Trump and Democracy

I’ve just watched an entire Trump speech on my i-phone (Manheim, Pennsylvania, October 1: Yes, pity me. It lasted over an hour but could have been boiled down to a minute: ‘Make America great again’, ‘Crooked Hillary’, and ‘Me, me, me’. Yet the audience was apparently huge (we weren’t shown it), and yelled its approval ecstatically (we could hear that). Clips on TV news don’t quite convey the monotonous flavour of it: monotonous, but also mesmeric. It reminded me of minimalist music. There was no serious argument, nothing substantial, quite a few straight lies, a lot of cheap jibes, and repetitions, especially of words and phrases he knew would get his audience’s most poisonous juices flowing: Obama, Clinton, Wall Street, Washington, Mexicans, the intellectual elite.… But you’ll know all that.

My first reaction, as an intellectual elitist, was predictable. So perhaps was my second: which was to wonder what has gone wrong with my beloved USA to render such a monstrous candidate, and his popularity, possible? Surely it can’t be only the effect of late-stage capitalism (

My third reaction was perhaps a little more worrying. What does this tell us about democracy? If Trump wins the presidential election, it will undoubtedly be democratically. If there is any electoral gerrymandering in this contest, as there probably was in George W’s, it will come from Trump’s opponents. (In the Manheim speech, he already prepared us for that.) A majority of the American people, or of those who bothered to vote, would have wanted him to win. They may have been stupid, misled, even cheated, but their will would have prevailed. So there can be no complaints.

For my part, this will only confirm the doubts I have had about ‘democracy’ for many years. I’ve never been an uncritical supporter of the idea, as so many others are. I’ve always rated good government higher than self-government, so long as that good government embraces fairness, justice, tolerance, peace, equality, opportunity, and a string of other ‘progressive’ qualities that I would place higher on my list of political desiderata than ‘democracy’ per se. In principle, I would prefer to live under a liberal autocracy than an oppressive democracy, if this were possible. Of course the choice is never as stark and simple as this; but I admit to a smidgeon of regret at the departure of tyrannical regimes which at least made an effort to maintain economic equality (the USSR), or gender equality (Saddam’s Iraq. Or so they say). The ‘democracies’ that allow exploitative capitalism, or the subjection of women to a religious majority, appeal to me less. I might have said that as one of Britain’s colonial subjects in the 1950s, if I’d known about some of the home-grown tyrannies that would replace Britain’s over the next twenty years. (I didn’t, because I didn’t foresee that, and I was a principled anti-imperialist at the time.)

The democrat’s answer to this, of course, is that democracy is more likely to implement these other progressive values than autocracy and colonialism are. That rests on a faith on the inherent progressiveness and rationality of human nature, which will always apparently rise to the surface when people are given control over their own affairs. It’s this, I’m afraid, that I can’t quite credit. When I hear the opinions of some people, and particularly Americans – if only because they seem more willing to air their prejudices (I’ve given an extraordinary example in an earlier post: – I rather doubt any people’s inherent goodness and rationality. Trump’s support confirms this. This makes democracy a very unreliable guarantor of liberal political virtue. It may be the least bad one, as (I think) Churchill said once. But with men like Trump around, we can’t rely on it. That might be taken as a defence of our own, British, highly un-democratic upper-class dominated political system, serving, as it does, to temper the excesses of the mob. Disliking Farageism as I do – our equivalent to Trumpery – I can see some point in that. But it’s a painful one.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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