To be honest, I truly did not think that I would be still writing about Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee as we now head into or careen out of control, depending on your point of view, towards the RNC Convention on July 18-21. And yet, here we are. The rise of a demagogue such as Trump is not unprecedented of course, but the fact that a major political party is about nominate someone so manifestly unfit for the Presidency of the United States has compelled me to add my own thoughts about what such an eventuality may mean for the country.
My hostility to this man is undisguised and I do believe he represents a real threat to the American Republic. Of course, I am not alone in thinking this which is good since it shows that I am not such a conspiracy nut when I say that a Trump Presidency would transform the office of the President into a tyranny. In fact, I would go so far to suggest that even if Trump is soundly beaten in the November elections his candidacy has exposed how easy it is for an established western democracy like the United States to succumb to the allure of a tyrant.
This should not be surprising to any of us. Since the development of political systems, we have been ruled by some form of tyranny or another. Some of it relatively benevolent and enlightened, but for the most part it has been malicious and despotic.
It was not until the 18th century that people began to think seriously about the question of tyranny and how to avoid it. Early Enlightenment thinkers Enlightenment thinkers challenged the traditional relationship between the rulers and the rules. Yes, there is evidence of some of the ideas germinating during the Renaissance; in particular, the development of a rational understanding of how political states functioned an idea that Machiavelli made infamous in The Prince. Even in Machiavelli’s case, Renaissance political theory was largely considered within the context of Roman political practice which even during the heyday of the Republic was far from democratic utopia.
Reacting to the tyrannies of Ancien Regime Europe, political thinkers throughout the 18th century sought to devise a political economy based on rational thought. For Enlightenment thinkers, politics was another branch of science and could be understood by applying proper scientific methods to the practice of politics. Forget Divine Right of kings; politics were a strictly human activity, and a rational one at that (despite the evidence to the contrary on display at any political convention).
By applying a rational approach to political systems, it was believed that societies would enter into a period of unending progress towards greater liberties and human dignity. The Marquis de Condorcet’s 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind is one of the of the clearest statements of this belief. We should note the irony of its publication in 1795, a year after its author committed suicide in prison, awaiting to be executed by the Jacobins, now that’s progress.
The unintended consequences of the Enlightenment’s effort to free politics from the superstitious influence of religion and the props of absolutist monarchies was to create the conditions that would allow for the development of the kind of state power that absolute monarchs could only dream of.
In his Tanner Lectures, Michel Foucault noted the relation between rationalization and the centralizing tendencies of the newly developing nation-states of Western Europe. Of course, these centralizing tendencies pre-dated the Enlightenment as European monarchies worked towards expanding their authority throughout their realms at the expense of the nobility. But these were often haphazard affairs that took centuries of back and forth. By the end of the 18th century, the Enlightenment provided the structures needed for the state to be centralized in ways undreamed of by even the most ambitious of kings such as Philippe II and Louis XIV.
A centralized state is no guarantee of tyranny, in fact I would say that the modern nation-state has been quite successful (not completely successful, to be sure) in preventing the kinds of tyrannies that we have seen not only historically, but currently as well. This is not to say that western democracies are not guilty of horrendous atrocities or have not acquiesced in supporting tyrannies when it has suited their purposes.
So what does this have to do with Trump? Well, quite a lot I think. I have written already about how Trump’s candidacy has exposed the fault lines in the democratic process (here). Trump is a demagogue. There is no question about it. He is an affront to Constitutional law. It is easy to see how people can compare him to Hitler, yet I don’t think Hitler is the right comparison. Trump is more like Benito Mussolini, which makes him no less dangerous, but his demagoguery is more in keeping with Il Duce’s self-indulgent delusions of tin-pot grandeur than with any interest in taking over the world. But I digress.
For Foucault who wrote extensively about the power of the state, as the state became more rational the more extensive the apparatus of the state also became. The rise of the surveillance state revealed by the heroic work of Edward Snowden is only the most recent example of the extensiveness of the power of the state over the lives of its citizens.
When the relationship between the State and its citizens was rationalized it profoundly altered the nature of that relationship. The personal ties of loyalty that had characterized pre-Enlightenment governments were replaced by impersonal social contracts which are administered by the apparatus of the state. The actual person in charge is largely irrelevant since the social contract functions no matter who is in power. This is an important idea because of what these two very different relationships tell us about the nature of power and how tyrannies can come about.
