Democracy and Its Discontents
by Adam Tooze – June 6, 2019
The New York Review of Books
For the American right, Donald Trump’s inauguration as the forty-fifth president of the United States was a moment of political rebirth. Elements of American conservatism had long fostered a reactionary counterculture, which defined the push for civil rights as oppression, resisted the equality of women and the transgression of conventional heterosexual norms, pilloried the hegemony of the liberal media, and was suspicious of globalism and its corporate liberal institutions, including the UN and the WTO. Already in the 1950s this reactionary politics had secured a niche on the right wing of the GOP. It was reenergized by the Goldwater campaign and the conservative backlash against the social revolutions of the 1960s. Reintegrated into the mainstream GOP by Ronald Reagan, it then flared into the open in the ferocious hostility to the Clintons in the 1990s. With Trump it finally claimed center stage. For the right, the explosion of “truth-speaking” by Trump and his cohorts, the unabashed sexism and xenophobia of his administration, and its robust nationalism on issues of trade and security need no justification. His election represents a long-awaited overturning of the consensus of liberalism.
Centrist Democrats also view the administration as historic, but for them it represents the betrayal of all that is best about America. The election of a man like Trump in the second decade of the twenty-first century violated the cherished liberal narrative of progress from the Civil War to the New Deal to the civil rights movement to the election of Barack Obama. This was a self-conception of the United States carefully cultivated by cold war liberalism and seemingly fulfilled in the Clinton era of American power. The election of a man as openly sexist and xenophobic as Donald Trump was a shock so fundamental that it evoked comparisons with the great crises of democracy in the 1930s. Parallels are readily drawn between Mitch McConnell and Paul von Hindenburg. There is talk of a Reichstag fire moment, in which an act of terrorism might be exploited to declare emergency rule. Such references to the interwar period are both rousing and reassuring. They remind us of good battles decisively won. Not for nothing does the anti-Trump movement refer to itself as “the resistance,” recalling memories of midcentury antifascist heroics.
But though this rhetoric is based in history, what is surprising is how recently it developed. Only a few years ago the mood in the Democratic Party establishment was not one of defiant resistance. What prevailed was bland futuristic complacency. The evolving diversity of America and the manifest political preferences of the Californian digital oligarchs would guarantee the Democrats’ grip on power. Trump’s supporters were not just deplorable, they were doomed to extinction. On both sides of the Atlantic, it was the job of centrist intellectuals to swat down critical talk from the left about the rule of undemocratic technocrats and the hollowing out of democracy.
America’s revived left wing, mobilized by Bernie Sanders and drawn to organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), does not doubt the disastrous consequences of the Trump presidency. Yet for the left he represents not a historic rupture but a continuity. As Jed Purdy put it in Dissent last summer, Trump is “not an anomalous departure but rather a return to the baseline—to the historical norm.”1Trump exposes starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.
For its steadfast radical critique, the American left once earned the dismissive scorn of centrists. Now that the center is panicking, the left senses an opening. An insurgency in the Democratic Party backed by the DSA appears to have a genuinely broad base. Among a swath of young Americans, talk of socialism has lost its stigma. This is not a moment of democratic crisis but an opportunity the likes of which the American left has not seen in many decades.