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.