Understanding Trump and the Fear for U.S. Democracy

Americans are constantly being warned that Donald Trump’s presidency means the end of American democracy — this from not simply obvious partisans but Hollywood and TV, the nation’s top journalists and commentators, the academy, mainstream think tanks, Republican and Democratic politicians and even former presidents of both political parties.

To understand this fear requires reaching back to one of the great political scientists of the 20th century. His character is best exemplified by the fact he insisted that credit for his accomplishments be shared by listing his associates in alphabetical order with his name Wildavsky, Aaron Wildavsky, always unpretentiously last.

His crowning glory was a book titled Culture Theory (with Richard J. Ellis and Michael Thompson elaborating on earlier ideas from Mary Douglas and Thompson) that after decades still drives much modern research. The jewel is a four-part typology of human subcultures that populate all societies, rivaling each other for adherents, prestige, resources, and power. The subcultures range along two cross-cutting continua — the importance they place on group solidarity and upon cultural conformity.

The resulting four cultures are:

  • Deferential people who value high group solidarity and strong conformity to social rules and mores;
  • Egalitarians who rate solidarity important within their group but oppose conformity to general societal rules and restrictions;
  • Individualists who have low tolerance for both group solidarity and social restraints; and
  • Fatalists who demonstrate low solidarity within their group but high conformity to common social mores.

These cultures derive from different views of human nature. Individualists have a highly positive view of nature as benign and so do not require support by either groups or social customs. They view their environment so positively that Wildavsky pictures each confident Individualist as a glass marble fully nested deep within a test tube where he hardly can be shaken out into nature’s dangers. The Egalitarian, on the contrary, is extremely wary of an ephemeral nature, picturing his marble-self resting uneasily at the top of an inverted test tube, always in danger of falling and so requiring a very strong group cohesion to keep things from tumbling into nature’s void.

The Deferential views his marble-self balanced between two tubes protected on each side from nature’s harm but still with sufficient threat to require protection by a strong beneficial hierarchical social order where everyone follows the rules and works in their own groups to keep all safe. The Fatalist follows the rules but not because all work together in harmony but because the rules bind everyone under furtive and dangerous forces that determine one’s life with little rhyme, reason, or beneficence. The analogy is not to a tube at all but to a glass plane around which his marble can roll dangerously and capriciously in any mysterious direction at all.

Individual nations have different mixes of these four types (there is a fifth but is very small) that can change in their size and composition over time. Using this model can help one understand today’s Trump phenomenon and the presumed threat to democracy. How about his winning the presidency? Using Wildavsky I predicted months before others that Trump would be a serious candidate because he represented a real constituency that was ignored by the others. Fatalists are a normally quiescent cultural group accepting their fate, alienated from politics until someone new comes offering some escape from the normal rules stacked against them by the powerful establishment forces holding them down. African-American Fatalists had been mobilized by Barack Obama and rural, blue-collar, white Fatalists were susceptible to Trump’s appeal.

Egalitarians would view Trump as dangerous simply for poaching their traditional allies but his message so successfully undermined the presumptions justifying their political leadership that they responded reflexively, emotionally. In their view Trump questioned the fundamentals, the very nature of reality. He was a denier of the obvious fragility of the planet, the immanent environmental catastrophe threatening us all, and the need for all Americans to unite to save it. He questioned science and called egalitarian media fake! He threatened to abandon the crucial Paris environmental agreement and even to increase energy consumption to create more jobs, then changing regulations to then actually harm the environment and eliminate the funds needed for the crusade by cutting taxes on the rich. To win, such a person could only have stolen the election with Russians’ help, both of them plotting to destroy American democracy.

Many Deferentials were also upset. Society is a careful balancing act between disputing group forces requiring a fine consensual institutional order to keep the peace. Trump threatened to upset this fine balance between the networks of society, threatening good relations between leaders and followers. His language was divisive between groups upsetting the social hierarchy and perhaps undermining the whole moral consensus. He was constantly stirring things up, not gentlemanly. Individualists were concerned too; did he really value freedom? But they liked his independent political incorrectness and thought he might give government a good shaking out — and nature is resilient enough to recover from his wild ways anyway.

Well, these are generalities. Let’s start with the former presidents. As award-winning syndicated columnist and TV and radio commentator E.J. Dionne Jr. was kind enough to explain, the coinciding October 2017 speeches by George W. Bush and Barack Obama were “searing, overlapping condemnations of Trumpism without naming President Trump.” Yes, but the differences between the two types were critical.

Deferential Bush was concerned that “our discourse” today was now “degraded by casual cruelty” and “turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization,” upsetting the social order. Egalitarian Obama told David Letterman: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you are listening to NPR.” Translation: do you not understand we are all in peril together and must all unite on common NPR facts and confront the Fox space-aliens to save our planet?

