Two different takes on Tocqueville and Trump

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Two different takes on Tocqueville and Trump

Post by PistolPierre » Fri Aug 03, 2018 11:49 am ... nightmare/

Many of us observe in astonishment as we witness the startling outbursts of Donald Trump on the critical issues of the day, from taunting North Korea with total destruction to provoking the abuse of basic freedoms. It seems to not matter if the outbursts are proclaimed to the United Nations General Assembly or simply tweeted in the wee hours of the morning, and we are left wondering how this election came to pass. Of course, there is no singular explanation, but his coarse populist message and the FBI’s timing for reinvestigating Hillary Clinton have been cited as being among the main culprits. Some found token comfort in President Obama’s formal farewell speech, and others found consolation in provocative satire, an ultimately toothless antidote for a toxic presidency.

But the appeal of Trump and his contentious win also took place because the tilling of fertile democratic soil had been underway for decades, and in 2016 it was closer than ever to a long-predicted tipping point, ripe for a final push. This prediction was not made by some sharp contemporary pundit or lauded intellectual, but by a European visitor almost 200 years ago. We often forget the past has something to offer, and are very caught up in the now: current events, current technology, current concepts, current theories, current authors. It hardly seems possible that the distant past would have anything to say to the present since the world has so changed.

But has it?

The one constant that has stubbornly endured is human nature, and one person who understood this well was the French civil servant Alexis de Tocqueville, who travelled throughout the new United States in 1831 to examine the results of the strange new democratic experiment. Democracy was so new in the world at that time. What grew out of Tocqueville’s keen observations was his classic tome, Democracy in America, published in 1835, and augmented with a second volume in 1840.

It is amidst insightful analysis on equality, religion, slavery, the role of women, and much more that he foretold, for example, the looming American Civil War and the rise of the USA and Russia as bi-polar powers. And he also foretold democracy’s demise. In one of the final chapters, entitled “What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear”, Tocqueville cautions that the path to “despotism” will be unprecedented, developing in ways never seen before. He explains, “it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.”

Importantly, his despotic democracy experiences an encroaching erosion of agency, one that “restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.” This has a familiar ring as we look back and observe several decades of increasing social fracture and the receding American dream. It has been characterized by a growing forgotten and disempowered working class without the time or money to exercise much agency; low wages or unemployment; the crisis in civics education in public schools; and ominously low adult literacy. It is here we find so many of the people who believe they voted for change in the 2016 presidential election. Their evolving disaffection was well recognized and seized, Trump exuding a bombastic self-confidence with seductive but hollow reassurances, including the resurrection of that American dream.

But Trump’s American dream is Tocqueville’s American nightmare as the US lurches in a despotic direction. Trump’s posturing as America’s saviour calls up Tocqueville’s description of a government where “the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters” and “console themselves…by thinking that they have chosen them themselves”, unaware they have no agency. Tocqueville suggests that with these fleeting instances of voting, the people will “soon become incapable of using the one great privilege left to them.” This is also borne out by the more than 90 million people who chose not to vote in the 2016 election.

Amidst Tocqueville’s insights, a glimmer of light appears, easy to miss if you were not looking for it. He tells us how “the vices of those who govern and the weakness of the governed will soon bring it to ruin. Then the people, tired of its representatives and of itself, will either create freer institutions, or soon fall back at the feet of a single master.” Here, salvation does not rest with government: averting the dystopian road to political ruin rests with the people themselves.

Tocqueville’s prophecy did not escape the notice of outgoing President Obama, who picked up where Tocqueville left off. In his farewell address, Obama deliberately stressed “ the people”, mentioning “us” and “we” more than 100 times, and “democracy” more than twenty-five times. Echoing Tocqueville, Obama alerted his fellow Americans they are skidding towards a precipice, and how the current order, based on “the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press…is now being challenged.

Challenged indeed. Like a nuclear bomb, the ripple effect of American citizens’ decreasing agency inevitably will become global, inescapably touching us all. The antidote for any people’s erosion of agency, sense of desperation, social fracture and anomie, of being a bit too close to that earlier mentioned tipping point, is remembering that government and elected representatives are meant to serve all of us, and not for us to serve them. From a historical distance Tocqueville quietly counsels:

One should never expect a liberal, energetic and wise government to originate in the votes of a people of servants. ... 15482.html

Visiting the United States in 1831, when Andrew Jackson was president, Alexis de Tocqueville was appalled by the “vulgarity and mediocrity” of American politics. After meeting Jackson, Tocqueville concluded that the low tone of American society started at the top. In Tocqueville’s estimation, Jackson was “a man of violent character and middling capacity.” Worse, he seemed to have no talent for politics: he rode “roughshod over his personal enemies” in a way no president had done and treated members of Congress with disdain. “Nothing in all the course of his career had ever proved that he had the requisite qualities to govern a free people,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “so the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union had always been opposed to him.”

