“I can’t believe in the history of the White House any president has ever spoken the words that I heard our president speak yesterday.” That was Senator Dick Durbin’s reaction to Donald Trump’s instantly infamous “shithole countries” remark. But what I can’t believe is that a United States Senator (and grown man) could think Donald Trump was the first foul-mouthed racist to inhabit the Oval Office. We have LBJ on tape saying the n-word, after all, and there was almost no ethnic group that Richard Nixon didn’t make a bigoted comment about at one point or another. (His White House tapes contain remarks about “Jews, blacks, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans.”)
We can dismiss Durbin’s remark as a bit of rhetoric, of course. He didn’t mean it literally, but was expressing the degree to which Trump’s disgusting prejudices depart from the expected standard of “presidential” conduct. (Even if the actual standard of presidential conduct has often been roughly on this level.) But many Democrats do actually believe, implicitly or explicitly, in a form of “Trump Exceptionalism,” which holds that Donald Trump is an entirely aberrant departure from previous presidents, whose conduct is of an unprecedented level of awfulness.
In narrating Trump’s presidency as totally different from what came before, though, they often end up exaggerating the extent to which Trump’s actions are actually unprecedented (or “unpresidented”). That’s a concerning tendency because it lead to the forgetting of history, but also because it ends up exonerating prior presidents for inexcusable acts. Exhibit A here is the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, who is responsible for an inconceivable amount of death and carnage, but who is increasingly seen as dignified and statesmanlike when compared to Donald Trump. Bush himself encourages that view by occasionally issuing denunciations of Trump’s less defensible outbursts. The more Trump is depicted as an aberrant departure from a sound and principled norm, the better Bush seems. The irony here is that so far, measured on Number Of Illegal Wars That Killed Half A Million Innocent People, Bush is far worse than Trump. And though Trump’s immigration policies are uniquely cruel, much of the rest of Trump’s agenda is simply orthodox Republican politics. Massive tax cuts for corporations, gutting consumer protection, eliminating ObamaCare: I struggle to think of any of Trump’s policies that put him outside the mainstream of the Republican Party.
In saying this, I’m not downplaying how bad Trump is, but emphasizing how bad the rest of the American right is. My major worry, which many other leftists have given voice to, is that because so much rage is focused on Trump specifically, who is seen as personally unique and unlike everyone else, a far-right politician who did not exhibit some of these peculiar Trump-specific traits would be far more easily “normalized” and accepted as legitimate. If Tom Cotton, a truly frightening man whose immigration positions seem functionally identical to Trump’s, were to run for president in a few years, I’m not sure we’d see the same level of liberal fury, because Cotton wouldn’t be so stupid as to actually use the word “shithole” to describe the countries he’d give the same treatment to as Trump. And while Trump may have called Haiti and Africa “shitholes,” at least he hasn’t, say, denied an ongoing genocide (as Bill Clinton did with Rwanda) or pushed to lower the minimum wage in Haiti (as Obama’s State Department did in 2009). The United States has always treated the Haitian people as expendable shithole-dwellers, as Paul Farmer documented in his important and underrated book The Uses of Haiti. (By the way, here is what Haiti is actually like.)
To see a particularly extreme example of Trump Exceptionalism, consider the framework put forth by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book How Democracies Die. In a column about their work, Nicholas Kristof explained their criteria for what constitutes a “dangerous authoritarian” leader:
1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules. 2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents. 3. He or she tolerates violence. 4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media…. “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”
Note that they say that, except Nixon, zero U.S. presidents of the last century meet even one of the stated criteria. None of them have “tolerated violence,” which apparently doesn’t include embracing mass murdering dictators like Indonesia’s Suharto, or wiping out an entire city of people with an atomic bomb, or dropping 250 million cluster bombs on Laos, or burning down virtually every town in North Korea, or training Latin American death squad leaders, or supporting violent coups by brutal military juntas, or torturing people to death. Presumably, we are talking about violence within our borders, which likewise doesn’t include turning police into soldiers and locking vast numbers of people in cages. Likewise, none of them have in any way showed a willingness to curb civil liberties, meaning that the construction of a massive ubiquitous state surveillance apparatus has no implications for civil liberties. Likewise, unilaterally expanding the power of the executive branch has no implications for one’s “commitment to democratic rules,” and nor does offering rich people exemptions from the criminal justice system.
Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book, seem most concerned with #2, the denying of “legitimacy” to the other side, and the erosion of the “norms” underpinning democracy. Democracy, for them, does not necessarily mean that government should actually do what the public wants it to do (since it doesn’t and never has). Rather, it means “recognizing that our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens—that they love our country and respect the Constitution just as we do. It means that even if we believe our opponents’ ideas to be foolish or wrong‐headed, we do not view them as an existential threat.” Civility and respect, then, rather than actual public participation in policy-making, are what matters, and someone who doesn’t respect their political opponents is anti-democratic. If you don’t think George W. Bush is “decent” and “law-abiding,” then—and I don’t, because I think he’s a morally bankrupt war criminal—you are no better than Trump.
