Critics of American democracy have observed that at the heart of our polity is a driving paradox: on the one hand America was founded in the name of “the people” and the idea of a shared nation is itself a kind of collectivist ideal. On the other hand, there is the liberal value of individuality. These two values are irreconcilable, as Chantal Mouffe observes in The Democratic Paradox and as a result the goal of democratic politics should not be understood as that of achieving in an absolute sense both values but instead of fostering a polity that can productively manage the tension between the two. Mouffe rightly observes that in the American context, liberal individuality is the favored side of the dialectic. We might measure this in cultural terms by examining the extent to which individual choice is valorized in advertising and television programs, we might observe this in politics by charting the linkages written by politicians and pundits between concepts like freedom and the idea of individual achievement, and so forth. This post takes for granted that this is the case, and I want to connect not the rise but the persistence of Donald Trump, presidential candidate, to recent public scholarship on questions of victimhood.
But first: what broke the dialectic? I maintain that the dialectic was broken by the populist turn of American conservatism in the 1960’s, a movement which married the ideology of individualism to a collectivist sense of the “invisible American” and then later Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Up until the late 1950’s what the American political parties stood for can be understood fairly straightforwardly: the Republican Party stood for traditionalism, in the sense of defending the inertia of an institutionalized socio-economic elite from outside, contingent-but-class-directed antagonism. Democrats were more or less the party of labor and liberation, with questions of race a notable outlier given electoral self-interest. By the 1950’s, Republicans were on the run as a seemingly staunch consensus emerged about the necessary, permanent role of large state spending and programs in the polity. Because opposing massively popular programs in plain sight is not a ticket to electoral victory, Republicanism could only find its way forward by constituting new interest groups rather than working to consolidate its gains within existing constituencies. Moreover, most Republican voters were either traditionalists along religious and societal lines, or libertarians with an interest in the emerging economic doctrines of individual freedom. Michael Lee’s wonderful recent book, Creating Conservatism, details one part of this process, the production of the concept of conservatism itself and its curation within a new set of sacred political texts like Ideas Have Consequences and National Review. Central to Lee’s work is the idea that Republicans refused to choose a side in the debate, but instead framed conservatism itself as a concept drenched in agonism so that battles between the traditionalists and libertarians would not spill-over to ruin an emerging Republican wedge.
This tactic worked quite well to build a healthy conservative infrastructure for argumentation, patronage, and print consumption. However, it needed a delivery vehicle in order to begin to constitute the mass public. This vehicle was populism, as I’ve discussed in previous posts
relatively alien to the explicit populism of the late 19th century
America, threads of anti-intellectualism that populated—but did not determine—agrarian
populism were useful for conservatives who found themselves on the outside of
the governing consensus and thus in need of attacking those in power on the
basis of their institutional position. By conflating liberalism with what
rhetors like Nixon figured as the “excesses” of the 1960’s—protests, declines
in stability of the nuclear family, domestic unrest—the Republican party began
a slow march towards moving the center of the electorate further to the Right.
While “the people” was a rhetorical figure not yet ripe for explicit poaching,
conservatives could nevertheless link existing unrest to the seeming hegemony
of liberalism. The Great Society, powered by government, ruined the population
via a paternalistic understanding of civic life.
Today, the dialectic between collectivism and liberal individualism is broken. Recent populist turns in the Democratic Party have either featured a retrograde, racially punitive populism tethered to fear of crime as in the case of Bill Clinton or a populism borne of confusing democracy’s promise of inclusion with an actually existing policy agenda, as in the case of Barack Obama. Pundits and voters label Obama a progressive when in fact his theory of government intervention is routinely one in which government steps in only as a last resort if the market system has failed. Meanwhile conservatism conserves only the last little covalent bonds that tie together the traditionalists and libertarians, in between trying to activate the old resentment-laden energy nodes of the silent majority. Observe, for example, how magazines like The Weekly Standard have mostly stayed out of the debate over recalcitrant clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky. A decade ago this would be red meat for a larger segment of the conservative base. Today, only “values” conservatives like Mike Huckabee or the most opportunistic ones like Ted Cruz step into the breach to associate with Davis.
What is considerably more viable is a commitment to a generalized politics of victimage, and this is where Trump comes in. Adam Gopnik observed very recently that the Trump phenomena is nothing new, that from Father Coughlin to Barry Goldwater America has a long history of incoherent populism. As he observes, “The ideology is always available; it just changes its agents from time to time.” Many have wagered—especially on the Right—that the post-2008 environment’s anger and antipathy was not so much a racist reaction to Obama as it was a generalized condition fostered by the deep intensity of the economic crash.
Trump’s persistence reveals this understanding to be flawed, not only because, as Gopnik notes, Trump was the most prominent proponent of Birther ideology. In fact I think Gopnik is a bit wrong to group Trump with Wallace or Goldwater, because the incoherence of Trump is exceptional even by very lenient standards. Goldwater’s stand for less government but robust militarism made little sense, but this is a formula considerably more successful politicians have embraced. Wallace did not represent the “people” but certainly a “people,” namely embittered southern racists. Trump leads the national polls less than a decade after people just like Trump nearly buried the American economy in a heap of derivatives and debt swaps.
How do we make sense of Trump? We must go back to the idea of populism, and the relationship of leader and constituent. Perhaps the most common thing said of Trump today is he is popular because “he tells it like it is.” Just google Trump and that phrase in quotes: you’ll get over 47,000 hits, like this Real Clear Politics piece. Trump is not the manager who will translate the base’s wishes into policy gains like Jeb Bush, and he is not the “fighter” whose policy agenda’s sharp teeth represents his base like Scott Walker: Trump’s ugly, unvarnished masculinity mirrors the sentiment of a base that, since 2009, understands that they must “take their country back” from an undeserving, threatening Voltron of a black president, nouveau hippies worried about microaggressions, the Chinese, and raping immigrants.
This is not, of course, all Trump’s doing. If one takes stock of conservative ideology in the last six years, whether one reads platforms, policy papers, punditry, or Rush Limbaugh transcripts, there are two overwhelming thematic notes: conservatism today in discourse aspires to conserve the rhetorical figure of “the American people” and also nurture that old, silent majority-era sentiment of Republicans as constitutive outsiders to the polity. Why do conservative wonks like Jim Pethoukoukis repeatedly air their frustrations on twitter? Because a party can only push a policy agenda that will please their base, and there is almost no policy agenda palatable to establishment conservatives and the base. Conserving a victimized identity is not a policy agenda, but it is a powerful weapon of negativity, particularly when the overarching desire of conservatism in the last forty years is a principled negative critique of the state which is the opposite of the population it supposedly serves. Trump embodies “the people” first, and the party never. One might perhaps be amused that pundits like Jonah Goldberg lob the same bromides at Trump that liberals threw at the Tea Party in 2010. Indeed, the structure of the arguments is the same: his/their politics are incoherent, its pure negativity, he/they have no real agenda. To me, however, it is a real horror show: the dialectic is broken, populism now, populism forever. We are now given over to a future of halfwit Lonesome Rhodeses, with half the wit and charisma and twice the power in a presidential primary.