“The Objects before me are too grand and multifarious for my comprehension. We have not men fit for the times.”
John Adams wrote these words he was discussing the challenge of creating a new nation out of the thirteen American colonies and winning independence. The men he referred to so dismissively turned out to be the Founding Fathers, a group who would shape the course of history and create the most powerful nation in the world.
The terrible reality of this election is that even if the Donald Trump moderates his positions, backtracks on the bait he has fed his following, and moves to the centre, he has already caused damage.
Never in American history have the people elected a man who so resembles and imitates the behaviour of a dictator. There has scarce been a president less prepared for the burdens of the White House, or more ill-suited to the gravity of its office. He is a man not only not fit for the times, but also uniquely unfit for the role of President in the United States of America.
City Upon a Hill
When the Founding Fathers created America, they set about to create a system of government that would resist tyranny. Feeling victimised by control from London, these men attempted to pour the ideals of the Enlightenment – rationality and reason – along with sense of egalitarianism, into their project. As a result, they laid down the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and enshrined the word ‘liberty’ in American identity, though the nature of that liberty would be debated and contradicted in due course.
Through separation of powers, checks and balances, and individual rights, they sought to design, in the words of John Winthrop, an early settler in Massachusetts, a ‘City Upon a Hill’: a kind of utopia, or the ‘last best hope for mankind’. The American experience has not yet fulfilled its universalist and some might readily say impossible mission, and much of its history is concerned with correcting fundamental hypocrisies of its birth.
One of the most crucial developments since the Founders has been the expansion of democracy in America. Abraham Lincoln’s invocation of ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’ in his Gettysburg Address was a unifying and uplifting message, but it did little to clarify the exact nature of democracy in America.
Despite the fact that most of the Founders were ideologically opposed to ‘too much’ democracy, it is possible to read American history as one long sweep towards popular-led government: from the breakaway with non representative rule as thirteen colonies; to the vast expansion of the franchise under seventh president, Andrew Jackson; with eroding of the institution of slavery through the Civil War and its aftermath; accelerated in the Progressive Era with women’s votes and the direct election of Senators; fought for fiercely during the Civil Rights Movement; and finally intensified with the internet, as individual members of the democratic body access information and communicate with unprecedented speed.
America has undergone monumental change since John Adams sneered at his fellow Founding Fathers. But by and large, the ideals of the Founders have remained true, and in fact the course of history has flowed towards fulfilling those ideals, and not their disappointment.
Tyranny has been resisted. While the presidency has grown in power, the trials of Barack Obama’s second term demonstrated the continued importance of checks and balances. Liberty has been empowered and expanded. More Americans than ever before have political rights, and there is greater attention than ever in American history on injustices over voter access and freedom of speech. Rationality has surpassed dogma in many governing issues. Scientific progress and human compassion have tended to prevail in civil rights and healthcare, energy policy and social issues.
Most importantly, in what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dubbed the ‘arsenal of democracy’ Americans have never truly resorted to the politics of a strongman, or given in the temptations of a demagogues.
The Un-American President
Whatever his actions in office, Donald Trump will occupy a shameful corner of American history for the way in which he employed tactics more befitting of a banana republic than a city on a hill in order to win. He campaigned like an aspirant dictator.
He groomed an irrational personality cult around his candidacy. While the modern presidency undoubtedly elevates the significance of presidential personality in the minds of voters, perhaps at the expense of impartial thought, the campaign of Donald Trump eroded any sense of moderation. Trump is a used car salesman-extraordinaire, and recognises that his success in business relied on his ability to sell himself as a brand. And so he relentlessly marketed himself, trampling on the tenets of responsible politics and separation of powers in the process: “Only I can fix it”, “I am your voice.”
This enabled Trump to completely avoid accountability with his followers: anything he did or said that stood in juxtaposition to earlier statements, or sounded downright un-American, was quietly ignored. He sold the public easy answers, and did so at such a rate that he deflected circumspection. Most depressingly, he got away with it.
Trump’s relationship with the truth was Orwellian. He conjured facts from fake news websites, or built lies with alacrity unseen in presidential elections. When he was held to account for contradictions or claiming wrong facts, he cravenly strove to delegitimise those telling the public of his lies: the media. The ‘dishonest media’, one of the only bodies standing between Trump’s lies and the American people, was demonised. Even Fox News, usually a staunch ally of a Republican candidate, could not overlook Trump’s utter disregard for truth. So he sat in the corner of Breitbart and Sean Hannity, attacking those who would hold him to account.
Ever eager to pose as the strongman, Trump encouraged violence at his rallies and threatened his political rival. With scant regard for law or the constitution, he declared himself to be the ultimate arbiter of justice in America, as if the national election had somehow morphed into a perverse reality television show where he was the judge. Worst of all, he criminalised and threatened his rival candidate, bringing American politics into the realm of failed states and broken republics. All the while he demonstrated the ability to be personally stung to an extent ill befitting any grown man, let alone the President of the United States.