I dwell on Levitsky and Ziblatt because their book actually offers a highly illuminating insight into how this kind of Harvard liberalism conceives of politics. Although they are mainly concerned with proving that Donald Trump is a monstrous departure from the norm, it quickly becomes clear that their standard for what constitutes “authoritarianism” would encompass a broad range of anti-establishment candidates, including Bernie Sanders:
What kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic.. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.”
And when one of these candidates comes alone, one that attacks “established parties” as “undemocratic,” telling voters that the existing system is “corrupt,” Levitsky and Ziblatt make it clear that political parties need to act as “gatekeepers” to ensure that the candidates do not win:
Potential demagogues exist in all democracies, and occasionally, one or more of them strike a public chord. But in some democracies, political leaders heed the warning signs and take steps to ensure that authoritarians remain on the fringes, far from the centers of power. When faced with the rise of extremists or demagogues, they make a concerted effort to isolate and defeat them. Although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.
They then explain what political parties ought to do to fulfill this “gatekeeping” function. Let me quote it at length, because it’s fascinating:
Keeping authoritarian politicians out of power is more easily said than done. Democracies, after all, are not supposed to ban parties or prohibit candidates from standing for election, and we do not advocate such measures. The responsibility for filtering out authoritarians lies, rather, with political parties and party leaders: democracy’s gatekeepers. Successful gatekeeping requires that mainstream parties isolate and defeat extremist forces, a behavior political scientist Nancy Bermeo calls “distancing.” Prodemocratic parties may engage in distancing in several ways. First, they can keep would-be authoritarians off party ballots at election time. This requires that they resist the temptation to nominate these extremists for higher office even when they can deliver votes… Parties can root out extremists in the grass roots of their own ranks… [W]henever extremists emerge as serious electoral contenders, mainstream parties must forge a united front to defeat them. To quote Linz, they must be willing to “join with opponents ideologically distant but committed to the survival of the democratic political order.” In normal circumstances, this is almost unimaginable. Picture Senator Edward Kennedy and other liberal Democrats campaigning for Ronald Reagan, or the British Labour Party and their trade union allies endorsing Margaret Thatcher. Each party’s followers would be infuriated at this seeming betrayal of principles. But in extraordinary times, courageous party leadership means putting democracy and country before party and articulating to voters what is at stake.
Here, then, we have two Harvard professors arguing that when a candidate comes along alleging that party elites are rigging the system against voters, party elites need to respond by… rigging the system against voters. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the candidates are correct to say that the party is undemocratic and corrupt. As soon as they have made the charge, they become a “populist authoritarian” who must be stopped at all costs so that the “democratic political order” can survive. The euphemisms here are downright Orwellian, although to be honest Oceania was a little more subtle in its propaganda against Eurasia and Eastasia.
We can see here a ready-built justification for the “superdelegate” system, as well as the DNC’s collusion with the Clinton campaign against Bernie Sanders. If you accept Levitsky and Ziblatt’s logic, democracy itself compels party elites to make sure that populist candidates are “isolated and defeated,” and “kept off party ballots at election time.” That may still be true even if those candidates stand a better chance of winning than the party elite’s preferred nominee (“Even when they can deliver votes”), meaning that an electable populist is worse than a disliked establishment candidate. The logic here is simple: once you believe that “democracy” requires “respect for the other’s decency” any criticism of the system that is too strong (e.g. “I think my opponent is corrupt and morally noxious”) cannot be tolerated, because it rejects democracy. So, in the interests of democracy, one must use undemocratic means to suppress the criticism. (Levitsky and Ziblatt also have, of course, a lot of stuff about how the Founders believed strongly in checks on democracy. This is true: James Madison believed that a central task of government was to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” and “philosopher king”-type rhetoric about how democracy should only be entrusted to the “responsible” and “intelligent” has been a constant in American liberal thinking.)
In fact, we can even see that for a certain type of liberal, if a “populist” won the Democratic nomination, the correct course of action would be to support the Republican. As Levitsky and Ziblatt say, even if the party membership would be upset at a seeming betrayal of principles, anything is justified to keep the “authoritarians” out of power. This somewhat confirms my theory that if Bernie Sanders had been nominated by the Democrats, many of the Democratic elite would have rather jumped ship to the Republican Party than support him. (Only the threat of Trump might have kept them from doing so, though I still suspect a number of them would have been begging Michael Bloomberg to run.) We saw exactly this in England, where the Blair wing of the Labour Party seemed like it would rather destroy the Labour Party and preserve Conservative power than allow Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to continue. That might seem like madness, but How Democracies Die shows that it’s the perfectly rational consequence of this ideology. (Indeed, Barack Obama apparently preferred Theresa May’s conservatives over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the last election.)
It’s very important, then, to carefully scrutinize perspectives that single out Donald Trump as a unique threat to something called “democracy.” I do think Donald Trump is a more dangerous individual than nearly any prior president. But it’s not because he calls the system “corrupt” and is a racist who uses swear words, it’s because he might press the nuclear button in some irrational fit of pique. (Then again, JFK nearly did exactly that…) I am under no illusion, though, that Trump is the first president to pander to white supremacists or treat Haitians like crap. Beware anyone who says that Trump is threatening to erode our democracy, because they’re assuming we already have one.
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