US President Donald Trump epitomizes the rise of illiberalism in liberal democracies, as he breaks through liberalism’s protecting walls that keep social institutions apart for the preservation of spheres of liberty and justice.
Liberalism is a world of walls, and each one creates a new liberty. These words, which I borrow from Michael Walzer (1984), keep circulating in my head as I read the latest news about Donald Trump. I am smiling through pained eyes as I return to Walzer’s essay on liberalism and what he calls “the art of separation.” Smiling because I am still impressed by his keen remarks about this “art” as a morally and politically necessary adaptation to the complexities of modern life. Hurt because I know that the art is gradually lost.
The art of separation makes sure that a person’s success in one social sphere or institutional setting is not convertible into another—to ensure, for instance, that money power cannot buy political power or ethnic loyalties cannot shape law enforcement. Protecting liberties on both sides of the wall, the said art separates religion from state affairs, prevents the police from invading private homes and keeps official governance and unofficial power relations from getting entwined.
'Trump is violating the US constitution because he mixes personal business and official diplomacy'
Needless to say, Trump is one of liberalism’s greatest foes in this respect. Each time he traverses the fields of popular culture, social media, business and politics, he brings down another wall. In Trump’s world, money power buys political power, partisanship counts in law enforcement, and personal ties instead of prior government experience are a sure passport to a cabinet-level post. Trump is what Ernest Gellner would call a “non-modular man” that is, unable or unwilling to divide himself in order to respond to the various demands raised by the distinct institutional realms of modern life (see also Kalinikos). He is one-dimensional and indivisible.
The perils of having a non-modular man elected to the highest office of one of the world’s most powerful countries are visible to the naked eye. Most obviously, there is the risk of corruption. In one of his contributions to the New York Review of Books, David Cole is arguing that Trump is violating the US constitution because he mixes personal business and official diplomacy. If he would have followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, Trump would have sold his business and created a blind trust for his assets. But he did not—and he continuously refuses to release his tax returns.
But this may be the least of America’s problems. Trump—or better, Trumpian governance, for this is a broader phenomenon—ushers in a new political epoch. New, but long in the making. This epoch is characterized by fake news, discredited judges (e.g. “so-called” Judge James Robart, who temporarily lifted the ban for people from seven mainly Muslim countries), science-mocking, overtly racial law enforcement, human rights violating intelligence agencies, and so on.
If we care for liberty, we better make sure we (re)build some walls (no pun intended).