Trump & the End of Republicanism
Donald Trump, to say the very least, has inspired a great deal of consternation and anguish with his election to the presidency, destroying with relish standards of decorum and civility, hurling insults at virtually every person or group hitherto considered to be beyond the pale, but especially ethnic minorities—primarily, women and Hispanics. But as Jet Heer, a writer for the New Republic, who is certainly no fan of the Donald, noted during the campaign, there is one group of people the president-elect did not target with his ubiquitous insults: people on public assistance. Noting the difference between the “makers and takers” rhetoric of Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians, he pointed out that Trump consistently referred to people on welfare and unemployment as “down on their luck.”
One can tell a great deal about a person from the way they treat their social inferiors—or even whom one considers to be inferior in the first place. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the three noble lords who spend their time flirting at court mock the schoolmaster Holofernes, who indignantly replies, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble,” protesting the ignoble behavior of those aristocrats who would demean their inferiors, something that was considered beneath the dignity of nobility to do. Of course, in a modern, democratic society we are not supposed to have any inferiors, politically speaking—we are all equal before the law, at least in principle. That is partly because this equality before the law is an ideal or legal fiction to which reality does not always (or even often) correspond, but also because of the ambiguity of the word “democracy” as applied to a republic like the United States, since in no constitutional sense does the demos govern it. In any case, it is republicanism—that body of thought stemming from ancient Roman thinkers such as Cicero and Livy, revived by Guiccardini, Machiavelli and other Italian writers in the Renaissance, developed by English and American thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries such as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, John Adams, and many others—which has truly animated American society for much of its history, rather than democracy. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson praised the yeoman farmer precisely for his self-sufficiency, and voiced a common sentiment among the Founders of the republic that “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition.” Political philosophers continue to debate the precise nature of this early modern republicanism that so influenced the Founders of the Republic, and whether or not their notions of liberty and active citizenship were truly consonant with classical republican ideals. But there can be little doubt that a hatred of dependence—“negative liberty,” if you like—was a crucial part of this republican heritage.
Early visitors to the United States saw immediately the effects of this belief. Alexis de Tocqueville famously described Americans as “individualists” who refused to any accept any other man’s opinion but their own, and whose servants were notorious for being difficult to employ (early in the republic, they stopped referring to their employers by the name of “master” and began using the Dutch term “boss” instead, which sounded less servile to them). But Tocqueville was hardly unique in this respect. The English novelist Anthony Trollope visited the U.S. during the first years of the civil war (1861-2), and made a striking observation about the Irish men and women he met in America. At home, he wrote, the Irish were much more pleasant, and, in so many words, more docile than in America. Irish immigrants in the United States seemed to him pretentious, rude—in short, they were not willing to acknowledge him as their social superior, despite his education and status as a writer. But he also admitted that, however less likeable they may have been, Irish Americans had more self-respect, walked with more confidence than their cousins in Britain. This characteristic—not just the principled detestation of any sort of dependence but also a hyper-awareness of it—is part of what makes America unique. This characteristic has other sources, to be sure, but this overwhelming valorization of independence and the concomitant vilification of dependence surely owes much to this republican ideal.
In that sense, it is also a source of the non-stop agitation that marks our public life. No matter how stupid, ill informed, or merely puerile talk radio and cable television news programs may be, they still reflect this emphasis. But it is not clear, however, whether republicanism is still distinguishable from other political ideologies. One of the things that scholars of republicanism debate is whether or not it is conceptually distinct from liberalism, or whether or not liberty as independence is concerned with being independent from “arbitrary power” (to use the early modern phrase) or simply from interference of any kind. The election of Donald Trump may signal that republicanism has finally been superseded as a distinct political philosophy in our country. Liberalism or progressivism still values independence but largely in a personal sense, with regards to sexual freedom or matters of self-expression, as do libertarians of course; the modern conservative movement (“fusionism”) was also concerned with independence but mostly from the modern administrative state. But Americans by now seemed to have accepted the permanent growth of the administrative state and its role in their everyday lives. The preference for “independence” is highly selective for most political options in the U.S. (saved for those few completely consistent libertarians, bless their hearts), and is largely an exception to an otherwise changed set of attitudes towards political dependence. The nationalism that helped elect Donald Trump also had something to do with a desire for independence, though it has more to do with economic independence—namely, the independence that much of the white working class seems to have lost over the past thirty years—and with the strident contempt for immigrants, who they think deprive them of such independence as they once had, by depriving them of jobs. But on the whole, it is not independence but protection that seems to be the driving force behind politics today. On the left, the clamor for more and more protections from racism, sexism, intolerance of any kind, seems to be the guiding force behind its most enthusiastic members. And Trump’s economic platform (at least in its rhetoric) was all about protections, from globalization, from immigrants, from Islamic terrorists, etc. And protection, of course, is something powerful people offer to dependents.
My point is that those who would uphold something like Jefferson’s ideals of what a republic should be (and here I am thinking mostly of the small government conservatism of the last fifty to sixty years) have failed to persuade their fellow citizens that their republicanism provides for the vulnerable, the dependent. That is to say, that independence should be the norm and not the exception has largely been rejected in favor of a politics of patronage and protection. For progressives, it is the federal government with its many social welfare programs that is visible evidence of their commitment to their dependents; for Trump and his supporters, it is (putatively) trade tariffs and a border wall with Mexico. What about small-r republicans, in a classical sense? What about the champions of small government? What tangible commitment can they make that would be as convincing? It is hard to see what someone committed to limited government or who embraces a more classical, republican vision of society could do to persuade people on this point, since that form of republicanism presumes that there shouldn’t be any dependent citizens—that such a thing would simply be a contradiction in terms. And it is this that has been left behind by contemporary politics. Whether this is a good or ill development is unclear; but I believe it is the direction in which our country is heading, for better or worse.
Many writers have seen Donald Trump’s rise and election in almost apocalyptic terms, with some, such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, seeing in his success the end of democracy, while others believe Trump to herald the coming of fascism to America. Most of these predictions are hyperbolic in the extreme. The United States has suffered from plenty of corruption and incompetence in the both distant and recent past, and its electoral politics have sometimes been marked by violence, as they occasionally were in 2016. The idea that Donald Trump is a fascist is risible, given his notable lack of military prowess and the distinct lack of a paramilitary presence in his campaign. Our republican institutions are likely to survive this and many more elections like it, and that is my point: it’s perfectly possible to have republican political institutions in the absence of republican beliefs; the Roman Principate was one example of this; another would late medieval Florence under the Medici or others like it. The United States might be headed long term towards something similar as a polity. A President Trump or a future president might well usher in a sort of Latin American “strongman” type of governance, or at least a type more like that of Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant former Prime Minister of Italy (sans the dalliance with prostitutes, one hopes). Or perhaps already has, for this is what I think Trump’s success as a candidate demonstrates: a deep seated change of belief. It may or may not herald the end of the republic, but it very well may portend the demise, if not of republicanism as such, then at least of a very American type of republicanism, one that for good or ill no longer appears to speak to the needs and interests of a majority of its citizens.