Trump’s rise signals a full-blown political crisis

American primitive (La Brea diorama), by Susan Barsy
We are living through the 2016 presidential election.  Someday, perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now, we will try to recall just what it was like.  What was it like, when Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, claimed the Republican nomination and precipitated widespread political turmoil?

This is an experiential question, historical yet subjective; it’s not a question of fact, social science, or policy.  Therefore we will each be entitled to our own truths, however aberrant or incompatible.

Meanwhile, the very multiplicity of our views, which will never agree, adds to the confusion of what we are experiencing, the uncertainty of how it will all end.  Where is the nation heading?  What will happen to its party system?  Whose judgments and actions will prove to have been most insightful and right, a question whose importance will grow retrospectively, furnishing a yardstick for identifying who in our generation is most discerning, most trustworthy.

Watching and listening to a Trump-obsessed nation and being part of that nation ourselves, nets some insight into past political upheavals, particularly rise of Hitler in early 20th-century Germany.  The abiding mystery of Nazism is how the German people could have empowered someone so aggressive and hateful.  How could they have been so mistaken as to repose trust in someone so utterly inhuman, so indifferent to world order and prevailing norms?  From the perspective of August 2016, it’s more understandable how masses of citizens could end up giving too much power to a dangerous leader.

Something similarly unpredictable is happening in American politics, something for which we all bear responsibility, yet we aren’t completely sure what it is or how bad it will be.  And we don’t agree on what we should do.

Three conditions are combining in the United States, creating widespread and practically leaderless confusion.  Together, they amount to a dangerous political crisis, threatening a constitutional government we normally think of as stable and strong.  A disillusioned electorate cognizant of its powerlessness and vulnerability, a weak unresponsive leadership class, and the appearance of an unknown but charismatic ‘political savior’: there you have the recipe for political catastrophe.

All three elements—the frustrated expectations of American citizens, an outmoded and out-of-touch political establishment, and Trump’s charismatic authority—must be addressed to move beyond this dangerous political crisis.  Unfortunately, a rotten political system is difficult to replace or reform overnight.  Our parties are filled with self-seeking prima donnas.  Creatures of party, they’ve lost touch with the people.  They farm out the task of deciding what they believe in, relying on experts to formulate their positions.  Collectively, in their quest for personal power, the leaders of both political parties are failing the people of the United States.

Anti-Trump forces comfort themselves with the notion that, if only Hillary Clinton will win, the United States will ‘be okay.’  Thank goodness the people who are demanding change at any price are not quite a voting majority!  This theme organizes much political discourse.  The experts, who deliver so much in the way of political anesthesia, tamp down our anxiety with a never-ending stream of surveys and polls.  Meanwhile, Trump, with his stark directness, soldiers on defiantly, feeding his electrifying certainties to millions of mesmerized followers.  Trump and the popular discontent he energizes will remain a threat until his opponents unite and respond to the people’s needs by forging an appropriate yet superior ideology of change.

Image: A diorama showing
the inimical relation between two extinct species
at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles.
Author photo.

The disquieting Donald J Trump

O Uncivil One (cyanotype), © 2016 Susan Barsy

1.  I get embarrassed after expressing an opinion about Donald Trump, because I always feel that I don’t know what I am talking about.  I am so burned out thinking about Donald Trump that sometimes I find myself having an anxiety attack at bedtime instead of drifting off to sleep, which just isn’t like me.

2.  Sometimes I try to argue that Donald Trump can’t be such a terrible, dangerous person, because if he were, as a businessman, he would have already run into many, many problems with the law.   Running a large company entails complying with innumerable laws.  Workplace-safety laws.  Food-safety laws.  Laws governing equal employment.  Building codes.  Tax laws.  Donald Trump must be a person of considerable ability and judgment, I reason, because he successfully built up such a big business.  And because he likes to build things, I reason that he must be a constructive person by nature, who is not fundamentally interested in blowing up buildings and people in other countries.  He must have had to deal with many different kinds of people successfully, at least well enough to get to ‘the handshake.’  Ultimately, keeping a massive corporation going depends on consistency and conformity; paradoxically it also depends on freshness and flexibility.  Has Trump been a decent ‘river to his people’?  Or has he been every bit as bad as Walmart, but just covered up his company’s misdeeds more adroitly?  I reason to myself that if he had had major problems with the law and been a really bad ‘corporate citizen,’ his rivals would have outed him already, and the laundry list of his villainies would have made him a social pariah.  (To me, the much-talked-about problems with Trump University just don’t count, for reasons made clear in item 6 below.)