Considering his view of Jackson, imagine what Tocqueville’s first impressions of President Trump might be. Real-estate mogul, host of The Apprentice, owner of beauty pageants, and backer of WrestleMania, among other louche enterprises, Trump would seem to confirm Tocqueville’s worst fears about debased standards of American public life and leadership. And yet, Trump campaigned on issues that have a Tocquevillean resonance. Put another way, Tocqueville highlighted certain dangers to democratic liberty and greatness that Trump—who, it is safe to assume, has not read Democracy in America—instinctively seized on to win the presidency.

Start with the most obvious—and contentious—issue: Trump’s campaign pledge to build a wall to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico into the United States. Though Trump’s rhetoric on the subject was often crude, the idea was eminently sensible. Trump spoke to the long-term interest of American citizens in remaining a unified and self-contained people—what Tocqueville called their “self-interest, well understood.” Today, the American project of assimilation has come under sustained attack. Multiculturalists and globalists in government reject the idea that immigrants should adopt American culture and argue that foreigners should have the right to live in America in disregard of its immigration laws. Trump seized on this shift to call for secure borders and a renewal of America’s national identity. At the same time, he remained open, in principle, to immigrants from all nations.

Tocqueville had been struck by Americans’ love of country; he would not be surprised by the appeal of Trump’s full-throated patriotism, especially when set against his critics’ championing of multiculturalism and globalization. For Tocqueville, national identity was bound up with religion, which, in the United States and in Europe, meant Christianity. Long before the 2016 presidential election, though, Democrats had clearly come to regard Christianity as an obstacle to their goals. At the Democratic National Convention, party leaders removed all mention of God from the party platform, and boos erupted on the convention floor over a voice vote about whether to restore the reference to the deity. Democrats have subordinated the religious beliefs of the Little Sisters of the Poor to feminist concerns about the availability of contraceptives in government-run health-insurance plans; they have compelled conservative Christian businesses to provide services for gay weddings. Ironically, it was Trump—the twice-divorced, lapsed Presbyterian—who took up the cause of beleaguered Christians, reaching out to evangelical and Catholic leaders alike, promising to stand up for them in their battle to preserve religious liberty. Tocqueville would have approved.

Democracy in America draws a distinction between “great parties” and “small parties.” Tocqueville describes great parties as “more attached to principles than to their consequences; to generalities, and not to particular cases; to ideas, not to men.” Though selfish considerations are never completely absent in great parties, they generally hide themselves “under the veil of the public interest.” By contrast, small parties are more coarse in their aims, debasing society in their pursuit of “material interests.” Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp”—by which he meant scaling back the administrative state that had risen up alongside America’s three constitutional branches of government—can be understood as an application of great-party principles. It represented an attempt to limit the power of government’s unaccountable, irremovable, and self-interested bureaucrats.

President Trump has begun to deliver on his commitments to roll back intrusive regulations through executive order. He has taken on the education bureaucracy and called for expanding parents’ choices of schools, especially in America’s inner cities. His secretary of education has recently announced the repeal of Obama-era expansion of Title IX regulations affecting educational institutions receiving federal funds. He has reined in the Environmental Protection Agency’s ever-growing regulatory powers, and, in the international arena, he has promised to take a hard look at the Paris Climate Accords, which Obama signed without Senate consultation. He has trimmed financial regulations that impeded recovery from the Great Recession. And finally, his appointment of the judicial originalist Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with his impressive lower-court nominations, signifies his intention to make sure that the federal judiciary fulfills its role of limiting executive power.

In short, Trump has reignited a great-party debate over the proper role of the administrative state in the American constitutional order. At stake is something more fundamental than material interest: it is the capacity of Americans to govern ourselves, both directly and through our elected representatives.

The red Make America Great Again cap Trump sported throughout his campaign touches on the final Tocquevillean theme, which takes the form of a question: Can democracies achieve greatness, or must they be content with a comfortable mediocrity that improves the day-to-day lives of their people, but aims at nothing higher? Tocqueville worried about whether democracies were capable of pursuing great foreign policy goals, warning that democratic citizens lacked the patience and determination to pursue long-range policies. Wars would have to be short, policy objectives clear, victory decisive. Ignoring Tocqueville’s doubts, Trump promised to restore America’s standing in the world. He vowed not to commit American blood and treasure to ill-defined objectives or to fritter away hard-won gains. His charge that Americans don’t win wars anymore struck a raw nerve. He pledged to rebuild the military. But he also vowed to make our allies take more responsibility for their defense. The author of The Art of the Deal promised to make new deals, or renegotiate old ones, that put “America First.”

Whether President Trump can deliver on these Tocquevillean themes remains to be seen. It will take patience and skill in the art of leading a free people—an art that Tocqueville believed Andrew Jackson did not possess. The French aristocrat would likely have taken a similarly dim view of Trump—but he might also recognize, in the president’s pledges and commitments, echoes of some of his own deeply held principles.

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