Seeing the rise of the far right presidential nominee Donald Trump, in a country which is (falsely) regarded as the world’s bastion of democracy and freedom has understandably frightened many people, leaving them searching for answers as to why this has happened. Given that the political task for everyone on the left and a lot of other people as well, should partly be to beat Trump, the next question that comes to mind is, how can we defeat Trump and his ideology? It is also worth asking what kind of country we will live in when and if Trump is defeated and if we will find a way to live with his supporters in the aftermath. Only one thing is certain: This is not a debate that will be ending anytime soon. Amongst all this, some elite commentators from liberal and democrat supporting news outlets, have argued that Trump’s success shows the problems Inherent in Democracy. This line of thought goes along the lines of, ‘democracy has given a vote to thousands of people susceptible to flattery and irrational fearmongering, who do not know how to use their vote’. Firstly, it is true that, in our media dominated political landscape, many people’s views are subject to manipulation by mainstream media narratives. Despite this, it is important not to blame them alone for this, realising that we have probably all been subject to this kind of manipulation. Secondly, given that the ‘blame democracy for trump’ narrative has dominated mainstream headlines and has been jumped on by a number of journalists, some of those propping up the idea could be accused of blatant hypocrisy. This blog post will look at the main reasons why democracy is not to blame for the rise of Trump, and why if we are to have any chance of defeating Trumpism, we need more democracy, not less.
Democracy is not a Current Reality
The only way that the ‘Blame Democracy for Trump’ narrative can make any sense whatsoever is if you presume that democracy is an observable reality in the US. This runs in contrast to the Left libertarian perspective which posits that democracy is an ideal to aspire to, and understands political disruption in our current system as the result of mass economic and identity bases inequality.
The idea that we live in a ‘hyper democracy’ as Andrew Sullivan calls it in his essay on the subject, ignores the relationship between the economy and the mechanics of political decision making. Who makes the donations and hires the lobbyists which guarantee that only the views of the wealthy really matter in guaranteeing political outcomes? Why is someone’s ability to stand for election determined by their bank account and not their experience? How much tolerance of diversity will ordinary Americans be able to handle while bogged down by their economic status and simultaneously being told that immigrants are the ones to blame? Andrew Sullivan tries to dismiss these questions by pointing to the failure of the well bankrolled Jeb Bush campaign, and the popularity of the publicly funded Sanders campaign. However, while money in politics obviously has a huge influence on presidential campaigns, they are a relatively bad example. After all, elite fundraising cannot convince voters to love a candidate who leaves them cold. Despite this, In Congress, which makes all the laws, the skew of policy making to big donors and super PACs is very clear. Grassroots presidential funding may be a slight spanner in the works to this, but the fact remains that most politicians spend their days and nights soliciting money from the wealthy, which means listening to and acting on their priorities.
The capitalist way of organising economic power is also a perennial challenge to democracy and a huge challenge to the idea that we live in a hyper democracy. It undermines the premises of personal equality and collective governance, substituting it with workplace hierarchy and the political power of wealth. Indeed, this is something which Trump, as a billionaire megalomaniac should know all too well. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trumps voters have never seen democracy exercised in the way that ‘hyper democracy’ suggests. Instead they have watched impassioned elections channelled into corrupt forms of government, where the wealthy are a check on any kind of populist influence. They have seen bailouts for huge banks and Trade deals that wipe out entire industries. Far from being given equal access to health care and decent schools, they have been marginalized. To them, however misguided a view this may be, they see Trump as an alternative. This leads me to my next point
Blame Unbridled Capitalism Not Unbridled Democracy
This is not to suggest that Trump’s supporters are in any way confused Socialists or anything like that. Exit Polls confirm that the primary force in his success is not the working class. Also, poor and working class voters make up only about a third of the GOP electorate, measured by an income of below $50,000, as they are more likely to vote. So what does it mean that Trumps voters see him as an alternative to the current political system, and yet are not mainly working class?
