Sullivan, Trump, and Tyranny in America

Howl of the Day: May 3, 2016

Veteran political commentator and online media all-star, Andrew Sullivan, emerged from semi-retirement yesterday, firing broadsides. In an article for New York Magazine, Sullivan mounted an impassioned defense of elitism in America, arguing that the ever-greater democratization of American society and politics has made the nation ripe for tyranny.

Beginning with a reading of Plato and culminating in an assault on Trump, Sullivan warns against the rise of populist anti-establishment politics. To him, Trump is a demagogue, a tyrant-in-waiting of the type that Plato identified as particularly likely to emerge in excessively democratic regimes. Sullivan’s conclusion is that the possibility of a Trump Presidency is an “extinction-level event” for liberal democracy in America.

One of the most striking features of the piece is that it highlights and applauds the extent to which the US mixed regime includes democratic and non-democratic elements. Unlike many writers, who soft-pedal this point, by speaking of the US as an “indirect” or “representative” democracy, Sullivan embraces the idea that there is an elitist (oligarchic or aristocratic) element to the regime that serves as a counter-balance to its democratic side.

He makes the compelling case that some measure of elitism is necessary in the regime, but his article is short on details of how exactly this can work now that the traditional elite has been disassembled and elitism itself has become so suspect. Indeed, Sullivan himself speaks approvingly of the disintegration of various old elite institutions, such as Party machines or old-boys networks. But given the collapse of the old order, what content can elitism have going forward?

As for Trump being the face of tyranny, which is the ultimate claim of the piece, Sullivan seems to be stretching. He does a great job of pointing out how tyranny could possibly or even probably arise in the United States. He also does a magnificent job of skewering Trump, pointing to the tyrannical elements within both his soul and campaign. But the combination of the two is less than persuasive, as is the description of Trump as a neo-fascist.

To paint Trump as a serious threat to American democracy, Sullivan largely dismisses the checks and balances that would restrain Trump, should he be elected President. He points out that Trump is not interested in playing by the rules as written. Which is fair enough. But Trump’s thuggish intimations of violence are a far cry from actually being able to rule by force. In Plato’s account of the collapse of democracy into tyranny, one of the key moments is when the tyrant asks for a bodyguard. Given the size of Greek polises, even a small armed guard could be enough to shift the balance of power decisively. But a vast republic is not so easily moved. Trump’s bouncers are no army of Brownshirts, and even if his supporters were willing to take up arms on his behalf, America is not as fragile as the Weimar Republic.

(Image: Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Fountain Hills, Arizona, before the March 22, 2016 primary, by Gage Skidmore, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence. Via Flickr.)



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  1. Onymous

    Sullivan’s article is directed at Democrats who may complacently underestimate Trump’s appeal and anticipate his crushing defeat in November. Sullivan is absolutely correct in bringing out the very cunning and psychologically resourceful elements in Trump’s personality, which are fully on display in his campaign.


    • Garibaldi-18

      The article was by no means exclusively directed at “Democrats who may complacently underestimate Trump”. In fact, it appears to have had a rather broad intended audience.

      Having said that, Sullivan does offer what seems to me to be some pretty good advice to Democrats in general and to Clinton and her supporters in particular. No one who objects to a Trump presidency should underestimate him at this point, and Clinton, if she wants to succeed, needs to own her strengths (moderation and experience are among the strengths that Sullivan mentions) as the strengths they are, rather than shirking from them as weaknesses.

      I think, by the way, that while Sullivan’s article was very good, it tended to be dismissive of Bernie Sanders and his campaign to the detriment of its broader argument. Like Trump, Sanders is an anti-establishment demagogue (one who relies entirely on the establishment that he condemns) who marshals the wholly irrational passions of an ignorant and intolerant base of supporters and seeks to equate himself with some collective political dream (“Not Me, Us” has been one of his slogans). Both Sanders and Trump are symptoms of the weakening of liberal democracy in America that Sullivan identifies, but Trump is no more Hitler than Sanders is Stalin.

      • Tim Daly

        What a bunch of mush-brained liberal nonsense. Garibaldi’s characterization of Bernie Sanders and his supporters shows an amazing ignorance both of the very definition of the word demagogue and of the people who believe in his platform.
        Bernie “relies entirely on the establishment he condemns.” What does that gibberish even mean?
        For crying out loud, Garibaldi: every political campaign has a slogan that attempts to embody a collective political dream. “Hope”, “Fighting for Us”, “Make America Great Again”, “Morning in America”. That’s what campaign are about!

        • Garibaldi-18

          I meant precisely what Sullivan did in the article, when he wrote the following :

          “And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites. Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument.”.

          The reference to Sanders’ campaign slogan was merely a small illustration. It was not meant to be a comprehensive account of his campaign. But it was certainly appropriate in this case – it does not refer to a collective dream, as do the other examples you give, it seeks to equate the individual candidate with the collective mass of his supporters.

          If you think that I have misunderstood the “very definition” of the word demagogue, please explain how.

  2. Len

    Support our new President Trump! God bless Donald Trump! All hail God Emperor Trump! We love you!

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