Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Power, Democracy and Trumpism

David Grant

What we are seeing

Too much has been written about recent politics in the United States. As a result, there are wide and often contradictory views about how we should understand what has been going on and what is likely to happen within the several ‘out’ years from now. So perhaps it is time for a new frame of understanding.

It is a commonly held view that government should, on the one hand, have absolute powers but that, on the other, these should be constrained in the interests of citizens. Widely different forms of government are then situated within that frame. Totalitarian forms can be located at the absolutist end of the spectrum and the manner in which they attend to the interests of citizens can be seen as imbued with that absolutism. Fully democratic forms can be located at the other end, where the interests of citizens are argued to be paramount and the absolutism is meant to be kept for external defence and to address matters of internal security.

Within this context, debate has raged about whether the United States has been losing the influence that its former pseudo-absolutist capacities delivered to it, both at home and abroad. Not unrelated to that, there has been similar discontent about the failure of successive governments regarding the quality of life of Americans. The mix of the MAGA movement, of accusations of socialist tendencies, the need to intervene in issues of rights and services, and the dangers of climate change all fall within this conflictual frame of understanding. These in turn have led to claims that the country is irredeemably divided and thereby that democracy is failing, even that it is approaching a use-by mark.

A different way of seeing

However, it is possible to stand back and to look at this picture in an entirely different manner, to adopt a gestalt shift. That is, underlying this ‘democracy as constrained absolutism’ lies a social dynamic which is constituted by – if not a social contract – a common understanding that dominant interests will satisfy the interests of citizens so long as citizens forego authority over themselves, that they are subject. It is this forgoing which empowers these dominant interests. This is the mainstream mythology of government: the creation of a subjecting but sympathetic ‘magnitude’ of dominant interests.

The consequence is that government is the forum within which these interests – deist, political, market and increasingly technological – are ideally placed to fulfill their own desires rather than those of citizens, who wait for the claims about the satisfaction of their interests to be coherently fulfilled. During this wait, citizens are distracted by various forms of religious activity, by occasional political opportunity, by the magic of consumerism and technology, by sport and other forms of entertainment.

Against this background, Trumpism is readily understandable. Large numbers of disaffected citizens, long disappointed by the failure to have their interests addressed while those who dominate politics and the market reap their own rewards, have been attracted to someone who makes claims not only about the absolutist ideals of MAGA but also about the promotion of improvements in their conditions of living.

But this is not the mainstream myth. Trump has created a new myth, outside that of the mythology of the mainstream elements of the State, whereby he – rather than any political party – is the claim-maker to whom subjection is due. As we have seen before in history, such claims have often generated levels of support that are messianic. In creating his myth, Trump has attempted, largely successfully so far, to co-opt the Republican Party to support his myth making, although it is yet to be seen how that relationship develops and changes in the next several ‘out’ years as forces within the GOP attempt to wrest back control for its mainstream agenda. Trump has bolstered his myth by his alignment with such other solitary political figures as Putin, even despite the efforts of Russia to influence the outcome of US elections. There is no identification with the Chinese leadership, since that nation is claimed as a primary cause of the dilution of US power and thereby reductions in the living conditions of citizens: the mainstream myth as failing.

For their part, the Democrats have maintained the claim that the dominant mythology is not only sustainable in the face of the new myth but is essential in the delivery of a mature international role and in the improvements in the conditions of living that can, they claim, come only from State intervention in such areas as external alliances, wealth redistribution, social justice, equality and the environment – the very interventionism that is rejected by Republicans generally and Trump in particular. The Democrats support the strengthening of the mainstream mythology.

Looking forward

Whatever the outcome of the tussle between the dominant parties for the high ground within the mainstream mythology and whatever the outcome of their respective tussle with the new messianic myth, all this is still mythology. Citizens will continue to be subject and required to wait. Such mythology can only be unwound with arrangements which do away with the underlying dynamic of constrained absolutism, premised on the forgoing of respectful individual autonomy.

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About The Author

David Grant

David J. Grant is a Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne Law School. After serving the administration of justice, Grant authored four books, radically reconceiving the rela...

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