The political philosopher Michael Sandel recently described the Trump administration as the most serious “stress test” the US constitution has yet faced. Speaking in Toronto last week at a LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture entitled ‘Does Democracy Have a Future?’ Sandel quipped that one reason why the constitution may survive the encounter is that, fortunately, Trump’s “incompetence is greater than his malevolence.” Trump’s victory, he argued, is part of a broader ethno-nationalist political realignment, spearheaded by figures who have little interest in governance but have mastered the art of populist rhetoric. Their rise, he warns, has exposed the centre-left parties’ lack of a compelling counter-narrative, and left it vulnerable to sloganeering saboteurs in Poland, Hungary, Germany, India, the Philippines, Britain and the United States.
Equally worrying verdicts were delivered in the New York Times’s op-ed pages last week. Roger Cohen focused on Trump’s “moral emptiness” and “evident unfitness” for office, and called him a Humpty Dumpty figure (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”) obsessed with “build[ing] a wall he can sit on to contemplate xenophobia and Islamo-phobia.” David Brooks warned that Trump was “doing exactly what he was elected to do”, namely to act like a right-wing version of 1960s provocateurs Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. These men had an instinctive grasp of political theatre and knew exactly how to annoy and offend the establishment, but beyond that neither had a serious interest in governance. Depressingly, Brooks notes that someone like this needs only to “[stick] his thumb in the eye of the educated elites” to be counted a success by his base.
Brooks and Cohen are both right: Trump is partly the revenge of a working class that resents being left behind by globalization, and he is unquestionably a world-historical countercultural buffoon. But recent weeks have also shown a more sinister side to his presidency. Throughout his political life, Trump has stoked ethnic ressentiment with unashamed delight. In a searing analysis of the new presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls that “After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced Barack Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million in exchange for them)…” This was done, Coates observes, on the assumption that “Obama was not intelligent enough to have gone to an Ivy League school, and that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.” Coates concludes that the new president “truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Provocatively, he adds: “He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”
Sandel’s lecture in Toronto probed some of the tensions that have produced this recrudescence of ethno-nationalism in the US. He suggested that much of it was due to a loss of civility in public discourse. One key driver is that information technology has splintered us into virtual enclaves, and isolated us from different opinions. This is well known for fostering hyperpartisan attitudes. It is no accident then that Trump’s inflammatory use of Twitter has been so controversial – he has clearly grasped its potential in ways that his political rivals and critics haven’t. But rather than try to out-Trump Trump in virtual spaces, why not revive the traditional public sphere?
To illustrate what a civil public conversation on a difficult topic might look like, Sandel solicited – from an audience of several hundred people – contrary viewpoints on immigration, specifically the thorny question of how a country should award citizenship. Within minutes, it was clear that public opinion harboured several unresolved tensions. Most people didn’t want to sell citizenship, yet they wanted to keep skills-based immigration, which has many of the same results; most believed that everyone should be free to leave their countries, yet they also wanted to retain control of their national borders. Sandel didn’t resolve these tensions, but he let them surface in cordial exchanges with the audience. After half an hour of conversation, the political tensions that had given rise to the Trump voter were clear enough, even though it is safe to say that only a tiny slice of Sandel’s audience would have endorsed their choice.
Sandel’s point is well made. Constitutions and other political constructs are only as robust as the citizenry that sustains them. Democratic resistance to the new populism should try to restore old forms of civility rather than try to shout louder than its hectoring opponents. In 1787, as the newly formed United States brought its Constitutional Convention to a close, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether his deliberations had produced a monarchy or a republic. His reply is deservedly famous: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”