Fighting Liberal Democracy – An Attempt to classify Trump

13 minutes to read
Article
Sophia Würtz
30/01/2019

Trump seems to be an unique phenomenon. At the same time, it is important to understand that Trump articulates older ideologies. And because current political issues are highly complex, it sometimes hard to understand what he is about, and what is happening in the world. The confusion and the speed of digital communication lead to a rambling concurrency of activities. A challenge which, not uncommonly, caters for disorientation and overexpansion ending up in ambiguous, if not paradox, actions. By providing an introduction into (anti-)Enlightenment thinking as a basis for the presented analysis, the following article attempts to classify US President Donald J. Trump.  

Enlightenment versus Anti-Enlightenment

Liberalism is often associated with the famous French motto laissez faire, laissez passer, which arose from the historical era of the 17th and 18th centuries, that are referred to as the Enlightenment. One famous definition of the Enlightenment stems from Kant: "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance." (Smith, n.d.) .

The Enlightenment is thus defined by the utilization of reason and especially the self-contained, autonomous ability to think individually. Characteristically, the epoch fostered the distancing from authority and traditions, liberating individuals from the constraints of history and breaking with the Ancien Régime (Maly, 2017). The value of freedom, not least of speech, debate, religion, arts, politics etc. (Maly, 2017), such as the ability to find reasonable and scientific solutions to any question fostering progress (for example seen in the Industrial Revolution), was highly esteemed. 

Rationalism is a keyword that is associarted with this period, referring to the new focus on understanding reality through thinking. One such way of understanding reality is empiricist, which favours sensory experiences as a means to understand reality. Socially, the Enlightenment was minted by the advancement of the bourgeoisie, mainly through economic developments. This process was closely linked with the concept of liberalism, as this led to the realization of individual freedom within free enterprise (Kunzmann & Burkard, 2013). 

Paradoxically enough, it still happened frequently that ownership was being put over equality. Moreover, exploitation and racist behaviours were still widespread. Nevertheless, the overall goal of the Enlightenment philosophers was to reach socio-economic equality and even happiness for all. One important basis for this was also the securing of individual equal rights which naturally requires equality before the law. Ideally speaking, this law should be universal.

In order to understand contemporary politics, and especially contemporary democracy, we should understand what the 'radical Enlightenment' has to say. The Enlightenment, says Israel (2011),  is “best characterized as the quest for human amelioration occurring between 1680 and 1800, driven principally by ‘philosophy,’ […] leading to revolutions in ideas and attitudes first, and practical revolutions second, or else the other way around, both sets of revolutions seeking universal recipes for all mankind and, ultimately, in its radical manifestation, laying the foundations for modern basic human rights and freedoms and representative democracy.” It is thus this radical Enlightenment, in contrast with the moderate versions of Kant and Voltaire, who are still in favour of absolute monarchs, that we need to take on board to understand democracy.

As opposed to the Enlightenment, the anti-Enlightenment can be considered to be a revolution for a second modernity; a revolution into the opposite direction. More precisely, it can be described as a "comprehensive, ideological and intellectual revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views" (Maly, 2017). 

In this anti-Enlightenment tradition, nations are seen to be natural and organic. Organic nationalism is the norm and this organism should be cherished at all costs. Any fight for equality or democracy in this tradition, is understood as an attack on the natural order. This natural order is the exact opposite of equality. Inequality then becomes a natural state of affairs. 

According to anti-Enlightenment thinking, it is necessary for a healthy nation to acknowledge that everyone has a place and a function within the society. Furthermore, the state is seen to be the core of the nation and the application of reason is a privileged task for the intellectuals who lead the nation. Zeev Sternhell, a Polish-born Israeli historian and political scientist, has described the anti-Enlightement as follows: "Very soon ‘materialism’ - that is, liberalism, democracy, socialism - became the code word par excellence for evil." (Sternhell, 2012). Overall, liberalism and socialism are nothing to strive for since they destroy the moral order.

Obviously, the Enlightenment and the anti-Enlightenment are two contrasting movements. In order to analyse societal and political positions knowledge about them can be a useful starting point, as this can help in pinning down an investigated person or party with regards to where they fit in on the spectrum.

Trump versus Democracy

Democracy is first and foremost a political system that allows the people to choose and replace the government through free and fair elections. But that is not all, according to Enlightenment thinking, democracy is also an ideology based on freedom and equality. People are encouraged to actively participate as citizens in politics, to become and be informed and educated as democratic men. The rule of law foresees a solid protection of human rights and applies them equally to all citizens (What is democracy?, 2004).

