The End of Democracy?
By fixing on the risks of direct political violence, we set a low bar that Trump will be able to clear with relative ease. The truly destructive violence of American society takes place under the surface and often passes unnoticed by all except its victims. It is the violence of a prison system that incarcerates and disenfranchises significant segments of the adult population, especially young African-American men. It is the epidemic of white-on-white violence that is estimated to have cost the lives of nearly a hundred thousand Americans since 1999 and yet has remained more or less invisible, until noticed by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in a paper published in 2015. These deaths are the result of self-inflicted violence, either suicides or drug and alcohol overdoses ('poisonings' in the language of the report), particularly affecting white Americans living in the parts of the country that voted overwhelmingly for Trump - - - the South, the Appalachians, the Rust Belt. People in these communities are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill others, and they are dying younger than their parents did, a trend that is unique in a developed society. Trump's victory might provide the victims of this epidemic with superficial respite - - - including the chance to direct some of their self-loathing outwards - - - but it will do little to address the causes of their underlying hopelessness. America is a society where many working-age people have given up and others have had their chance for a decent life taken from them by a violently punitive criminal justice system. If it is failing, it is failing here. When the Trump bubble bursts, there won't have been a reckoning with this reality. But there will be an ever greater sense of betrayal.
A Trump administration will have no difficulty fulfilling its campaign pledges on climate change, since it promised to do nothing and doing nothing is relatively easy. It may find it harder work to undo the entire environmental agenda promoted under Obama, but given that Obama was forced to use executive orders to achieve much of this - - - for six years it has been impossible for him to get legislation through Congress - - - it will be much simpler for a new executive to overturn his predecessor's work.
In the field of foreign policy Trump will likewise be able to pick the low hanging fruit early on: undoing deals that are yet to be signed, withdrawing support from regimes that lack leverage, finding little people to bully. Trump has shown that he is happy to follow the path of least resistance, all the way to the White House. Why should he stop now?
America will posture under his leadership and talk up its clout. But tough decisions will be shirked and enemies conciliated. Perhaps it is in the international arena that there will be a moment of truth, when one of those enemies decides to put the US to the test of an overt confrontation. But it seems unlikely. The American security state remains a formidable machine and no one would take it on lightly. The basic functioning of the American political establishment provides Trump with all the cover he needs to pretend to be dismantling it.
What he will in fact be doing is continuing its steady erosion. Nothing too dramatic is likely to happen, which means the reckoning with reality can be put off for a while longer yet. That surely would be better than allowing something truly dramatic to happen on Trump's watch. Who would want that? Probably not even the people who voted for him.
The heart of [Peter] Thiel's case for Trump was that America has become a risk-averse society, frightened of the radical change necessary for its survival. It needs disruption. But Trump is not a disruptor: he is a spiteful mischief-maker. The people who voted for him did not believe they were taking a huge gamble; they simply wished to rebuke a system on which they still rely for their basic security. That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice.
It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can't be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces. This is where the real risks lie. It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible.
Trump - - - and indeed Brexit - - - are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, this is how democracy ends.- - - "Is this is how democracy ends?"
The London Review of Books
1 December 2016