Government Politics

How Democracy Ends?

Asks David Runciman in the LRB. Can the modern, democratic state survive the assent of someone like Trump? Some have said that the US needs someone who ‘tells it like it is’ (which is doublespeak for ‘tells it the way I think it is’), who’ll make changes, a ‘strong man’. A ‘disruptor’. 

The heart of Thiel’s case for Trump was that America has become a risk-averse society, frightened of the radical change necessary for its survival. It needs disruption. But Trump is not a disruptor: he is a spiteful mischief-maker. The people who voted for him did not believe they were taking a huge gamble; they simply wished to rebuke a system on which they still rely for their basic security. That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice. It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

There’s only so much the ‘parent-state’ can do. At some point, it’ll throw in the towel. Strong men tend to suit themselves, they’ll always protect themselves and those closest to them before all others, even their own supporters. The state becomes a tool to that end once they can bend it to their will. And to do that all they need is some popular support. It’s unnerving to watch.