His supporters argue that he represented the necessary change to the process; a revolt to a broken system. These arguments might have credibility if Donald Trump were held to basic standards of truth, decency, and understanding of what makes America fundamentally American.
Instead, large swathes of the nation voted for Donald Trump: a man who mocked prisoners of war and the disabled, capitalised on racial divisions, and boasted of sexually assaulting women; a man born into wealth but lacking grace, who put himself over the national security of his country so he could emulate the politics of Putin, and who constructed lies to hide his own ignorance; a man who in almost every measure fails to live up to the standards of compassion, integrity, and reason set by the Founders; an utterly Un-American President.
Death of Democracy
The meaning of Donald Trump’s election extends far beyond one election or the next four years. Fundamentally, this was a test of American democracy.
In May 2016, Andrew Sullivan’s article, ‘America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny’ observed the Trump candidacy as a symptom of what was happening in American democracy.
Sullivan argued that the rise of Donald Trump went some way to validating the anxieties expressed by Plato on democracy. In essence, Plato believed democracy was by its nature too prone to degradation, and that reasoned debate would be subsumed by the rash clamour of the democratic mob. Discontent, when it came, would lead to civil anger. This would lead to authorities being disdained, and Plato believed the people would follow popular will, no matter how reactionary or ill designed.
This would make the democratic system vulnerable to the promises of a tyrant; Plato imagined he would be a wealthy elite, who claimed to speak for the common man, who would gather a loyal democratic group around him, assail his fellow elites under the guise of populism, and build a tyranny of personality over the mechanisms of the democracy.
It’s dramatic stuff, and perhaps melodramatic, but frankly the political process of the past year and a half has more or less aligned to this hypothesis. Rabid partisanship, which worsened under President Obama despite his hopes entering office, has torn away at the threads of reasonable debate. Donald Trump harnessed the combined anger of millions of Americans, angers that were strewn across disparate and often unrelated grievances, and embarked on laying out simple solutions to their problems by becoming the spokesman for that anger. All the while, he asked the public to believe he was an enemy of ‘the establishment’, despite having inhabited the most elite circles of politics and business his entire life thanks to his birth.
Normally, however, one would hope that the American people, educated in the follies of dictatorships, would call bullshit on his simplistic solutions, fear mongering, and flip flops. Surely he would be taken to task for not disclosing his tax returns; for it would be the height of hypocrisy to bemoan the state of American bridges and roads if the wealthiest of the country could scallywag their money away in some Caribbean paradise.
America would not stand for a presidential candidate who’s ‘gaffes’ were not just shocking, but cruel. Towards prisoners of war, the parents of dead soldiers, women, gays, Mexican judges, African Americans, a disabled reporter. Surely they would take a measure of such a man that he was not fit to represent them, given the ideals passed down from the Founders that made America exceptional?
The most alarming concern moving forward is not what Donald Trump will do in office, but how an aspiring tyrant like Trump was able to win in the United States of America in the twenty first century. The coming years will no doubt be replete with investigations and analysis, ironically probably done by journalists on the coasts, to paint a fuller picture of what has happened to hollow out the values of American democracy and understand the depth and complexion of this anger. It is part of a process that will hopefully enable Americans to build bridges again, and restore some respect, reason, and compassion back into political life in the United States.
The Only Thing Necessary
Eight years after the election of President Barack Obama the pendulum swings from hope to fear.
His supporters may herald his election as the coming of true change to D.C., but Donald Trump’s appointments thus far signal little to offer such hopes credence. That is of little importance now, in any case, because the test of American democracy is over for the time being; what comes next is the test of the American republic.
Over the next four years the world will watch to see if the office of the Executive can tame Donald Trump’s thin skinned narcissism, whether the gravity of the White House can adjust his thinking on individual rights, freedom of speech, and the importance of the press.
If this does not happen, the gears of checks and balances will need to engage to prevent disaster. Figures like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham will be increasingly vital to maintain a realistic view of foreign affairs, should Trump continue to ignore Russian actions at the risk of damaging his own reputation. The Supreme Court, though it will tilt conservative, will need to keep Trump within the lines of his constitutional authority. Democrats in Congress will need to do their very best to protect the groups most at risk from Trump’s attacks. Outside of government, the free press will need to find a way of accurately and effectively hold Donald Trump to his successes and failures for a population deeply divided.
Lastly, for those who are enraged by his presidency, political mobilisation and protest will be more important than ever; because, in the words of Edmund Burke, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.
Thank you to everyone who has read any of BulletPoints over the past year and a half.