I wish to mount a defense of all the liberals who are losing their minds because of the election and presidency of Donald J. Trump. In fact, I find this conclusion inescapable: for the first time in our lives, in this Trumpian era, the possibility that we are living through the early stages of the collapse of the American republic is worth taking seriously.
This is not only true internationally, from erratic spasms between muscular and isolationist foreign policy gestures, but more importantly from within, via crumbling civic and constitutional norms. Even if America ever abandons its civic commitments, it could still plod along for quite a while, a relatively rich country on average, with considerable military might, and loud displays of nationalism still ongoing. But the lore we were raised on involved something much loftier; it was about America as a beacon of freedom, the first democracy, the counter to totalitarianism. To put it mildly, the election and presidency of Donald Trump is a jarring plot twist to this narrative, and many of us are having trouble coping.
Whether or not this new angst is always so America-centric, what happens in America apparently portends for the universe of liberal democracy overall. Many of us are jolted by these high political stakes, and our nervousness shows. This emotional condition has been dubbed “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” an insult many on the right have tossed at psychologically injured left-liberals since the 45th president was elected and sworn-in. Relatively mainstream figures have gotten in on the fun too, Adam Carolla and Drew Pinsky being among the first on the scene. On their podcast shortly after the election, Carolla and Dr. Drew reported what they thought they saw, and what they thought they saw was pervasive melodrama surrounding the election of Donald Trump.
Some on the left are also exhausted with traumatized liberals like me, from “alt-left” skeptics of the Russia investigation, like Glenn Greenwald, to the contrarian writer Bret Easton Ellis, who in interviews and on tour for his newest book White, complains of “relentless anti-Trump fixation.” The very worst excesses of this anti-Trump fixation are not my focus here, but I can concede that there is genuine excess. A certain unhinged feeling is in the air when people on either side discuss Trump.
But incredulity toward Trump Derangement Syndrome is even more noteworthy. If we really do stand a nontrivial chance of finding ourselves in the beginning stages of a world-historical political shift, then the loudest critics of Trump-induced anxiety are reduced to saying something quite strange. They stand in the face of the fact that in America, we could be experiencing a political disruption few of us are truly prepared for, which will have untold effects, yet they still muster the nerve to ask “but can you believe some people have gone so far as to overreact?!”
Admittedly, reader, a fair question is if my defense of this frenzied “overreaction” will end up arguing for an outright acquittal or only for a lesser sentence, but that will be left up to you.
The liberal concern, pinpointed
Any moment of any day, you see people bemoaning the leadership of the Trump Administration and the destruction it brings, sometimes with shock that “fascism” has come to America or with declarations that Trump’s actions are “not what America is about.” Close behind are leftist historians, amateur and professional, rushing to add what they see as a dose of realism: “Tsk-tsk. America is bad, actually.” Then a short list of horrors committed in and by America is presented, which communicates that Trump is not unprecedented in American history.
But the real concern flows from something much more specific. It involves Donald Trump repeatedly and publicly calling the media “the enemy of the people,” threatening to jail his political opponent, engaging in conspiracy theories well beyond the routine level of political dishonesty—including creating the false impression that the American voting system is plagued by widespread voter fraud—and casting public doubt on the impartiality of federal judges because of their ethnic origin. And yes of course, deploying the mercilessness of a talented demagogue to exploit religious and racial differences.
These behaviors came from the high perch of a well-known major party presidential candidate, and then from the office of the presidency, the highest perch of all. It really is quite the spectacle. As of very recently, some of us believed that high-level politics in America took place within boundaries that would have excluded these provocations, that the candidate who spoke them would be too politically toxic to win an office like the presidency. We’ve seen such absurd behavior on high political stages here and there, but no main clusters like this one. And to be sure, political professionals and surrogates often did this kind of dirty work, but carefully, whereas now, no such care or outsourcing is needed.
We didn’t have to listen to anything like the private conversations of the Nixon tapes, as the aforementioned Trumpian behaviors were clear for all to see, and from the beginning. The resulting anxiety many of us carry around is not only because of moral revulsion at Trump’s policies. It emerges from seeing widespread acceptance of his illiberal behavior as threatening to liberal democracy and its close sibling, the rule of law. The rule of law is a subspecies of morality, so there’s no sharp dichotomy between morality and rule of law concerns, but it’s easy to get bogged down in everyday conceptions of morality and miss a key distinction at play here.
