In a memorable passage, Emerson observes that: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of a man … and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” That insight is a good starting point for a raft of books about the Trump era, most of which interpret the president’s disruption of the status quo, and his proud ignorance of much of it, as a death knell for American democracy. In several cases the titles alone – How Democracies Die, Trumpocracy, Antipluralism – hint at the dark conclusions these writers draw about Trump’s role in the recent surge of populism in Asia, Britain, Europe and Russia.
However accurate their critiques of Trump, these jeremiads tend to discount the distortions of Cold War politics and the long ascendancy of neoliberal ideas within the US. Reviewing several of the “crisis-of-democracy” writers in Dissent magazine, Jedediah Purdy points out that “The underlying assumption of those who defend norms is that, at some very deep level, Americans have always agreed on the key issues, above all liberty and equality, and have just had to work out the kinks through the generations.” In fact, recent decades have shown that no such consensus ever existed and the resentments of the 60s culture wars persist to this day. Leaders like George W. Bush and Donald Trump have simply tapped into them in drearily familiar ways.
The books also treat the twentieth century as a far more stable and progressive period than it was. The British historian Mark Mazower begins “Dark Continent”, his incisive study of modern Europe, by noting that before the Great War, the “closest much of Europe came to the democratic nation-state which has become the norm today were the monarchies of the Balkans.” A century ago “[n]owhere did adults of both sexes have the vote, and there were few countries where parliaments prevailed over kings.” Modern democracy, in other words, “is basically the product of the protracted domestic and international experimentation which followed the collapse of the old European order in 1914.” The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described the economic aspects of this disruptive experimentation as “the gale of creative destruction” which swept through decaying institutions, forcing them to adapt to new circumstances, or perish.
During this period of gathering resistance to “Trumpism” it is important to recall the radicalism of America’s trade unions, and the New Deal and Civil Rights movements, all of which were quietly deliberately de-emphasized during the Cold War. As Purdy notes the current Cassandras of America’s imperilled democracy “recapitulate the constraints that recent decades have clapped onto the political imagination.” This myopia – the anti-fascist Italian novelist Ignazio Silone called it “the widespread virtue that identifies History with the winning side” – presents a deceptively neat and a-historical narrative. For one thing, it ignores the fact that democracy’s triumph over communism was largely due to Russia’s extremely costly defeat of fascism. It also downplays the fact that the character of the ensuing democracy, both in Europe and America, was always work in progress, often defining itself oppositionally, to fit the constraints of a Cold War paradigm.
Trump’s vulgarity may terrify American pundits but that is largely why it appeals to his base. At his nomination he promised to “deliver for the people … that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned … who work hard but no longer have a voice.” With typical self-assurance, he added: “I am your voice.” Fifteen months later, Trump clearly believes he can sell himself this way, despite a near-perfect record of miscalculation and misgovernance. What he has managed to do, despite these failures, is clarify the contentious issues within US politics with extraordinary force. As his shadow lengthens over America’s cultural and political landscape, it has provoked a depth of introspection and grassroots activism that has been absent in the US for at least 50 years. Perhaps what so many pundits are reading as an unprecedented threat to US democracy is, in fact, a prelude to its reawakening.