3.  I also feel embarrassed listening to Donald Trump because it weirdly resembles being privy to a private conversation.  Sometimes, at press conferences or when addressing late-night crowds after a victory, Trump’s tone is oddly personal and conversational, as though nothing in particular were happening, and as though he were shooting the breeze with me over milk and cookies at the kitchen table.  He gets a dreamy tone in his voice, talking about his employees, his hotels, his ‘operations,’ or the beautiful people of some state that’s just fallen to him.  When he talks about Florida, for example, he relates it to his own history and enterprises, not the other way around.  Sometimes it’s as though we are all going to be sucked up into the aura of Donald J Trump’s beautiful empire of luxury, leaving behind the angst and grunge of these second-rate United States.  Will the golden touch of Donald Trump brush off on the likes of you and me?  This is one fantastic effect of Donald Trump speaking.

4.  But I also feel uncomfortable when Donald Trump is being ‘tough,’ when he is being ‘scandalous,’ because I’m never certain whether he’s being scandalous mainly because scandal sells.  I know I should conclude that Donald Trump is ‘dangerous’ when friends say he is, but the way Donald Trump says many things, I find it difficult to nail his tone, to conclude that he is authentically mean and hateful.  Is Donald Trump a very genial and glitzy version of a Nazi, or is he someone who uses shocking utterances to get people thinking about how the American reluctance to draw bounds around itself might have trade-offs when it comes to internal order and economic well-being?  He is nearly alone in declaring loudly and in many registers that globalism has a big downside for the US, a downside that millions of citizens keenly feel.  If Donald Trump were anything like Hitler, could the Clintons ever have been induced to attend his wedding?  And what, then, to make of his rather noble tribute to Planned Parenthood, a compassionate tribute the likes of which have not been uttered by a leading Republican for decades?

5.  What I know is that Donald Trump cares nothing about civility, a traditional standard governing political intercourse and acceptable public-sphere behavior.  What does it matter if a person running for president has never held a public office?  It means he or she has never had to practice being civil.  Civility is the quality that keeps antagonistic parties on speaking terms, and what does effective government depend on more?  Trump at a campaign rally, however, speaks as though in the privacy of a corporate sanctum.  “Get them out” is a public-sphere translation of the message, “You’re fired!”, but firing a citizen is something not even the Donald can do.  To me, the violence and hostility Trump’s speech, and his deliberate decision not to practice civility, indicate why, if elected, he might be a failure at governing.

6.  Why do none of our objections matter?  Nothing is gonna stick to Trump because he’s a charismatic leader.  More than a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber came up with the idea of ‘charismatic authority’ to explain why, seemingly in defiance of reason, some individuals inspire a large and faithful following.  Weber noticed that the charismatic rise simply because their followers see exceptional qualities in them.  Followers repose trust in such individuals on the basis of personality, not reason.  A charismatic leader’s claims to power rest on the possession of “exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment,” which inspire loyalty and obedience.  This relationship of trust helps explain why many Trump supporters have not wavered since deciding to back Trump at the beginning of his campaign.  Whether his charismatic spell over voters will wane, or whether it can be converted into an effective mode of governance, remains to be seen.

7.  Repeat the phrase, ‘Checks and balances,’ whenever the thought of President Trump induces panic.  If he’s really awful, Congress will rebel and impeach his ass.

Papal Charisma

Pope Francis

The Papacy is only as good as the person in it, at best.  With the accession of the new pope and his first few dazzling gestures and appearances, the prevailing tone of Catholicism has quickened, with adherents daring to think new thoughts and regard the future more hopefully, sensing the power of a new point of view to create openings.

Whether the church on the ground can keep up with the change, Pope Francis has begun clearing paths for a global communion of followers.  His response to their desire for inspiration has been direct and almost disconcertingly unmediated.  There’s no question that Catholicism has entered a new era.

Francis’s stellar début marks the emergence of a charismatic leader.  Weber famously defined charismatic authority as “resting on [a] devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and to the normative patterns or order he reveals or ordains.”  In short, charisma exists where followers acknowledge it to.  A rare in-dwelling quality, charisma is the genuine form of a sort of appeal that American politicians desperately try to acquire with the aid of polling, statistics, and consultants.  In Catholic believers’ spontaneous and enthusiastic response to Francis, we see a faith in leadership largely absent from American democracy.

Charisma, however wondrous, is problematic.  In Francis’s case, it remains first to be seen whether his acts and leadership justify the adulation he is receiving.  For now, we see mainly the strength of the laity’s pent-up desire to repose trust in a virtuous leader.  Second, as Francis’s time in the Papacy lengthens, we shall see whether his charismatic authority is powerful enough to wreak change in a vast yet morally compromised global bureaucracy.  Or will his charisma be muted as he attempts to reinvigorate a hierarchy so routinized and entrenched?