The underlying theory of medieval kingship incorporated ancient ideas, especially Israelite, of the king as shepherd of his people. Looking to the Old Testament, medieval monarchies saw themselves as heirs of the Israelite kings who were sanctioned by God to rule. As a result, the kings were to do justice to the people because they were responsible to a higher authority. The personalized and individualistic nature of this relationship was played constantly as subjects rebelled against the oppressions of the crown. Even as late as the 1780s, the language of rebellion was also carefully constructed to avoid blaming the king directly for the misery of the people. Petitions were directed towards the king precisely because it was expected that Father of his people, the king would provide proper redress for their complaints.
Richard II during the Peasants’ Revolt demonstrated the extent of this relationship. By riding out to the crowds gathered outside London and taking ownership of the rebels, Richard was performing as a Father-King figure. They were his subjects and children and he would personally see that justice was done. Of course, this was a fiction as the leaders of the rebellion found out as they were hunted down and executed and Richard reneged on his promises.
For the past two centuries we had moved past this idea of personal ruler ship, that is until now. One of the dangers among many of a potential Trump presidency is a return to a personalized type of ruler ship. But Trump is no shepherd king. His claims about making America great again, or banning all Muslims from entering the US, or ignoring the Supreme Court all reinforce that Trump is not interested in rational political behaviour. It is all about the personal for him – he will do all these things without all that pesky interference from the Constitution or established law, or even just basic human decency. And while medieval kingdoms were considered the personal property of the ruling family, there at least attempts to constrain the worst excesses by putting in place laws and appeals to a higher judge. Even one of the most vocal proponents of absolutism, Jean-Jacques Bossuet, argued that kings could not rule arbitrarily because their authority was not their own. Authority came from God and was on loan, as it were.
But with a Trump presidency, we have the worst of all worlds. We have the return to personalized government that would dismantle the various state apparatus that allows for the functioning a complex democratic system, but there would be nothing to restrain such a tyrant even in theory. America would turn into Trump’s personal property and whatever democratic veneer remains would be finally stripped away completely.
I believe that one of the reasons for Trump’s success up to this point is due to his ability to tap into the same energies that have fuelled political revolutions in the past. Walter Newell refers to this as Millenarian Tyranny. A modern kind of tyranny, Millenarian Tyranny seeks to bulldoze the current order and replace it with a utopian fantasy land. Because it requires an act of total destruction and violence (the latter stages of the French Revolution, with its Year One, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Khmer Rouge’s Terror are examples of this kind of abolishing of the past in order to start over again), only a strong man or woman is capable of establishing their utopic vision.
Hence the slogan, Make America Great Again. For Trump and his supporters, America is lost – lost to the Blacks, to the Muslims, to anyone or thing that is seen as unacceptable and the only way to make America great is destroy the present and rebuild America in Trump’s image. But what Trump really wants is not a utopia, but the entire annihilation of all civilization (to use Bakhunin’s happy phrase). Trump and his followers’ worldview cannot allow for any of the conditions of a democratic society. The Social Contract that holds a pluralistic society together is seen as unnecessary restraints on a person’s individualism. Complexity of thought is seen as dangerous because it is not ideologically pure enough.
But even if Trump were to lose, and again unless we have all entered bizarro world, he should lose handily to Hillary Clinton, the damage is done. Throughout its history, the United States has produced its own fair share of would-be demagogues since the inception of the country. But many of those had been relegated to fringe candidates who make a lot of noise complaining about the perceived injustices of the day, but they were either sidelined or incorporated into the mainstream parties. But this time is different. I have little doubt that Trump’s success will continue to embolden other would be demagogues.
Whatever your politics are, the current RNC Convention should serve as a timely warning of how easy it is for a mature democracy like the United States to fall victim to the siren call of the demagogue and why it is so important to constantly work to strengthen and rebuild the institutions that form the sinews of democratic society.
Even trains that run on time are not worth the price of a tyrant.
Top Image: Attributed to NewsCorpse.com
Jason Sager’s historical interests are wide ranging although his research focus is early-modern French intellectual history. He loves a good eclair and sells historical and literary themed mugs through Old Berlin Designs (firstname.lastname@example.org and facebook.com/oldberlindesigns) and can be reached on at facebook.com/jasonbsager and on twitter: @drjasonsager