A conference that I attended recently at the Chateau of Alexis de Tocqueville in Normandy brought me to confront Tocqueville with Donald Trump. I did not see how I as an American, just now, could come to Europe and say nothing about America’s latest choice as president. As I have studied, taught, and translated the Frenchman who, of all thinkers anywhere, best knew America, I could not, in his own home, fail to give him a proper salute and ask his advice.

So what do Trump and Tocqueville have in common? Both are concerned with greatness. Tocqueville declared himself in a letter to be a “new sort of liberal,” and he identifies the new sort when at the end of Democracy in America he addresses “the true friends of liberty and human greatness”—“liberty” as a liberal, “human greatness” as the new sort. And Trump’s slogan, so often repeated, is “Make America Great Again.” Tocqueville was a great thinker, a philosopher greater even than his admirers believe, and Trump is great mainly in the amazing extent of his pettiness and willingness to level insults at his rivals. Occasionally, he reaches upward, as in his recent speech at the World War II invasion beaches of Normandy, not far from the Tocqueville Chateau, though he frequently spoils his moments of elevation with a cheap remark. Nonetheless, Trump and Tocqueville can serve as a pair if we stop to consider how a democratic nation can be made great.

In our politics today, the nation is discussed in the contrast between populism (of the nation) and globalization (against the nation). The nation resists globalization with a reassertion of popular will and authority against changes imposed by globalized commerce. As commerce expands, it vaults over national borders and becomes ever more global, applying incentives to export jobs from home and invite migrants from foreign parts. The tension between nation and commerce antedates the era of democracy and was well stated by one of Tocqueville’s favorite authors, Montesquieu. In two well-separated passages in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), he says, first, that “movable wealth . . . belongs to the whole world, which in this regard comprises but a single state of which all societies are members,” but later, in the context of political laws for a nation, says it is among the right of nations that a “great state” can exclude one “imbued with foreign maxims” in the royal succession under the principle (set in capital letters) that “the well-being of the people is the supreme law.” Montesquieu adds that “men care prodigiously for their laws and their customs; these make the felicity of every nation; it is rare for them to be changed without great upsets and great shedding of blood.”

“The well-being of the people” is a fundamental principle Montesquieu locates here in application to a problem of monarchy no longer relevant to us. It is not yet democratic populism as we know it, but clearly he understands the more general problem for the great states that concerned him, England and France, as the one now very relevant to us: how to reconcile the single, world state of commerce with the laws of each nation. Like Trump and Tocqueville, he, too, thinks of greatness.

From the canny wisdom of Montesquieu there is a descent to the demagoguery of Donald Trump. A demagogue in the classical sense is one who seeks to be loved indiscriminately, not caring by whom, one eager to move the people as he or they wish, thus an evil endemic to democracy. Trump’s success in gaining the presidency without experience in diplomacy or government reminds us of the essential vulgarity of democracy, for he is not above or against democracy, as is said by his opponents. He lies frequently but he is not a “confidence man” or crook, as was alleged of his predecessor “Tricky Dick” Nixon. Trump’s tricks, such as undermining his own subordinates, are so clumsy that one doubts that they are intended. He does not attempt to befuddle or manipulate those he addresses. His lies are like boasts, so spontaneous and obvious that his motives are easy to read.

Unlike his opponents, moreover, Trump does not condescend to his audience but speaks to them on their level in words and gestures they understand. He opposes the “identity politics” of the Left, epitomized in the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Trump has been careful enough not to disagree with the statement itself, but he took advantage of the fact that, when hearing that slogan, people who are not black may well imagine whether their lives matter, too. He did not refer to the racial difference the slogan raises but let it be inferred. With his natural instincts, Trump was the only candidate, including all Republicans and conservatives who ran for the presidency in 2016, to attack the political correctness that is so oppressive in American social life and discourse. Political correctness was thought up and applied by intellectuals better educated than Trump, who appears not to read books. But there are many others who never read books, and in a democracy they have votes. And there are, too, plenty of book-reading intellectuals who are disgusted with the display of easy moral superiority that impels political correctness and has come to be called “virtue-signaling,” one vice Trump manages to avoid.

