Cleansing Ourselves of Trumpism

We can’t wish away the resentments he’s stoked. But we can counter them.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged CivicsDemocracyDonald Trump

My first, vivid intimation of the real menace that was shortly to engulf our republic came one late-winter morning in 2016 when I walked along a quiet country road in western Massachusetts, hard by the New York State line, and, noticing an abandoned, nearly-collapsed wooden house with trees growing out of its windows, poked my way in.  From a pile of mildewed books on a storeroom’s earthen floor, I picked up What Mein Kampf Means to America, written in 1941 by the Irish-American writer Francis Hackett, a literary editor of The New Republic from 1914 to 1922. I stood there for an hour, riveted by passages such as these:

Right before our eyes, like something on the screen, the vast social fabric of familiar Germany has crumbled and the moral Germany that has stood the test since Martin Luther. On its ruins, with the speed of a world’s fair, Hitler and his confederates have run up a political front of startling and provocative modernity…The Nazi hand has been so much quicker than the democratic eye, and for his violence we have so little precedent. All the democratic countries, or if you like, the parliamentary countries, are unaccustomed to murder gangs…


But democracy is merely an equilibrium. When this has been…overthrown by ambition or distress or stupidity or viciousness, our securities are forfeited. We can no more count on the fruitful prospects of earlier days than we can count on ease in a hurricane. We…who made for ourselves a habit of give-and take in the faith that we were not at cross-purposes with anyone, have to confess that if goodwill runs out of the machinery of government and domestication is wrecked, to repose on our security is suicide.

Historical analogies can be facile, even dangerous; but ignoring history’s cautions can be equally dangerous to people who are inclined to repeat its follies. Hackett’s book serves well as an impassioned explanation of how and why Donald Trump “means business”—even more so than when he was a businessman—in his efforts to displace democracy with Authority. 

In 2016, his demagoguery enlarged and exploited a social and moral vacuum that was already swallowing faith in the republic and a corporate-capitalist economy that has driven countless little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt into our lives. Its casino-like financing of jobs and homes and its intimately intrusive consumer marketing have battened onto dispossession and distress by hawking palliatives, degrading entertainments, and other come-ons driven by swirling whorls of anonymous shareholders.

These forces have been dissolving our freedoms for decades now, not out of malevolence but out of  mindless, routinized greed. Trump has focused free-floating, inchoate rage against these material and cultural assaults into a syndrome that substitutes Authority for democracy by feigning populist indignation and by scapegoating women and people of color. His true believers’ growing violence won’t recede or be reversed even if it’s set back, as Hackett reminded us that Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was set back in 1923, even if Trump is indicted, convicted, and even if he’s confined to write his own Mein Kampf  in the form of a new reality show or his own cable news network. 

Even in the unlikely event that Trump is exiled to Elba for life, something like Trumpism will outlast him because the fabric of liberal-democratic and civic republican norms and institutions was weakened long before his presidency: Leaders who weakened citizens’ trust in public initiatives and assets were market-fundamentalist economists such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan (both of whom died before Trump even ran for President), and Arthur Laffer, who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign; businessmen who’ve long meddled in politics, such as the brothers Charles and David Koch and private-equity baron Stephen Schwarzman; and media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and demagogues Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson. But why did such culprits leave progressive economists, political consultants, data-point jockeys, pollsters, donors, and media savants winded, and often clueless, amid rising public mistrust and cries for a strongman?  History does offer suggestions about why Trump was able to dispel trust and about what kinds of public narratives and indispensable economic and political initiatives, Americans need to restore. 

The Derangement of Democratic Discourse

From the moment he entered electoral politics, Trump enacted the difference between what children say on the playground, where they may fight or pout while roughing out rules for cooperation, and what grownups are supposed to have learned to do to sustain comity and trust. That difference isn’t a legal one; it’s psychological and cultural. Adults understand that what a Constitution rightly protects, civil society rightly modulates: With laws and customs, they strike balances between order and liberty. Trump destroyed that balance by announcing that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing his public support, exciting what was already a growing mob of would-be “militia” members, rogue cops, “Stand Your Ground” enthusiasts, and deranged mass shooters attuned to perverse, subliminal signals that a corrupted society was sending beneath its promises of liberty and justice for all.

