It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of Donald Trump’s victory. Not just because it has thrown the Democratic Party into an existential crisis; not just because Trump’s finger will be on the nuclear button; not just because three-branch Republican control of Washington will undo decades of economic and social progress; not just because it likely eliminates any path to a two-state solution in Israel; not just because the postwar international order has now lost its anchor; not just because any meaningful effort to combat climate change may now come to an end; not just because a genuinely despicable person is now the leader of the free world and the most powerful person on the planet. An election that produced any one of these results it would be a catastrophe. This election produced all of them. But no one of these results is the most important, or the most fundamental, or the most earth-shaking.
The election of Donald Trump is the stomach-churning twist at the end of a 500-year long story of Western progress and civilization. Too often, that progress was built on the backs of poor people, colonized people, slaves, and people of color (It is appropriately tragic that attempts to reckon with this fact ultimately helped throw all that progress into question). But economic and political liberalism also generated prosperity and freedom for millions — billions — of people worldwide. Free speech, the rule of law, property, democracy, open markets, international governance: together, these values, principles and institutions represented a new kind of social order, of a different species from the kingdoms of faith and fear that governed humanity for so long. This system had its origins in pre-modern Europe, where the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia guaranteed that laws, not desires, would govern humanity, and that humans would tolerate the existence of those different from them. But no polity did more to advance the cause of liberalism than the United States, which took enlightened liberalism as its founding creed. In spreading that creed around the globe, the United States, for all its deep flaws and horrible sins, presided over the a period of peace, freedom and human flourishing unprecedented in human history. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and the United States stood alone and vindicated as the guardian of liberty, prosperity and progress, Hegel’s dialectic had reached its apogee. History was over, and the good guys had won.
How quaint that optimism seems today. The social system that was supposed to give us the end of history has instead given us Donald Trump. Trump may or may not wreak havoc on the institutions of America and the world. But he has already done irreparable damage. He has shown that all may not be for the best. He has called all our first principles into question. He has raised the possibility that the American experiment will return a null result.
For not only is Trump the most dangerous result that American constitutional democracy has ever produced: he is also an avowed enemy of American constitutional democracy itself. Like some tropical dictator, he threatens to jail his political rivals, and encourages his supporters to commit violence against them. Like a Soviet premier — or his political booster Vladimir Putin — Trump threatens to bring the state down on journalists who reveal inconvenient truths, while at the same time he emits a constant stream of corrosive lies. And like American demagogues of the past, he raved about a rigged system and threatened not to accept the results of the election — until he won.
American democracy has produced its own worst enemy. Whether he proves its undoing remains to be seen. But Trump’s election proves one thing beyond a doubt: something is not working, at the deepest levels of state and society. This is not a crisis visited upon the system: this is a crisis of the system itself. This was not Weimar Germany, where economic collapse and external humiliation made democracy impossible to sustain. We have our problems, and they are serious, but not so serious as to explain what we have done to ourselves. If liberal democracy as we know it could function anywhere, it should have been able to function in the United States in 2016. Apparently it could not.
This is cause for grave concern and deep reckoning. From the halls of Congress to the quadrangles of college campuses, our country has been in the grip of political hostility for some years now, culminating in Trump’s rise. There was no civility, no common decency left to stop him. We must now ask whether we can count on civility, decency and reason as a durable way of conducting politics. These values are hard to uphold, because in truth liberalism has always rested on a paradox: it asks us to find a way to live with people with whom we disagree about how to live with people. It asks us to tolerate the intolerable simply because it has been enacted as law by a majority of some supposedly representative body. It asks us to respect speech and opinions that enable grave injustices. But why tolerate the intolerable? Why try to redeem the irredeemable? There is no satisfactory answer — only faith that the long arc of history will bend towards justice.
For most of history we have avoided facing up to this uncomfortable paradox, because for most of history, external unity has balanced internal division. Throughout the history of the Western state system, internal politics took place against a backdrop of external strife. External enemies provided nation-states with common cause and a sense of common identity. Democratic citizens could better understand who they were by looking to who they weren’t. But today, freed from existential threats and great-power wars, led by globalist politicians who disavowed chauvinist nationalism, Western citizens have found enemies in immigrants, in elites, and in each other. Only in such a climate of mutual hostility could Donald Trump succeed. But Trump represents tendencies latent in all of us, tendencies towards anger and self-righteousness, towards vengefulness and intolerance, towards unapologetic violence. These are powerful and self-perpetuating tendencies. And for this reason liberalism and tolerance have been the exception, not the rule, throughout history.