The new identity politics originated by intellectuals gives power to the weak, the supposed victims of authority. They are selected to receive special favor to compensate for their having been pushed down, kept out, or “marginalized” in the past. Trump voters are not often found among such official victims, though many of them have less education and wealth than the inventors and even the beneficiaries of affirmative action, the main policy of identity politics. Since affirmative action always excludes someone when it favors its favorites, it creates a resentful class of those excluded. At the same time, it cannot be assured of any gratitude from the victims whom it benefits, for they have been told that they deserve what they get, meaning that they do not have to thank their benefactors. The inherent weakness in affirmative action—of creating more bad will than good—has been shrewdly exploited by Trump.

Trump openly opposes the elitism of the Establishment, as he calls it, borrowing the term from the New Left of the late sixties. Ascendant intellectuals call for democratic equality, though they not only violate it with their own privileges but also constantly accuse others, and occasionally themselves, of being “privileged.” This self-accusing, guilt-ridden elitism (recently analyzed by Rita Koganzon), we can learn from Tocqueville, is not an accidental exception to democracy, but a probable consequence of it. Democracy, with its demand for ever-more equality, robs all inequalities, whether of family, piety, race, sex, birth, or especially intelligence, of any pretense of authority to rule. The result is an anarchy of equals, none having authority over anyone else. Yet democracy has need of precisely the expertise that is the source of inequality in authority. The only fully democratic way to invest authority is by lottery in which all have an equal chance, but since this is impossible, the next best way is to choose by merit, though this amounts to rewarding inequality.

Thus, Tocqueville shows, democracy comes to establish despite itself a hidden aristocracy or “elite” charged with authority. This elite must justify itself, both to others with merit within the elite and to the people at large, through a constant process of testing for merit at several stages. An aristocracy can raise up a great philosopher like Pascal quickly to the eminence he deserves, but a democracy makes him go to school, gain degrees, and earn tenure by repeatedly pleasing his intellectual inferiors who nonetheless occupy high administrative status.

Such Napoleonic elitism is democratic in origin, aristocratic in consequence, and bureaucratic throughout. The better it is tested and justified the more it violates democracy. Trump took aim at its American version, which is less hierarchical, more ramshackle, than the French, but just as open to hostile sentiment. His voters felt that with their vote and their shouted approval of the man, they declared a rebellion that they call by the modest, neutral name—again borrowed from the Left—of “change.” The trouble with the goal of change is just that it is subject to change when someone else adopts it. Trump’s election was a rebellion against democracy’s meritocratic elitism. It’s not that Trump voters are necessarily stupid, nor that higher IQ necessarily makes one wise, but rather that theirs was a rebellion against the smart folks. In this sense, it was more democratic than the democratic Establishment, which after all in America’s two parties consists of those who have been democratically elected to office as distinct from those who have not. It’s as if the smart folks have been in control of America, and now was the moment, when they have started compulsively to accuse themselves of undeserved privilege, to go after them.

Trump wants to democratize America’s already democratic nation because it has succumbed to the success of its democratic government and economy and rewarded the makers of its success. The trouble with success in a democratic nation is that it leaves its failures behind, still holding votes with which to impede or overturn those to whom it owes its success. So, as Tocqueville also shows, democracy becomes its own unsparing critic. Trump’s educated opponents do not quite realize what has hit them, and they try to identify it as some force hostile to democracy—fascism or authoritarianism or just plain conservatism. In fact, their enemy comes from within their own egalitarianism, of which the vulgar Trump is a truer expression than they are, who constantly promote it but don’t practice it.