Trump’s signals certainly aren’t subliminal. He resembles Hitler in that, as Hackett put it, “he boasts of his tricks: ‘Take me or leave me, my object, the resurrection of the…people, is so much more superb than any contrary principle that to bridle me with morals or sentiment is to lose.’” That’s a plausible elaboration of “Make America Great Again.” Business leaders such as those I’ve mentioned have indulged him, believing—as Hackett shows us that German business leaders believed about Hitler—that at least he’s holding off the socialist scourge and is shaking up stodgy old conceits and regulations that stand in the way of maximizing their profits. “Germany was by no means in love with Hitler. It resisted him for years,” Hackett wrote early in 1941. “But the desperado got his chance, as do all such adventurers, when regular practitioners failed…. It was the True Blues [nationalist elites] who finally saddled Germany with him.” (emphasis added) 

Nightmares of the Elites

Stunned by the audacity of Trump’s insults and boasts in 2016, many American political and business leaders grew worried as it became unnervingly clear that Republicans and Democrats alike had underestimated the millions of Americans who were deserting both political parties. Public intellectuals, left and right, hadn’t acknowledged their own complicity in the casino-like financing, omnivorous marketing, and other modulations of greed that Trump was riding and denouncing. His demagogic political heterodoxy shredded conservative claims to the capitalism of Adam Smith and John Locke, and it sucked the wind out of leftists who envisioned a proletariat rising against injustice instead of embracing it.

He had made himself the match that was lighting tinder that others had prepared—the Clintons, Pelosis, and Schumers quite as much as the Bushes and McConnells, and most of us who are invested in that tinder more than we’ve acknowledged. Let’s stop flattering ourselves long enough to understand why so many whom we thought we were speaking to or for have gambled, instead, that Trump would offset the torrentially marketed civic mindlessness and malevolence that’s sinking them. 

Half-acknowledging the grim reality in a conservative National Review symposium, Against Trump,” in 2016, R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, noted that “The middle-class consensus in America has collapsed. This is the most important political and social earthquake since World War II. The conservative movement’s leadership isn’t up to the challenge.” But not only did Reno and other conservatives forget that that middle-class consensus had relied on massive public support for homeownership, education, union organizing, and curbs on the animal spirits of bankers and investors; many of them, like Reno himself, wound up supporting Trump’s phony populism. 

Since the 1970s, Democratic and Republican elites have seduced Americans into surrendering those supports bit by bit. Although there have been sound global and technological reasons to re-work some protections and let go of others, there have been too many corrupt and destructive reasons. The consequences, among which is Trump himself, are no worse than what these political and business leaders deserve. At Davos, they tell one another, sometimes with stagey sighs, that recent economic and social meltdowns prove that the citizens whom they’ve degraded into mobs of impulse-buying consumers simply aren’t up to self-government. But the meltdowns have shown that elites can’t even rule themselves.

The Volcano Rumbles

Some of us saw this coming in 2008 at the Republican National Convention, when the party nominated a man whom Trump would mock years later for having been captured in Vietnam. At the convention, John McCain faced an unnervingly large contingent of young white men whose repertoire of political expression consisted of shouting “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!” They bellowed it even when he said something thoughtful or poignant: For example, McCain knew well the perils of flaunting war heroism, as George W. Bush (who never served in a war) had done with his flight-deck “Mission Accomplished” landing of 2004. But as Fred Thompson, in a recorded voice-over in the convention hall, thundered, “When you’ve lived in a box, your life is about keeping others from having to live in that box,” the crowd roared, “Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!” 

All that misplaced fervor and rage reflected more than young men’s hormones. It loosed the fateful lightning of pent-up indignation and yearning, of wounded pride and desperate loyalty. A thwarted decency and clueless love, yearning for something they felt slipping away,  was struggling to find footing against  affronts both blunt and subtle. These guys hadn’t all curdled into fascists or even racists, although, for some of them, “Yoo Es Ay!” would in time degenerate into “The Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville.

In 1990, in The Closest of Strangers, I wrote that “the disintegration of white working-class family life, replete with the pathologies of violent essentially homeless youths…may well overshadow the problems of the black underclass in the popular mind in the years ahead.” By 2016, such developments, replete with our insults added to their injuries, were generating not only family breakdown and drug abuse among whites in rural and small-town America but also stresses and humiliations erupting in road rage and lethal rampages at store openings on sale days, “extreme” fighting in cages, gladiatorial college sports, and demoralizing entertainment ,including reality TV shows such as  Trump’s The Apprentice.  