We can begin to answer this by looking at who many of Trumps supporters are. His real base of support consists of business owners, supervisory and middle management employees, franchisees, landlords, real estate agents, propertied farmers and so on. They are not at the executive pinnacle of corporate America. Many of them are not even doctors or lawyers. Rather, they are the much wider swath of those people whose livelihood is derived from middle band positions within the corporate hierarchy. To use a Marxist analysis for a moment, this situation is an example of the petty bourgeois – the middle class whose ownership of small parcels of property does not protect them from vulnerability in the business world and the need to exploit themselves – experiencing worry and insecurity following a financial crisis. This makes them receptive to right wing authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of ethnic minorities. What is particularly attractive to this class of Trump supporters is the idea that he will somehow suspend the self-interest of his own class, because he supposedly cannot be bought. This is very appealing to those small business owners who resent ‘red tape’ and the minimum wage. The great shock of 2008, followed by a less than persuasive economic recovery, inflamed fears about unemployment among many people. Such conditions bred not only anxiety but resentment, explaining the appeal of Trumps anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican and anti-muslim rhetoric. If this message did resonate with some members of the white working class, the GOP’s upper income voters helped Trump secure the nomination. This is why, Trump is not the fault of unbridled Democracy, but unbridled capitalism.
The Fight Ahead
Trump is a liar, a bigot a xenophobe and a bully who plays on anti-establishment sentiment, economic abandonment, and wounded white privilege like a maestro. He is putting a white nationalist, populist identity politics at the heart of the presidential election. This is all the more reason why in order to defeat trump we cannot blame democracy, and to do so is just to play into his mind-set.
In order to strengthen democracy in the face of the Trumpist threat, it may prove useful to avoid calling Trump supporters fascist and racist by default. Admittedly, some of his core supporters are those things and should be fought as such, but many are not. The problem is that in politics, people tend to become what they are addressed as being. That is what makes Trumps brand of far right populism so dangerous. The hope has to be that when Trump is gone, most of his supporters will become something else – not double down on the defining features of racism and sexism. Otherwise, we will have to accept and find a way to live with a generation of far right movements in American Politics. This would mean choosing between normalizing Trumps anti democracy politics and stigmatising a large amount of citizens – two bad alternatives. Attacks that assume Trump supporters share his ugliest qualities only give weight to the claim that he is their voice. If we take this as our starting point, we face a drawn out and nasty fight against Trumpism, even if he loses in November. The more we question whether Trump actually does speak for millions of disenfranchised Americans, the sooner we can work towards something different.
In light of this, it is important to remember what we are actually fighting for: an economy where workers have democratic control over the means of production and a country that is more democratic and less alienating. Trying to undermine Trump should not turn into defending the system he is attacking, as ‘too much democracy’ theorists like Andrew Sullivan are trying to do. Trumps attacks are opportunistic and a victory for him would only make things worse, especially for the vulnerable. However, he is succeeding in part because there is so much that could be better. The radical left should emerge from this fight with aims and objectives that speak to the young people who overwhelmingly voted for Sanders, the older and non-white voters who tend towards Clinton, and those Trump supporters who are not essentially racists and bigots, but who feel the need for radical change.
Trumps success is not the fault of democracy. Rather, his campaign is a desperate cry from an outdated and brutal capitalist economic system. Our society and culture cultivates the fantasy that rich people are better than us, natural rulers, brilliant and inherently knowledgeable. Trump is the extreme version of that money driven deformation of democracy. His version animates the populist wing of the Republican Party, while the big donor version animates the Jeb bush wing. If we beat Trump, there is going to be more than enough temptation to recoil from the little bit of democracy that gave him his votes. Pundits will say that government is a problem for the political elites to manage, not something that must be justified or challenged. We need to resist this. Trump is a profoundly anti-democratic figure, with no respect for ideas of civic equality or self-rule. His ‘I am your voice’ rhetoric should make this clear. If we defeat him but allow him to decide what democracy means for the rest of us, then we will simply be playing into the hands of the far right.