battle between Trump and the Republican establishment raises interesting questions about where we are politically after the disastrous seven years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Start with the contested notion that there even exists something we can call the Republican establishment. Trump along with Ted Cruz have presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates, “outsiders” battling the inside-the-Beltway “cartel,” to use Cruz’s word. As such they appeal to those voters who long have despised Congress and its pundit enablers for “going along to get along” rather than taking legislative action to slow down Obama’s ongoing fundamental transformation of America into an EU social-democratic nanny-state populated by the spawn of Julia and Pajama Boy.
Critics of this formulation argue that there is no “establishment,” that the diverse and conflicting opinions among Republican leaders, and the failure of this establishment to use its imagined powers and slow down Donald Trump, is proof that it is a figment of a paranoiac imagination. Didn’t the Chairman of the Republican National Committee punish National Review for dissing Trump by disinviting it from cosponsoring the next debate? And didn’t establishment stalwart Bob Dole say nice things about Trump during his evisceration of Ted Cruz? There is no unified cabal of Republican bigwigs colluding with the enemy and betraying the ordinary voters who put them in office.
But this criticism depends on a tendentious definition of “establishment.” The point is not that a group of highly placed Republicans hold secret meetings to plot and implement policies created by a unified ideology and interests. It is rather that there does exist an elite class comprising Congressmen, consultants, donors, lobbyists, and national commentators who for all its internal disagreements, share certain policy prescriptions, find unity in opposing Donald Trump for various reasons, and fundamentally oppose the interests and views of the Republican masses–– at least in the eyes of The Donald’s six million Twitter followers.
Those opposed to Trump might respond that these are mere perceptions that reflect not fact, but the anger and frustration stoked and exploited by Trump. Perhaps, but that’s beside the point. In politics perceptions are often more important than facts, especially in an age of 24/7 images and chatter saturating television and the Internet. The power of perception in democracy goes back 2400 years to the Athenian Assembly dazzled by sophistic orators and hence “slaves to the pleasure of the ear,” in Thucydides’ memorable phrase. In our time the power of perception became obvious in the 1960 presidential election and the Kennedy presidency, when perceptions of youth and glamour created by Life magazine and court poets turned a mediocre president into a combination of Solon and Cary Grant. The perception of Ronald Reagan in the 60s and 70s was that he was a crank extremist in the Goldwater mold, or an “amiable dunce” with acting skills. Now he’s the Platonic ideal of conservatism, despite some contrary evidence in his record. Or how about the perception of Obama’s oratorical brilliance, when every time he talks without a teleprompter he burns through about a hundred “uhs”? So why are we surprised that the perception of Trump as a successful dealmaker, problem-solver, and straight-talking tough conservative is driving his popularity?
This brings us to the underlying assumptions behind much of the distaste for Trump. The implication––one, by the way, more typical of progressives––is that our candidates should be soberly and judiciously debating and discoursing about policy and principles, not pandering to irrational emotions and selfish interests. The burden of anti-Trumpism is that his policy prescriptions are incoherent, constantly changing, unworkable, or just morally objectionable. As the National Review editorial put it, his “political opinions have wobbled all over the lot” and “make no sense.” That may be true, but when have voters elected a president based on a technical analysis of policy prescriptions? When they twice elected an amateur full of soothing rhetoric, vague promises, and pleasing perceptions? And was our Constitution designed on the assumption that the mass of people would be cool rationalists voting on the basis of intellectual and ethical coherence?
No, the assumption was that flawed human beings, subject to envy and the lust for power, would drive political choices. What James Madison called “passions and interests”––not philosophical acumen or virtue, qualities of a minority of men––created political “factions” that would pursue their aims at the expense of others factions. Given human nature, these flaws could never be eradicated, only managed by creating a divided government of balanced powers that would prevent any one faction from dominating the others and compromising the people’s freedom. What we see today in our Congressional “gridlock,” government divided by party, and passionate populism of Trump and Bernie Sanders, is exactly what the Founders expected. If power is “of an encroaching nature,” as George Washington put it, then the last thing we want is unanimity and agreement, for that sort of dominance threatens our freedom.
Finally, the suggestion that we need “techno-politics”––rule by rational technique and deliberation—assumes a distrust of the common people and impatience with their supposed ignorance and irrational passions. A lot of the complaints about Trump and his popularity remind me of the reaction to Andrew Jackson’s bumptious first inaugural festivities, when Chief Justice Joseph Story snorted, “KING MOB seemed triumphant,” and journalist Anne Newport Royal complained of “disgraceful scenes in the [White House] parlors,” and said only a bowl of punch was able “to lure the new ‘democracy’ out of the house.” Politics was more honest in those days. What today’s critics of Trump either ignore or conceal (Jay Nordlinger is an exception) is that every criticism of Trump is a criticism of those millions who attend his rallies or read his tweets or tell pollsters they support him. The claim that a sophistic demagogue is manipulating the emotions of those millions is an implicit condemnation of them as less intelligent, less informed, or less in control of their passions than the sophisticated commentators who see through Trump’s dishonest rhetoric.
This too is a constant of the anti-Democratic tradition. The comments by John Adams on the people’s vulnerability to manipulation are heard today lurking in some of the attacks on Trump: Adams scorned the “demagogues” who “under plausible pretenses . . . for dark ambitions, or (not unlikely) speculative purposes, which they dare not own,” are “disturbing the peace of the public, and causing the government to be bullied.” Adams and other anti-democrats were at least honest about their distrust of the people. Today we rarely see such honesty about the people. Instead, critics focus on politicians like Trump––or Obama, or Sanders, or Hillary with their demagogic threats to redistribute the property of the wealthy, precisely the biggest fear of antidemocrats going back to Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius.
In other words, in the criticisms of Trump’s vulgarity and braggadocio and policy incoherence, many ordinary people hear disdain for themselves. They perceive the veiled snobbery of elites who at heart share with Socrates the scorn of the masses who dare to tell their Ivy League betters how to run the state, those non-elite “dunces and weaklings,” as Socrates sneered of the Athenian Assembly, “the fullers or the cobblers or the builders or the smiths or the farmers or the merchants or the traffickers in the market-place who think of nothing but buying cheap and selling dear.” Only rarely does this distaste for the “low-information voter,” as Rush Limbaugh put it, sneak through. But you can hear it in the National Review’s snarky comment that Trump “and Bernie Sanders have shared more than funky outer-borough accents,” as Roger Simon noted, or in the Washington Post’s observation that the bulk of Trump’s supporters don’t have a college degree, or in the Boston Globe’s claim that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level.
The battle between Trump and the political elite is merely another example of a fundamental dynamic of our political order, one that goes to the heart of a permanent contradiction of democracy. Is politics a question of knowledge possessed only by an elite? Or do the common people have enough virtue and common sense to transcend their passions and interests and make the right choices for the country, both for the present and the future? The Founders created a political order that brilliantly resolved that contradiction, but the undermining of the Constitution has moved us closer to the dangerous dysfunctions of Athenian democracy that the Founders tried to avoid. How this contradiction ends up is a question only elections can answer.