In his numerous books, one-hundred news outlets and TV appearances, Dionne became a Johnny-one-note: “the central fact of our political situation” today is “that Trump is systematically sapping at our democratic capacity.” “We can try to resist being drawn into this swamp of petty invective” but this would mean “overlooking” his “ruthless attacks.” Trump’s threat to democracy and good government — which is obvious “except to the most blind partisans,” those Republicans with their “decrepit ideology” — requires equally hardnosed opposition or “our system of self-government will disappear before our eyes.”

Even less combative egalitarians simply cannot help themselves. Deputy Washington Post commentary editor and Pulitzer finalist Ruth Marcus was cool enough to concede that “people like me” may disagree with Trump’s policies “but they are the natural result of having elected a Republican president.” But the good Egalitarian could not stop there. “The longer-term and greater danger is that Trump does not believe in American ideals and institutions. He does not believe in a free press or free speech; unconstrained, he would crack down on both. He does not believe in the rule of law, a Justice Department free of political interference, the separation of powers or an independent judiciary. He does not believe in the United States as a beacon and example to the world.” “Trump does not reflect who we are.” The good folks holding the beacon must come together and save the nation and the world from this horrible man.

Well, that is just partisans. Harvard’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s new book How Democracies Die promised a more neutral academic view with four objective criteria offered to evaluate whether a democracy is being threatened by an authoritarian leader: by his rejecting the rules of the game, by denying legitimacy to opponents, by tolerating political violence, and by undermining opponents’ civil liberties. But they found Trump violating each of these even before being elected because he lashed out at Obama and Hillary Clinton, denying “the legitimacy of opponents” by labeling them “foreign agents” among other slurs.

Trump does not even tell the truth and “without credible information about what our elected leaders do we cannot effectively exercise our right to vote,” with previous presidents apparently all truth-tellers — and not name-callers. The authors found that “Trump exhibited clear authoritarian instincts” in criticizing the FBI and media — only “instincts,” and apparently not held by earlier presidents? They first said Trump “rejects the Constitution” but then fell back to, even if he “did not break the hard guardrails of our constitutional democracy he has increased the likelihood that a future president will.” Since people did “not immediately realize what is happening,” even thinking they still “are living in a democracy,” the Republican Party must be “refounded” as Germany’s conservative party was after Hitler, an analysis ending-up sounding more Egalitarian-partisan than objective.

On the other side of the cultural spectrum, it merely took tax cuts, and deregulation to lead Individualist voters and intellectuals to downplay Trump positions on trade and immigration and turn a blind eye to the big spending and large debt they previously thought would bring bankruptcy, cheerily hoping all will turn out right anyway. Many Deferentials came to support Trump for social conservative appointments to cabinet and court, especially the Supreme Court, while Fatalists were uncharacteristically positive and looking forward to the wall.

With all the subcultures reverting to type, half of the country still thought it was the end of democracy. All Egalitarians, the Deferential groups wedded to the status quo and upset by Trump’s demeanor, and minority group Fatalists were resolutely opposed. A perhaps crucial further Deferential group remained up for grabs. Unlike the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat groups, these Deferentials were Republican, overwhelmingly upper middle class, suburban and mostly female. These really do not like his bad manners and his macho style. He is uncouth, like a bad boyfriend or spouse. He is not caring, could cut benefits to the needy, or to the not so needy.

All remain deeply set within our cultural presuppositions. Former CEO of National Public Radio Ken Stern tried to break out, noticing that “most reporters and editors are liberal” — that is egalitarian — based on an old poll but also on his own experience at NPR. “When you are liberal, and everyone else around you is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink on what stories are important, what sources are legitimate and what the narrative of the day will be.”

This may seem like an unusual admission from someone who once ran NPR, but it is borne of recent experience. Spurred by a fear that red and blue America were drifting irrevocably apart, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray. For an entire       year, I embedded myself with the other side, standing in pit row at a NASCAR race, hanging out at Tea Party meetings and sitting in on Steve Bannon’s radio show. I found     an America far different from the one depicted in the press and imagined by presidents (“cling to guns or religion”) and presidential candidates (“basket of deplorables”) alike.

Stern argued that this does not justify “the attacks from President Trump, which are terribly inappropriate coming from the head of government. At the same time, the media should acknowledge its own failings in reflecting only their part of America. You can’t cover America from the Acela corridor, and the media need to get out and be part of the conversations that take place in churches and community centers and town halls.

Do not hold your breath. A Newsbusters review of TV news coverage for 2017 found 5,883 evaluative statements about President Trump or his administration from reporters, anchors or non-partisan experts and “only about 10 percent of those comments (617) were positive, compared with 5,266 (90%) which were negative,” much higher than in previous administrations. Confirming Trump’s charges, the Russia investigation was the networks’ favorite topic, with an astonishing 20 hours, 34 minutes of coverage, or more than one-fifth of all Trump coverage last year.

The good news is that our democracy is not merely not in danger but is thriving in the normal battle between our political subcultures. The difference is that Donald Trump attacks the ruling Egalitarian media/cultural establishment’s previously unquestionable assumptions and they do not like it one bit. They are used to telling Americans what to think and no one likes their deep-held prejudices to be exposed to public ridicule.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.

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