Based on his way of thinking and arguing, Donald Trump would rather be categorized as fortifying the anti-Enlightenment. This makes one wonder about Trump's position towards democracy. Simply looking at the American electoral system, which enabled Trump to win the elections, without actually holding the voter’s majority, might cause frowning. Surveys conducted by a Harvard lecturer showed that generally "…the share of Americans who thought it essential to live in a democracy was dropping with every generation… "(Klein, 2017).

This might actually represent a contributing factor to Trump's electoral victory. Not because he was fighting to re-establish the lost trust in democracy, but rather the opposite, because he acknowledged it by sharing people’s scepticism. 

Aspects of the culture, such as the economic reach of the USA, no longer translate into political fellowship. More globally, an interesting phenomenon has seen the light. If a US politician talks about democracy, the Islamic world perceives it to be offensive, if not as a direct attack. Throughout the last decade 'the promotion of democracy' was a euphemism for war. 

If the talk is of free trade, it might sound like a request for submission to Europe. Promoting universal human rights might automatically lead to people thinking of the prisoner camps in Guantanamo Bay. Just like that, the cultural, economic and millenarian hegemony do not appear as something worth praising the US for, but rather as a source of resentment and hostility. This dominance is eventually not protecting the USA from vulnerability, but rather enhancing it. 

However, most of the Americans themselves still see the state as a major power, which implies that many do not realise that power, within the contemporary, multicultural global society, needs to be reformatted (Steingart, 2017). Trump is seemingly aware of the issues around democracy, but that does not mean that he works on figuring them out. Rather, that he makes strategic use of them to his advantage.

Trump, Fake News and the Public Sphere

The use of media is a great, and therefore commonly used, means to have a wide reach, subtly or directly influencing and communicating with the public. Trump is very active on Twitter for example, and of course a target of high interest for journalists and the press. He is aware that whatever message is initially being put out to the local and global audience will always be co-constructed by many others, not least by influencers, in many different ways. So, what Trump does, is warning by tweeting that he finds it “fascinating to watch people writing books and major articles about me and yet they know nothing about me & have zero access. # FAKE NEWS!” (Trump, 2017).

Though not all publications about him that are being created by third-parties, might be so called ‘fake news’, the statement certainly has some truth to it. Most of the time, such publications are overexaggerations of what has actually happed or been said.

In the following, I will discuss a couple of examples of influential Trump-Tweets. In November 2012, Trump tweeted the following: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. The statement he uttered in his campaign trail in December 2015 further underlined the underlying assumption of this tweet. What he said was:"So Obama’s talking about all of this with the global warming and the—a lot of it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax, a lot of it.” (Beckwith, 2017). 

Trying to make the issue of global warming look like a conspiracy for economic profit highlights a distinct relativism, and shows the conviction that reason is a task for the leaders of the nation. This is a notion that can be found in the anti-Enlightenment as well.

Moreover, in March 2017, Trump proposed to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in his first federal budget plan. (Deb, 2017). However, this Endopwment is part of education, communication and the exchange of ideas and not least also of the economy. What Trump is aiming to defeat with such an elimination includes “…the bedrock tenets of the Enlightenment and of American democracy — that rational thought, informed debate, and measured discourse form the basis of good government.” (Nossel, 2017)

However, when it comes to Liberalism, America as a wholecan still be categorized as a liberal democracy. One very important point to make, which is at times unfortunately not self-evident, is the endurance of the free press. Of course,

Trump makes use of so called 'friendly news outlets' that distribute content speaking positively about him (Brammer, 2017)

and he attacks many of the mainstream news agencies and media. He does try to break down the walls that make up a healthy democracy. Nevertheless, he is not trying by all means to dominate the media and to suppress public opinions in a manner that would be contradictory to everything liberalism stands for.

Another point to consider is that the courts remain independent and the people feel free to make use of the courts. …in the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency, his Administration was sued 55 times. (Brammer, 2017). Furthermore, there is no inner state organ that would refuse responding to civilian political leadership. (Brammer, 2017). Last, but not least, the congress has its own agenda and parties have the freedom to push through their respective ones if they can manage to (Brammer, 2017). However, it is possible for any democracy to become illiberal and the lines are often blurry.

Trump’s Neoliberal Nationalism

Having been going back and forth between the Democratic and the Republican party, Trump won the elections in 2016, representing the latter (A&E Television Networks, 2017). He has never been a member of the Libertarian Party, which promotes classical liberalism (Inside Gov.,n.d.). However, the Democratic party, of whom Trump used to be a member, do promote modern liberalism and progressivism (Inside Gov.,n.d.). His current party, the Republicans, rather promotes conservatism (Inside Gov.,n.d.). Nevertheless, all this doesn’t provide any solid evidence on whether Trump’s actually liberal or not. When referring back at the definition of Liberalism, looking at it as an economic doctrine, one of the elements it entails, is the realization of individual freedom within the free enterprise (Kunzmann & Burkard, 2013). What stands in stark contrast to this, is that Trump is building economic trading barriers, such as integrational barriers. In its most literal sense, this takes the form of a wall to keep migrants out of the country. He aims to

“…protect our borders, keep jobs in our country, take care of our veterans, strengthen our military and law enforcement, and renegotiate bad trade deals, creating a government of, by and for the people…making America First, again, restoring our nation’s faith, ushering in a bright, new future now and for generations to come.” (Donald J. Trump for President., 2017).