Real and hypothetical concessions
To clear the space for the ultimate argument this piece makes, it’s necessary to concede not only that there is some legitimately silly behavior that occurs under the heading of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but to make a few conditional or hypothetical concessions — “even if” concessions that state, more or less, that even if my somewhat bourgeois liberal worldview is too naive to stand up to historical events, Donald Trump is still a unique and a dark historical marker.
So let’s assume that liberalism or liberal democracy in the larger historical sense, is naive and illusory (liberalism, that is, from Locke to Barack, from Mill to Macron, as the formal structures of the center-left have so far kept their commitment to classical liberalism more faithfully than those of the right). What follows from this concession, other than delight from the right and Marxian left? This would mean that the behaviors of political elites with which we had become accustomed, behaviors that outwardly upheld the norms of the rule of law and liberal democracy, were never much more than a convenient impulse for a ruling class who felt bound to the pact only so long as it was to their advantage.
Some have theorized that the old WASP ruling class was only motivated to sustain rule of law culture in the context of solidarity among Americans during the Cold War, and as a way of distinction between ourselves and the communist authoritarians. With that consideration no longer pressing, the driving force behind elite commitments to the rule of law weakens, hence the reaction to Trump on the part of the Republican old guard and their representatives, which falls somewhere between ambivalent and tepid, embodied by the Bush family, Chris Christie, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and so forth.
Liberalism and “the rule of law”
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the rule of law is “one of the ideals of our political morality and it refers to the ascendancy of law as such and of the institutions of the legal system in a system of governance.” The rule of law is of course concerned with following the law in a general sense. But from another angle, it can also be conceptually distinct from the actual rules that make up the law. I violate the law when I exceed the speed limit, and in a more explicit fashion compared to when Donald Trump suggests that a judge won’t treat his case fairly because of that judge’s race or party affiliation. But Trump’s innuendo, coming from a president, is much more of a threat to the rule of law than speeding down the highway, in spite of the fact that Trump’s behavior is arguably legal, and speeding is illegal by anyone’s estimation.
In theory, the government and its leaders are subject to the rule of law, just like everyone else. And in a liberal democracy, a free and robust media capable of criticizing the powerful is needed. A critical threshold of trust in elections and the judiciary is necessary for it all to work. It’s a romantic notion, but it can be over-romanticized as well. In other words, it’s not that when the rule of law or liberal democracy are strong, everything is fine. Rather, it’s that these civic values and institutions can aid in pulling us in the right direction, even if sometimes in a much weaker way than events on the ground seem to warrant. The rule of law is necessary for the long-term health of a citizenry in a liberal democracy, even if it’s not sufficient.
The actions of Donald Trump and his administration are plenty bad in the old-fashioned sense of good and bad. And the historians of the left are correct that on a simple good-bad spectrum, it’s tough to draw a hard line between the Trump Administration and previous American history. But the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law, though related to morality, do not reside on such a simple good-bad spectrum. The idea is that we have a system whereby people can lawfully express and advocate for their views despite our awful underlying human tendencies. Institutions like courts and the media, along with values like transparency and free and fair elections, all take nurturing and maintenance over time. But Donald Trump’s attitude toward each swings back and forth between indifference and hostility. This is dangerous because ultimately, the guardrail protecting our civic life is only our practices themselves. It’s social norms all the way down.
Most who scoff at traumatized liberals from the right have no real theory of Trump. If Trump is politics as usual, then “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a funny and warranted epithet to throw at a few extreme people. But if I’m right that Trump is uniquely dangerous, then their casual “you win some, you lose some,” attitude is incredibly glib.
The left critics are different, which is to say, it’s easier to find a much more plausible counter view in that space. Not every view on the left hits the bullseye, though, and they range from the stance that Trump isn’t an authoritarian because he’s an unusually shiftless but otherwise normal Republican, to pointing to American attitudes on race to show that fascism is not ascendant in America.
