9 November 2016
President-elect Donald Trump, with his family, addresses supporters at an election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown November 8, 2016 in New York. (Washington Post)
If you want to know why Trump won, just look at the response to his winning. The lofty contempt for ‘low information’ Americans. The barely concealed disgust for the rednecks and cretins of ‘flyover’ America who are apparently racist and misogynistic and homophobic. The haughty sneering at the vulgar, moneyed American political system and how it has allowed a wealthy candidate to poison the little people’s mushy, malleable minds. The suggestion that American women, more than 40 per cent of whom are thought to have voted for Trump, suffer from internalised misogyny: that is, they don’t know their own minds, the poor dears. The hysterical, borderline apocalyptic claims that the world is now infernally screwed because ‘our candidate’, the good, pure person, didn’t get in.
This response to Trump’s victory reveals why Trump was victorious. Because those who do politics these days — the political establishment, the media, the academy, the celeb set — are so contemptuous of ordinary people, so hateful of the herd, so convinced that the mass of society cannot be trusted to make political decisions, and now those ordinary people have given their response to such top-down sneering and prejudice.
Oh, the irony of observers denouncing Middle America as a seething hotbed of hatred even as they hatefully libel it a dumb and ugly mob. Having turned America’s ‘left behind’ into the butt of every clever East Coast joke, and the target of every handwringing newspaper article about America’s dark heart and its strange, Bible-toting inhabitants, the political and cultural establishment can’t now be surprised that so many of those people have turned around and said… well, it begins with F and ends with U.
The respectable set’s allergy to Trump is fundamentally an allergy to the idea of democracy itself. To them, Trump’s rise confirms the folly of asking the ignorant, the everyday, the non-subscribers to the New York Times, to decide on important political matters. They’re explicit about this now. In the run-up to election day, big-name commentators wondered out loud if democracy is all it’s cracked up to be. Trump’s ascendancy showed we need better checks and balances on ‘the passions of the mob’, said Andrew Sullivan. We should ‘cool and restrain [these] temporary populist passions’, he said, and refuse to allow ‘feeling, emotion’ to override ‘reasoned deliberation’. The little folks only feel and wail, you see, and it’s down to the grown-ups in the system to think coolly on their behalf.
Elsewhere, a writer for the New York Times asked Americans to consider installing a monarchy, which could rise above the ‘toxic partisanship’ of party politics — that is, above open, swirling, demos-stuffed political debate. In a new book called ‘Against Democracy’ — says it all — Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan argues for an epistocracy, an ‘aristocracy of the wise’, who might decide political matters for those of us who are ‘low information’ (ie. stupid). This echoes the anti-democratic turn of liberals in the 2000s, when it was argued that daft, Bush-backing Americans increasingly made decisions, ‘not with their linear, logical left brain, but with their lizard, more emotional right brain’, in Arianna Huffington’s words. Such vile contempt for the political, democratic capacities of the ordinary person has been in great evidence following Trump’s win — across Twitter and in apocalypse-tinged instant responses — and it is likely to intensify. Anti-Trump will morph more explicitly into anti-democracy.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same kind of pleb-fearing horror that greeted the Brexit result four months ago. ‘Why elections are bad for democracy’, a headline in the Guardian said. The people are deluded and it is the task of those with ‘reason and expertise’ to ‘un-delude’ them, said a writer for Foreign Policy. ‘What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will?’, wondered a pained George Monbiot. Boom. That’s it. The secret and not-so-secret cry of the elites and the experts and the observers over both Brexit and Trump is precisely that: ‘What if democracy doesn’t work?’ It’s not so much Trump they fear as the system that allowed him to get to the White House: that pesky, ridiculous system where we must ask ordinary people — shudder — what they think should happen in the nation.
The anti-Brexit anti-democrats claimed they were merely opposed to using rough, simplistic referendums to decide on huge matters. That kind of democracy is too direct, they said. Yet now they’re raging over the election of Trump via a far more complicated, tempered democratic system. That’s because — and I know this is strong, but I’m sure it’s correct — it is democracy itself that they hate. Not referendums, not Ukip’s blather, not only direct democracy, but democracy as an idea. Against democracy — so many of them are now. It is the engagement of the throng in political life that they fear. It is the people — ordinary, working, non-PhD-holding people — whom they dread and disdain. It is what got Trump to the White House — the right of all adults, even the dumb ones, to decide about politics — that gives them sleepless nights
This nasty, reactionary turn against democracy by so many of the well-educated both explains the victory of Trump, which neatly doubles up as a slap in the face of the establishment, and confirms why democracy is more important today than it has ever been. Because it really would be folly, madness in fact, to let an elite that so little understands ordinary people, and in fact loathes them, to run society unilaterally. Now that would be dangerous, more dangerous than Trump.