So what now? We will always have politics: no working-class revolution, no ascent of the righteous few, will eliminate the deep differences between human groups. And with politics comes the temptation of our inner Trump. Constitutional democracy is the best answer we have yet devised to this unfortunate truth, and it is still worth defending. We must reserve judgment on Trump and give him the chance to govern decently. I doubt he will try to destroy our institutions and customs in one fell swoop — but he will try to erode them and we must resist him. I doubt he will attempt to imprison Hillary Clinton — but if he does we must resist him.
But there are bigger questions to answer in the long run. How can we prevent this from happening again? The progressive answer is to rein in the ruling class, the bankers and donors who people rightly believe are trying to rig the system against them, and succeeding. This country was built by immigrants who came here believing that in the United States, the circumstances of one’s birth do not define the trajectory of one’s life. That was once true, but the notion is getting harder to sustain. As automation expands and robots replace more jobs, this problem will only get worse. The first step in fixing the situation is obvious: redistribution and government spending. During WWII, which pulled the United States out of the Great Depression, the top tax rate was 100%. During much of the 1950s, it remained above 90%, while the corporate tax rate sat at 50%. Concentrations of wealth at the top of a society are not self-correcting, but self-perpetuating. The left once understood this: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren need to remind it. Stop pretending that we can strike some magical compromise that benefits both labor and capital. Tax the rich and use the money to fund education, job training, and infrastructure. Make American workers and infrastructure so superior that capital will pay the price to stay here.
There is a more conservative, less materialist response as well. Trump took advantage of a crisis of national identity. He appealed to people unmoved by the atheistic, cosmopolitan, hypertolerant elite consensus — the “politically correct” consensus, as he put it, that offered little to struggling white Christians. Don’t misunderstand: that consensus is morally correct. But it never extended far beyond coasts and cities, perhaps because the level of self-critique it requires is only possible when one is energized by conflict and buttressed by wealth and self-righteousness. Trump offered an alternative, easier moral framework, one that put the interests of white Americans ahead of the interest of anyone else. The media deemed it “white identity politics” or “white nationalism.” But not long ago, a moral framework that privileged the interests of white Americans would have just been called nationalism.
All politics are identity politics, and without a common identity, a polity cannot survive. Its leaders become objects of scorn rather than admiration. Its politics abandon charity and surrender to malice. But identity requires difference. There can be no meaningful “us” without a “them.” The classical-liberal ideal that people can be citizens of the world is not sustainable, at least not yet. Today calls for a new, softer American nationalism. Or perhaps the states can be the new loci of political identity, as the framers initially envisioned. States could be granted more autonomy alongside federal programs to make it easier for people to move among them, so that people can self-sort into accommodating communities. Trump rose to power with the support of people who felt they belonged to nothing. Those people need to be re-integrated into politics or they will again be exploited to disrupt it.
In reality there is no plan for post-Trump America because no one thought it could happen. The pre-election polls, which showed Clinton winning comfortably, were a microcosm of the political class’s general incredulity in the face of Trump. The polls were off because people wouldn’t admit to themselves or to pollsters that they were voting for Trump; likewise it now appears that the political class failed to understand the motivations and beliefs of the electorate at large. They believed that people would never support a serial sexual predator who mocked the disabled, who insulted a gold-star family, who incited political violence, who lacked all regard for anyone but himself. They believed that people would never elect someone so clearly unqualified and dangerous. They believed that politics was at some level a rational argument over which laws were best, and they believed that the rules of that argument would remain what they had long been. In short, they thought they were still in living in Hegel’s endlessly progressing world, where such blatant offenses to political and social order had long since been banished. When the “grab ‘em by the pussy tape” broke, and elected Republicans began to abandon Trump, they didn’t do so based on polls or analytics: in fact, most Republican voters believed that elected officials should stick by the nominee. Rather, Republican politicians simply believed, as so many did, that no one who said such things could ever become president.
Such assumptions have now been overturned. The old certainties are worthless; everything is up for grabs. Liberalism fell into the trap that so many had pointed out throughout history: assured of its own triumph yet unwilling to take a moral stand, it failed to recognize and react to approaching danger. And now 500 years of progress hang in the balance.
We’ve been through darker times. In the days before and after the election, I’ve been thinking about a passage from Abraham Lincoln’s Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln gave the speech in 1838, when he was 28, 22 years before the outbreak of the Civil War. His topic was “the perpetuation of our political institutions.”
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” Lincoln asked. “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe and Asia… could not by force take a drink from the Ohio river, or make a track on the Blue ridge, in the trial of a thousand years… If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
We have not yet committed suicide. Rather, we are playing Russian roulette. Over the past year we raised the revolver to our head. On Tuesday we pulled the trigger. Now we find out if there was a bullet in the chamber.