How much history and psychology need one know to see that such escapism can be made almost as seductive as painful?  Many Americans act out their internalized humiliations and cravings for vengeance by eroticizing them instead of challenging their sources, producing an industry that I assessed in “Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change,” in the journal Salmagundi. Many Internet ventures are hollowing out children’s sense of themselves as sexual beings and reasoning citizens, capable of democratic deliberation and action. Years ago, describing online blandishments that his children were encountering, the writer David Denby suggested that adults were “parenting against the culture.” People who expected Trump to deliver them from such affronts and imprisonments by making America great again are now signing on to the baseless suits, legislative gambits, and menacing demonstrations, feeding a growing conviction that the republic doesn’t deserve to survive at all.

The Volcano Erupts

Trump’s “brand of resentment politics,” as New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns called it during the 2016 campaign, rides what’s known as ressentiment, a French word for a public psychopathology in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds nursed by many in private converge in public eruptions that present themselves as noble crusades but that diminish their participants while seeming to make them big. In ressentiment, the little-big man seeks enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that he only half-acknowledges because they’re imposed by powers he’s unable or afraid to challenge head on. He can barely admit that the same George W. Bush who he once thought he’d enjoy having a beer with perpetrated and enabled massive frauds on him, whether in sending him to Iraq or in legitimating a bad mortgage and a slippery foreclosure of his home or the pollution of his drinking water. He’s determined not to let anything like that happen again, but he lacks the independence, organization, and resources to prevent his deepening degradation. 

Ressentiment misdirects such frustrations. Whether it erupts in a medieval Inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, nihilist extremes of some “people’s liberation movements,” or a strain of political correctness that grips a college campus, its most telling symptoms are paranoia, scapegoating, hysteria, and violence. It was described by George Soros in 2011, shortly after Glenn Beck depicted him as “the puppet master.” Soros assessed “the power of Orwell’s Newspeak” to divert the public from facing harsh realities. “On the one hand,” he wrote, “Newspeak… incorporates and thereby preempts its own contradiction, as when Fox News calls itself fair and balanced. Another trick is to accuse your opponent of the behavior of which you are guilty.” Trump does it all the time. Rupert Murdoch’s media have done it since long before Trump was a candidate.

“On the other hand,” Soros noted, “the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal.” People demand to be lied to because they crave easy answers and scapegoats. By stoking ressentiment and algorithmically driven incentives that turn deliberating citizens into desperate consumers, Trump has ushered millions of Americans into a political twilight zone where democracy is suspended as a strongman determines their decisions and their enemies. A liberal democracy, in contrast, strides on two feet: a “left” foot of public provision—public schools, health care, and other resources without which conservatives’ cherished familial and communal values could never flourish—and a “right” foot of irreducibly personal conscience and responsibility, without which even the best-intentioned “liberal” social engineering would turn persons into cogs, clients, or worse.

Keeping a balanced stride is an acquired art and a discipline. “Democracy, properly understood, does not propose a goal,” Hackett warned in a passage that I read standing in that abandoned, collapsing American house in 2016. “It proposes a process, a method of achieving civil existence according to rules mutually agreed on.” The “method—call it the mission—of the American republic is to replenish its wellsprings of civil existence.”

A strong civic culture requires cultivation—and, as the word “culture” implies, a bit of cult—to grow habits of forbearance, mutual respect, and reason that withstand fixers and exploiters. The “cultic” part taps communal and personal depths to generate public narratives, through what anthropologists call “rites of passage” to adulthood that teach courage in adversity and dedication to community to youths at their impressionable, formative moments.

When young Americans shouting “Yes we can!” swarmed Barack Obama in 2008 and cheered Bernie Sanders in 2016, the glow on their faces was anthropological, not electoral. But so was the glow on the faces of those young men shouting “Yoo Es Ay!” or, later, “Lock her up,” and “Build the Wall!” The American republic’s liberal and progressive defenders need public narratives that are potent enough to explain and inspire real advances toward liberty and justice for all.

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Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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