Andrew Sullivan has written an admirably informed—though crucially flawed—essay on Donald Trump for the May 2 issue of New York, in which he draws attention to the perhaps ironic underside of the liberal triumph in the culture wars:
This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. . . . A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges.
Rather than respond to their victory in the culture wars with “magnanimity,” as Sullivan suggests, the so-called social-justice warriors stepped up their attack on the losers in the culture wars, rubbing their noses against the grates of political correctness.
But Trump, aided and abetted by his media-savvy, Twitter, and Internet forays, arose from the rubble like an angry genie. “The web,” notes Sullivan, fuels “precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture.” It encourages “feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.” Trump, notes Sullivan, pledged above all “to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.”
Sullivan warns that those who assume Trump’s ugly, thuggish populism has no chance of making it to the White House are mistaken. “Neo-fascist movements” like Trump’s, he writes, “first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events.” Sullivan concludes by warning that, for America’s liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is “an extinction-level event.” He makes his case with artful references to Plato’s fears of democracy (shared by the Founding Fathers), Eric Hoffer’s writing about “true believers,” and the model for a fascist takeover of America laid out by Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here.
What’s striking is what’s not in the essay. Barack Obama, the most divisive president since Richard Nixon, barely makes a cameo appearance. And Hillary Clinton is mentioned only insofar as she’s offered Sullivan’s advice.
Sullivan effusively endorsed Obama in 2008. Obama, insisted Sullivan, would restore “the rule of law and Constitutional balance” while “bringing America back to fiscal reason.” Since then, the president’s performance has not changed Sullivan’s mind. The national debt has doubled under Obama, but Sullivan, like the president himself, blames Republicans. As late as October 2013, Sullivan wrote on his blog: “Many of us found in Barack Obama a very post-ideological president, a pragmatist, a Christian, and a traditional family man, and naively believed that he could both repair the enormous damage done by the Bush-Cheney administration and simultaneously reach out to the red states as well. I refuse to say the failure is his. Because he tried.” Sullivan seems to be the last true believer in the wisdom of Obama’s stimulus, most of which went to pork barrel projects. But, as Sullivan sees it, Obama was not to blame, because he “got zero votes from House Republicans for a desperately needed stimulus in his first weeks in office.”
Obama’s ties with Bill Ayers, Rod Blagojevich, and the ranting Reverend Wright held little or no interest for Sullivan. He hadn’t the slightest concern with the intersection of Chicago-style patronage politics and left-wing ideology as it coalesced in the Obama presidency. Al Sharpton became a White House regular under Obama’s “moderate” administration. Sullivan’s admonitions about Trump, accurate as they are, would have more credence if he had been willing to criticize Obama for fanning the flames of racial hostility in the aftermath of Ferguson.
What Sullivan misses is that Trump wasn’t possible without Obama. You didn’t have to be a white, male, working-class voter to be stunned by Obama’s unprecedented assertion of executive power. Obama’s argument time and again was that he had to bypass Congress because he was in a hurry. When he claimed that things needed to be done quickly, he promised to govern with his telephone and a pen. He not only refused to enforce America’s border laws; he also claimed the right to legalize undocumented workers by executive action. He forged an international agreement with the Iranian mullahs by winning approval for the deal with the U.N.—bypassing constitutionally required support from the Senate. Obama unilaterally revised Obamacare’s rules without any pretense of seeking legislative approval.
It was Obama who showed that ignorance was no obstacle, and sheer demagoguery worked. When Obama spoke of the Austrians speaking Austrian, talked of 57 states, and referred to a naval translator as a “corpsemen,” it produced barely a murmur. When he met at the White House with the “activists” who incited those who laid waste to a section of Ferguson, Missouri, he instructed them “to stay the course.” That produced but a faint rustling.
Our postmodern president, a good friend of mine points out, has proved that facts don’t matter. The weakest economic recovery in post-World War II history has been sold as a rousing success. We increased our troop levels in Iraq, but miraculously we still don’t have any “boots on the ground.” The man who told his supporters, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” was sold to America by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the networks as a post-partisan—one who somehow found a way to blame Republicans for all the country’s ills. Obama also showed that bullying the Supreme Court—calling them out for their Citizens United decision in a State of the Union address—could pay dividends down the road. An intimidated Chief Justice John Roberts used pretzel-like logic to redefine the Obamacare mandate as a tax, though the administration had insisted that it was nothing of the kind.
Most of the maladies Sullivan attributes to Trump were incorporated into American politics by the man he deeply admires, the man whose face alone, Sullivan suggested, proved his worth—Barack Obama. Sullivan rightly sees the danger of “democracy willingly, even impetuously,” repealing itself. That repeal began under the man sitting in the Oval Office today.
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