Friday, November 11, 2016

Andrew Sullivan Haunts Me

Last spring I posted a discussion of an article by veteran political commentator Andrew Sullivan about Donald Trump as a classic demagogue. The article was on target, citing Trump's features as a would-be despot based on insights from Plato to Eric Hoffer. After that article in New York Magazine, as far as I could tell, Sullivan went silent on the topic. Then, on November 3, he published this article, "America and the Abyss". I read through it quickly a couple of days or so after publication, and at that point it appeared that Clinton would win. I didn't ponder it deeply, feeling the anticipated relief of an iminent reprieve. 

Today, feeling stronger, I went back and began the autopsy. Like millions of Americans, I was stunned, confused, angry, and mortified that so many Americans would fall for this con man. In  reading Sullivan's article, I felt the trauma anew. He prayed that he was wrong, that this would not come to pass, that his worst fears were the rantings of a deluded man. If he is deluded, so am I. However, I believe that he--and many others like him--are Cassandras whose foresight goes unheeded, leading to the ruin of many. I hope that he and I and others like us are wrong, that Trump will not wreck the republic, that at worst he will only pursue policies that I find counter-productive, not unconstitutional, and that all of his decisions will be rational; that my troubled sight is a mere mirage that does not reveal a rough beast. But I don't believe that this leopard will change his spots. 

Sullivan opens his piece: 

The most frustrating aspect of the last 12 months has been the notion that we have been in a normal, if truly ugly, election cycle, with one extremely colorful and unpredictable figure leading the Republican Party in an otherwise conventional political struggle over policy. It has been clear for months now, it seems to me, that this is a delusion. A far more accurate account of the past year is that an openly proto-fascist cult leader has emerged to forge a popular movement that has taken over one of the major political parties, eroded central norms of democratic life, undermined American democratic institutions, and now stands on the brink of seizing power in Washington. 

After addressing the possiblity that his fears are overblown, Sullivan continues with this appraisal of Trump:

Donald Trump is the first candidate for president who seems to have little understanding of or reverence for constitutional democracy and presents himself as a future strongman.This begins with his character — if that word could possibly be ascribed to his disturbed, unstable, and uncontrollable psyche. He has revealed himself incapable of treating other people as anything but instruments to his will. He seems to have no close friends, because he can tolerate no equals. He never appears to laugh, because that would cede a recognition to another’s fleeting power over him. He treats his wives and his children as mere extensions of his power, and those who have resisted the patriarch have been exiled, humiliated, or bought off.  
Sullivan concludes his indictment of Trump's deficiencies and breaches of the mores of demcracy with this conclusion: 

We are told we cannot use the term fascist to describe this. I’m at a loss to find a more accurate alternative.

I, too, have avoided the "f-word", and I've stuck with "demagogue", an older, more generic term, but I don't know that my distinction holds up well up scrutiny. Sullivan also decries the duplicity of the Republican Party in attempting to ride this rough beast, a choice that has an all too errie precedent: 

[The Republican] party, like the conservative parties in Weimar Germany, has never seen fit to anathematize him, only seeking to exploit his followers in the vain and foolish delusion that they can control him in the future in ways they have not been able to in the past. 
This man has no friends, no confidants, only toadies and those with whom he can deal by domination. 

I differ with Sullivan's harsh judgment of the Democrats and the Clinton campaign in highlighting Clinton's vanilla competance. But he does raise a troubling issue: How can the Democrats succeed by "advancing a bloodless rationalism that has never been a match for the tribal national passions of the right."? This presents a deeply troubling ethical and practical dilemma. How can the rational, the prosaic, that gets things done, contend for the minds of those for whom simple and emotionally compelling answers  are most persuasive? Is humankind to remain a "2,000,000 year old man", as Jung (quoted by Ophuls) describes humanity? For now, that is certainly true. How to fight fire with fire when you know the fire will burn you? 

Sullivan references a precedent that I thought consoling, but he deflates my hopes with this comment: "Even the criminal Richard Nixon was eventually restrained and dispatched by a Republican Establishment that still knew how to run the country and had a loyalty to broader American institutions. Such an Establishment no longer exists. " The Republican Establishment now is a far cry from that of the 1970s,  when many, if not most, were genuinely shocked at Nixon's abuses of power. But I fear Sullivan is correct, the current Republican Establishment lacks the moral courage to stand up to this man. A few have, but far too few. 

Like Sullivan, I never believed that this could happen, that a large enough group (but not even a plurality of voters) could bring this type of politics to America. This marks the end of American exceptionalism. Sullivan writes: 

I have long had faith that some version of fascism cannot come to power in America. The events of the past year suggest deep reflection on that conviction. A political hurricane has arrived, as globalization has eroded the economic power of the white working classes, as the cultural left has overplayed its hand on social and racial issues, and as a catastrophic war and a financial crisis has robbed the elites of their credibility. As always in history, you still needed the spark, the unique actor who could deploy demagogic talent to drag an advanced country into violence and barbarism. In Trump, America found one for the ages. 
So I'll end the same way Sullivan ends his piece, even though Election Day has passed: "Do what you can."  

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