The problem with those views is that authoritarianism is a big tent. It’s not contained only within competent leadership or deep ideology, and in any case the most disturbing factor about this era is that Donald Trump has been able to get not only his core supporters but the overwhelming majority of Republicans to go along with his behavior. This seems like a bad sign of liberal-democratic health, regardless of whether Trump is too unfocused to fully exploit the sickness.
The better left view is expressed by the law professor Jedediah Purdy in his essay, “Normcore” where he argues that many frenzied liberals are fetishizing norms at the expense of other lessons we could be learning in this unusual time, lessons he and his comrades have been trying to advance for years, to be sure. The lessons would surely involve a re-focus on the damage done to unionization over time, and the political mobilization that came with it.
In my corner is the political scientist Yascha Mounk, who most comprehensively articulates the current danger while acknowledging, then sidestepping the point that America has also been through many difficult times in the past. Mounk is the author of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, which lays out the weighty challenge of our time and how to rise to meet it. Mounk’s proposed solutions include policies designed to reduce inequality, and as a counterbalance to nationalism on the right, promoting a kind of civic nationalism tweaked to accommodate our contemporary values of openness and pluralism.
The proposed solution is where Mounk and Purdy diverge. Purdy focuses on more substantive political change with a keen eye toward the redistribution of political power and he sees Mounk’s nationalistic revivalism as a kind of tinkering around the edges, and in any case too moralistically focused on the civic attitudes of the people. Of our unsettling Trumpian era, Purdy writes, “If you started out by supporting strong egalitarian democracy rather than ‘norms,’ you would have a clearer compass.”
Still, in discerning the merits of Mounk’s and Purdy’s arguments, one finds oneself in a position of a real-time genealogist, as their views blend together. The task becomes picking out which of their stances directly responds to the other’s. In that spirit, much of the disagreement isn’t so much about whether the house is burning, but why the fire started and how to extinguish it. Purdy acknowledges “There are norms that a democracy really does need to function,” and “Lying about the basic facts of elections, especially by elites and politicians, is a deep kind of norm-breaking that really can erode self-rule.”
Like many of my traumatized left-liberal friends, I have lived most of my life as a somewhat subconsciously Whiggish suburban liberal, implicitly believing that liberal-democracy’s victory was a foregone conclusion and that as bad as things can get, we’re on the good side of the historical arc. Abandoning this view in favor of the norm-skeptical left would involve seeing, with Purdy, a deeper structure of competition between capital and labor (or indeed, society) that is not, in fact, win-win in its unmediated form. This structure would necessitate prioritizing grassroots and labor organizing politics over technocratic tinkering and the conventional wisdom of current bipartisan consensus. It would involve seeing our own epoch as like any other, populated by all the monstrous and undomesticated forces of destruction as much any period in history. It would involve seeing the rule of law and liberal democracy as too abstract a set of considerations to explain or motivate very much over time.
But even in such a conversion story, Donald Trump would still represent the Christmas we found out Santa isn’t real, the time when the historiography had to change, when the story of our norms holding us afloat had to end. In its abnormality, the Trump era forces this conversation, no matter which side or what kind of synthesis prevails. So I say again: even if my belief in liberal democracy and rule and law turn out to be naïve, the change that Trump represents is nothing short of traumatic, and a “deranged” reaction to it both understandable and justified.
What it’s like
Either outcome of this conversation is consistent with the philosopher Charles Taylor’s insight that political identities run bone deep. So, whether Trump represents a legitimate threat of sliding into full-on authoritarianism or if he simply marks the time when we had to adopt a different world-historical stance, either way the mainstream liberal identity is made precarious. As I can attest, this is bad if you’re one of those mainstream liberals. A loss of political identity, Taylor says, can feel much like mourning the death of a loved one.
So much for hypotheticals. It will all have to be sorted out in the future. The current reality is that amid all this is a president of United States, with all the power and symbolic meaning that brings, who defies not only the norms of liberal democracy, but indeed of basic adult behavior. He flaunts his lack of shame and empathy while fracturing confidence in liberal alliances that took generations to build. Among those not outwardly celebrating this state of affairs, large portions of our society fail to notice, intentionally or not. In such an environment, some of us side ultimately not with the Mounk or with Purdy, but with Phillip K. Dick when he advised, “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
Featured Image is Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, by Anthony Crider