Trump is a truer democrat because he opposes globalization, the policy of economic rationality that best suits those who can calculate better, who have greater insight into opportunities—and who hold less inhibiting loyalty to their own country. America’s own Declaration of Independence declares the independence of one people from another, and America’s founders shared a general suspicion of Europe as hostile, unrepublican, and deceitful. They did not want to become citizens of the world like President Obama, except for the restless Tom Paine, who, with his globalized politics, failed to accomplish the transformation that Montesquieu saw could be done better and less conspicuously through commerce.

Yet the American Declaration in its arguments and evidence remains mindful of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” which it addresses. Trump shows little of the decent respect that other nations deserve, as with his recent snub of the prime minister of Denmark for not taking his proposal to buy Greenland seriously. His policy of “America First” is ambivalent between hawkish bristling and dovish isolation, as if a nation could warn possible enemies without ever having to punish them in case the warning is ignored. He warns enemies so as not to join the company of the Democrats, but refrains from attacking them in order to distinguish his policy from neoconservatism. This potential for inconsistency can easily upset sound policy, but again, it is a failing more democratic than anti-democratic.

For the health of American democracy, if not the good opinion of foreign nations, it is perhaps better that Trump’s democratic animus be directed against foreigners who can try to ignore his discourtesies than internally against domestic opponents who cannot escape his ire. Here Trump’s comments showing disrespect for due process of law could be dangerous to democracy, and even more if they reflect democratic demands to submit to majority will. Trump is accused of authoritarianism, but this is because he is as impulsive, abrupt, and inconsistent as a democratic majority. Like an untaught, unshackled majority, he seeks the advantage of immediacy against time-consuming, obstructive intermediaries, procedures, and legalities that hinder his, or the popular, will.

Trump is not quite the inexperienced politician he is made out to be. His experience is partly in reality TV, a form of television programming that is between acting and reality. It is “virtual reality” because the acting is not by professional actors, yet the results are not real. “You’re fired” was Trump’s signature line: this is what Trump voters wanted him to say to the “swamp” when he came to Washington. His policies are  infused with the brassy negativity of his television show, and his speech is mostly assertive and demanding, bossy rather than persuasive. He is an enemy to the conventions of courtesy as well as to those of due process, whether of law or practice. He dislikes and disrespects the forms and formalities that Tocqueville thought so necessary to democracy, and so endangered by democracy’s impatience and short-sightedness.

The founders of the American nation would not have admired Donald Trump. The Constitution they made was designed to make a constitutional democracy out of a raw, malformed, democracy and thereby to exclude popular celebrities like him. But the Constitution has since been democratized to the point that the very Electoral College that would have prevented Trump from attaining the presidency became the means by which he won it. Yet the Constitution remains and so does the Republican party, and these two institutions have provided checks to Trump’s willfulness. Trump still needs Congress in order to accomplish his goals, and his successes so far are in traditional Republican policies—tax reform, deregulation of business, conservative judges, and military strength. His own personal policies remain as issues rather than results—trade, immigration, and draining the swamp of bureaucracy. As far as foreign policy goes, America’s allies, and particularly Europe, can take comfort in the fact that the Democrats are countering his “America First” certitude with plans for sophisticated European inaction.

Trump’s “nationalism,” a limp and inaccurate word, marks the difference not so much between illiberal nationalism and democracy as between liberal democracy and untaught democracy. The two best books on American politics, The Federalist and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, say that the main danger to democracy—to which we can add the voice of America’s greatest president, Lincoln—is that it is the tyranny of the majority. Democracy is mainly endangered from within, not from outside, anti-democratic forces. We worry about the Antifas on the left and the white supremacists on the right not because they are not democratic, but because they might become, or they might influence, a majority and rule us.

Liberal democracy can suffer corrosive democratization from the Right as well as the Left and ugly authoritarianism from the Left as well as the Right. It is wrong to fasten on too much democracy as the fault of the Left and too much authority as the property of the Right. Trump’s “nationalism” is a response to the identity politics of the Left, and both are excesses of democracy leading to excesses of wrongful authority. The vigilance we need must be directed at ourselves.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images


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