On a first glimpse, his nationalistic approach to act restrictively in favour of the Americans might seem logical; even a good idea. However, implementing restrictive manners against third (foreign) parties, will eventually also impose internal, harming restrictions, especially when it comes to imports and exports. This macro-economic field has an underestimated, large-scale impact on the global monetary policy and financial markets. Thus, the intention to restrict free trade in a country that is highly dependent on imports in order to increase its welfare seems paradoxical. Aiming to make the nation flourish to its full potential, the Americanism Trump is trying to create can be described as …‘non-economic interpretation of economic ills’ and …captured as radical neoliberal ethno-cultural nationalism.' (Maly, 2016).

To be clear, neoliberalism usually critiques market fundamentalism, which is why it may be hard not to overlook that Trump’s actions, like tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulations of big businesses and the financial industry, such as the wide range of privatizations plans, actually are very much in line with neoliberal principles. So, what can be observed is somehow contradictive: an economic nationalism on the one side, but neoliberal actions taken within this framework on the other side, which iss why one could speak of neoliberal nationalism.

Donald J. Trump subscribes to anti-Enlightenment principles. It remains questionable if he still truly supports democracy.

Trumpism

Trying to reach a clearer understanding of the main contents of the (anti-)Enlightenment, it becomes obvious that the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, would rather be seen to pursue anti-Enlightenment principles. It remains questionable if he truly supports democracy. Trump strategically makes use of the critique on and challenges that currently arise from American democracy. Not least, he makes use of the media to influence and interact with the public sphere, also ensuring to convey a picture of untrustworthiness of other media channels. Regarding Trump’s actual political and legal actions, they appear to be, paradoxically enough, neoliberal but within a nationalistic frame. So, whether to call him a liberal or not, is not a black and white picture, but rather a grey one.. In the end, it depends on the perspective that is taken. Perfectly rounding up this discussion is a hopeful observation by Sternhell that

“…within the anti-Enlightenment tradition, liberal values always need to be tempered by the anti-liberal ones that are part of our heritage.” (Maly, 2016).

References

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A&E Television Networks (2017, October 25). Donald Trump. Retrieved October 30, 2017.

Beckwith, R. T. (2017, September 27). Does Donald Trump Still Think Climate Change is a Hoax? Retrieved October 28, 2017.

Bessner, D., & Sparke, M. (2017, March 22). Perspective | Don't let his trade policy fool you: Trump is a neoliberal. Retrieved December 12, 2017.

Brammer, I. (2017, June 23). Why America Remains a Strong Liberal Democracy Despite Trump. Retrieved October 30, 2017.

Deb, S. (2017, March 15). Trump Proposes Eliminating the Arts and Humanities Endowments. Retrieved October 28, 2017.

Donald J. Trump for President. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2017.

Klein, E. (2017, October 05). 4 political scientists are tracking whether Trump is damaging American democracy. Retrieved December 11, 2017. 

Inside Gov. Retrieved October 30, 2017.

Israel, J. (2011). Democractic Enlightenment. Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 7.

Kunzmann, P., & Burkard, F. (2013). Dtv-Atlas Philosophie. München: Dt. Taschenbuch-Verl.

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Maly, I. (2017). Ideology (Anti-)Enlightenment Tradition. Lecture presented in Tilburg University, Tilburg.

Maly, I. (2016). ‘Scientific’ nationalism. Nations and Nationalism,22(2), 266-286. doi:10.1111/nana.12144

Maly, I. (2016). Why Trump won (Working paper).

Nossel, S. (2017) Donald Trump’s Assault on the Enlightenment. Foreign Policy – the Global Magazine of News and Ideas. Retrieved October 28, 2017.

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Smith, M. C. (n.d.). What is Enlightenment. Retrieved October 30, 2017.

Steingart, G. (2017). Weltbeben Leben im Zeitalter der Überforderung. München: Penguin.

Trump, D. J. (2017, September 12). Fascinating to watch people writing books and major articles about me and yet they know nothing about me & have zero access. #FAKE NEWS! Retrieved September 18, 2017.

Trump, D. J. (2012, November 06). The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. Retrieved October 28, 2017.