WASHINGTON – “I play to people’s fantasies. I call it truthful hyperbole”. This is what Donald Trump once said, according to The Economist. If this is true, we see that Trump is not just an unhinged, rich megalomaniac. He exploits weaknesses.
Make people dream
Trump understands that at least some people in America want to be mesmerized by someone who says great stuff and makes outlandish promises. They want to dream about easy fixes that will propel the country to its deserved greatness. And this is in part due to the impact of a popular culture that glorifies improbable stories of sudden success, instant riches, overnight fame and fortune.
If we really like this fantasy world, why not elect President the man who became famous as the master of ceremonies of a reality TV show all focused on success? Indeed, why not?
This is serious business
Well, the short, sensible answer is that public policy, running a country, and commanding the largest military force in the world, is serious business. TV entertainers should not be considered for the job.
Trump and Sanders
And yet, there he is, with significant if not massive, following. Trump is the most obvious example of the improbable as mainstream. But what about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on the left? He is also getting big crowds. He is creating problems for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton by harnessing a generic anti-capitalistic feeling that has now taken roots among many Americans. He is not another Trump. His style is vastly different.
Crazy socialist agenda
But he is equally outrageous. Sanders is an old Socialist (his definition). He is saying, with the conviction of the ideologue, incredibly stupid things about the evil of capitalism, the need to tax the rich a lot more, so that we can finally redistribute wealth. This surprising policy platform articulated by an old man who understands nothing about how any wealth generating economy works is not laced with offensive statements, but it is just as outrageous as most of what Trump says.
The outrageous is popular
So, what do we make of this large popularity for impossible policies promoted, with uncommon vigor, by anti-establishment candidates? Is this a sign of an American society that really lost its bearings? A society in which both on the left and on the right the interesting candidates are a lunatic (Sanders), or a celebrity who willfully manufactures outrageous ideas (Trump), because he knows that outrage sells?
Or should we say that this is “just a phase” that will pass? Something akin to teen-age rebelliousness? Can we say that now, so early in this process, many people feel free to manifest their raw emotions by picking extremists? Having had a chance to vent their frustration, later on, when the game gets serious, they will come to their senses and focus on experienced candidates?
Decline of the main parties
Well, who knows really. Hard to say how all this will play out. However, we can make a couple of considerations. We are now in an era in which the two main parties, at the national level, have retreated into bunkers of stupid ideological orthodoxy. The result is complete dysfunction in Washington. Gridlock is now the norm. We know that absolutely nothing will get done until the next elections. And we have no guarantee that with a new President and a new Congress things will get any better. This spectacle of incompetence and dereliction of duty creates disaffection and –at least in some– a desire for something radically “different”.
What is America about?
In addition, we seem to a have lost a broad-based consensus of what this country is and where it should be headed. Indeed, what is this American Republic all about?
If we go back to our origins, the Founders believed that –yes– different people with different persuasions and different interests would try to prevail and push the country this way or that way. However, the saving grace of a republican form of government, with power divided among the Presidency, the Congress and the Judiciary, is that no single faction would be able to prevail indefinitely, this way creating a form of tyranny. The optimistic view was that, fractious tendencies notwithstanding, given this unique constitutional arrangement, the happy outcome would be that different factions would balance each other.
Besides, through the spreading of science and education, all citizens would have a chance to become more enlightened, therefore more sensible, and ultimately more rational.
In other words, while aware of the fragility of republican institutions, the Founders shared a guarded optimism. They somehow assumed that things would take care of themselves. Democracy and self-government would not morph into a hot bed of insanity and demagoguery. Sane ideas eventually would prevail.
But here is the thing. It is nice to hope that people will choose to be more enlightened and wiser. But what if they don’t?
What is the soul of America about?
Years ago, (1983), conservative columnist George Will wrote an interesting book titled Statecraft as Soulcraft. In this book he noted that we Americans have never bothered to establish what the “values” underpinning our Republic should be. Sure, we have the Declaration of Independence, but the self-evident truths proclaimed there are both sweeping and ill-defined.
So here is the open question. What is America about? What should it be about? And, most importantly, what should we teach our children? Or are we saying that America is the country in which freedom means that you can believe whatever you want, and that the open market place of ideas will determine which ideas will succeed? From this perspective that implies that whatever sells must also be good, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agendas are just as good as Ted Roosevelt’s or Lyndon Johnson’s.
If it sells, then this is what people want.
Therefore, as we are ruled by whatever the majority has affirmed, we have to agree that what sells must also be good. Indeed, this is what Trump keeps saying in all his political rallies. “I am leading in all the polls. Therefore, by popular acclamation, I am the best”.
“Statecraft as Soulcraft”
Well, what can we do to ensure that was is popular is also good? Here is what George Will wrote in his book:
“The principles of free government advocated in Jefferson’s Declaration, embodied in the Constitution, expounded in The Federalist and defended and ennobled by the life of Lincoln have survived the rigors of two centuries singularly fraught with dangers to political decency. But what the nation learned in Lincoln’s lifetime was that the social cohesion which proceeds from shared adherence to a public philosophy and shared emulation of exemplary behavior and values is not the result of spontaneous combustion. It takes work. But by whom, and with what? The answer is: By statecraft as soulcraft. Such work is done with laws and institutions. It is the citizenry working on itself –on itself, collectively, on its selves, individually. It is applied political philosophy”. [emphasis added]
Who is the arbiter?
Of course, Will’s recipe presupposes that we, or at least some of us, “know” what is “the public good”, what is “decency”, how you teach all this, how you properly apply it, and how you teach people how to separate legitimate ideas from demagoguery.
All this is of course difficult. Besides, who can claim the right to spell out the ultimate values? Isn’t this a form of ideological tyranny?
If we do nothing
Yes, all this is true. These are valid points. However, if we do nothing, Donald Trump, or others like him, will be able to play with the raw emotions of immature people who are unable to recognize real values because they were never taught what they are.