The Alcove

Trump and the Fragility of Democratic Culture

A historian and a political theorist ponder what Trump could bring to pass, and what he already has.

By Nathan Pippenger

The combined blows of a decisive loss in Wisconsin, increasingly bizarre campaign problems (including the arrest of his campaign manager), and a tightening in the polls are leading some observers to conclude that Donald Trump’s campaign is finally faltering. Others counter that such a verdict may well be premature: Trump still has a path to the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure a majority going into the GOP convention. Only time, and a seemingly interminable parade of remaining contests, will tell. But whatever fate Trump’s candidacy ultimately meets, he’s already transformed democratic politics in the U.S.—perhaps for a long time to come.

That’s the message of two recent essays, one from Melvin Rogers in Dissent and another from Ian Beacock in the Chronicle Review. Although they take slightly different paths, the authors reach a similar insight: Trump’s campaign has revealed the fragility of democratic norms and perhaps caused their power to decay even further.

At times of “normal” politics (however distant those times now seem), it’s easy to forget that a functioning democracy is not simply a matter of getting the arrangement of political institutions just right. Democracies don’t run on autopilot once the correct procedures have been established; they’re continually reliant on social norms that help define the boundaries of acceptable political practice. It’s not as though the norms governing American politics were in good shape before Trump came along—the last several years of gridlock and brinksmanship offer a grim display of just how much dysfunction a determined opposition can create. But there’s still something distinctively disturbing about the Trump phenomenon, which Rogers calls “astounding” and Beacock deems “sui generis.” The key element is probably its undercurrent of violence, which amplifies the sense that Trump and his followers are uniquely willing to flirt with chaos. This kind of chaos, moreover, is no longer confined to political proceedings that most voters don’t closely follow. Trumpism brings chaos out into the open.

What defense do we have against this corrosion of democratic culture? We could simply wish for him to lose (implying, as hardly anyone is willing to say out loud, that we are looking for a savior in Ted Cruz, of all people). But counting on Trump’s failure, writes Beacock, may be utterly naïve. Calling complacency our “greatest civic danger,” he warns that comparisons to other demagogues—like George Wallace or Henry Ford—may lure us into thinking that Trump, too, will meet electoral doom. “But historical analogies offer only the illusion of sense,” Beacock notes. The lesson of the past is not that problems eventually resolve themselves; it’s that “systems work until they don’t.” We should remember that “this election is under no obligation to settle out safely. Political orders do not automatically sustain themselves.” And this bracing reminder is not even the whole of it. Equally striking is Beacock’s observation that Trump will have transformed American politics even if he loses: “When Trump mocks the disabled or wishes that he could assault protesters or predicts riots should he be denied the nomination, he widens our shared sense of what is politically possible to think, say, and do.”

This observation is taken up in more detail by Melvin Rogers, who persuasively debunks the idea that things will return to normal once Trump and his supporters fade from the news. Trump’s “true danger,” writes Rogers, “is that he is completely removing the norms of civility and decorum from public discourse—the same norms that have served to hold in check those unwilling to see their society transformed by greater equality and liberty.” Worries about the decline of civility are sometimes dismissed as mere pearl-clutching from the No Labels crowd, but as Rogers shows, not all appeals for respectful discourse are made in the service of professional centrism. A norm of respectful discourse serves an important function in an election season dominated by simmering resentments and seething hatred:

When placed in the context of a democratic society, then, civility and decorum are more often than not checks that stabilize the dignity of our fellows, even amid the deep disagreement. In the face of our inability to be transformed, they constrain, at the very least, our malevolent angels in the service not only of democratic stability, but of the very idea of democratic community.

Trump may not win the nomination. But as Beacock shows, we can’t turn to history to reassure us of that outcome, since it shows precisely the opposite: that nothing in politics is really unthinkable. And as Rogers emphasizes, a Trump loss may still damage our politics for a generation or more. The die is already cast.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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