The following article is included in my new book, Donald Trump: Deadbeat Tyrant, published 13th January, 2021.
A French philosopher once noted of the Roman Empire’s fall:
If the chance of one battle — that is, a particular cause — has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle. In a word, the main trend draws with it all particular accidents
Montesquieu was right. Rome did not fall due to the military defeats inflicted upon it by barbarians at the gate, it fell due to a combination of economic difficulties, territorial over-expansion, military overspending, government corruption and general political instability, among a range of other factors. The military defeats were the “particular accidents” that ultimately stemmed from “the main trend” of imperial decline.
Whatever the cause, Rome fell, as all great empires do.
But democracy can fall too: Italy in the 1920s; Germany in the 1930s; Chile in the 1970s; Brazil, Hungary and several other in the 2010s.
As we approach the long and drawn out counting of the votes, a spectacle that will draw a global audience of tens of millions, some now question whether the US is on the verge of joining the growing list of fallen democracies. Even before the count has begun, the man on the throne casts aspersions on the legitimacy of the vote and refuses to say whether he will accept defeat or not. The possibility of a peaceful transfer of power, long the gold-standard characteristic of a democratic regime, looks increasingly doubtful as business owners board up their premises in anticipation of the violence that they fear will erupt on or after election day.
We do not yet know the extent of the danger to democracy, but it is there.
That the threat to democracy emanates from Donald Trump and his more ardent, violent supporters should not be in doubt. Yet Trump ought to be seen as (in Montesquieu’s words) “the particular accident” rather than the “main trend”. Donald Trump is not some virus that has infected American democracy. He is merely the most visible symptom of a wider illness, one that might yet prove fatal.
The mere fact of a Trump presidency is enough to tell us that that at some point, American democracy fell ill. Voters wilfully elected a racist, misogynistic demagogue; a man who many of them must have known (in their heart of hearts) was a con-man and a liar. Without a doubt, the 2016 election of Donald Trump was a symptom of the degraded nature of US democracy. By no means the first symptom, but a spectacular one nonetheless.
The Declining Belief in Democracy
At the core of a well-functioning representative democracy is that citizens must have some basic level of trust in the people and institutions that are supposed to represent them. In theory, we elect our representatives on the basis that they can be trusted to fulfill the promises they make to us. In the US, this trust has been declining for decades. And while being somewhat skeptical of politicians and governments is probably a good thing in a democracy, mistrust can reach a point as to render a democratic system unviable. Widespread mistrust threatens the very legitimacy of democratic rule.
Such mistrust is undoubtedly growing in the US. Pew Research, an organisation that conducts annual surveys of American attitudes, has found that trust in the government fell from higher than 70% in the early 1960s to below 20% by 2012. Similarly, in 1964 less than 30% of voters agreed with the statement that government was “run by a few interests looking out for themselves” but by 2013 that figured had reached nearly 80%.
It is not just trust in government that has declined; belief in democracy is also less widespread than it once was. Across the western world, citizens have become less likely to trust democratic institutions, less likely to believe in the importance of democracy, and more likely to endorse nondemocratic systems of government. In 1995, only one in fifteen Americans said they approved of the idea of military rule; by 2015 that number had grown to one in six. Commitment to democracy appears especially weak among relatively younger voters. By 2017, Trump’s first year in office, a meager 30% of millennials agreed that living in a democracy was “essential”, far less than the generations that preceded them.
This should not be a surprise. American millennials have never voted in a democracy that was not completely tainted by the pervasive influence that money has come to hold over politics.
A Plutocratic Democracy
The US, and much of the western world, has for several decades operated under an economic model in which the gains of economic output went overwhelmingly to a relatively small group of people, commonly popularized as the 1% (although in reality it was the 0.1% that did spectacularly well). This was a desirable outcome for the so-called 1% and, as such, they used some of their riches to fund politicians who would maintain this situation. Through donations and through the hiring of lobbyists, money came to be an ever more decisive factor in US politics. In the words of political scientist David Rothkopf, “in the political bloodstream of the United States, money often serves the role of both red cells, carrying ideas to the heart and brain of the system, and the role of white cells, killing ideas that special interests find threatening”. (Rothkopf, D. Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making, p.84)
Such a process played out as Barack Obama’s sought to pass his health reforms. Pharmaceutical companies and the health insurance industry spent more than $133 million in 2009 alone influencing politicians to ensure that the reforms did not run counter to their interests. (Harvey, D. The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, p.220)
This was a peculiar type of democracy. Voters elected Obama, who had promised widespread health reform, and then the special interests put their money to work to ensure that the reforms pursued were compatible with their continued profitability. This, and countless other episodes, revealed that while America might have been a democracy, it was a plutocratic one (a plutocracy is government by the wealthy).
The Rise of Oligarchy
In 2010, the central role of money in politics was more-or-less institutionalized when the Supreme Court removed limits on political donations, with the absurd justification that giving money to politicians was a form of free speech. (Kuttner, R. Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism, p.15) The very next year, the amount spent by the thirty largest American corporations to lobby government was higher than the amount they paid in taxes. (Mendoza, K. Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy, p.185) The more money that poured into the political system, the more important it became as a decisive factor in getting elected. The amounts involved grew ever more obscene. By 2016, a total of $9.8 billion was spent by politicians on advertisements alone. As getting elected required larger and larger amounts of money, those who were willing to cough up the cash became increasingly powerful, with a handful of individuals gaining immense political power without ever holding elected office.
A well-known example is the infamous Koch family. For years, the Koch’s hosted conferences of wealthy donors who would pool their money together in order to pursue causes and policies which could further the free-market, libertarian agenda they perceived to be in their interest. During Barack Obama’s first term, the Koch’s teamed up with eighteen billionaires (with a total worth of $214 billion) to provide the financial resources needed to fund the fight against the aspects of Obama’s agenda that they opposed. (Mayer, J. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, p.9) The group provided crucial financial backing for The Tea Party, the right-wing mass movement that did so much to debase American political discourse and which pushed the Republican Party even further toward the extremist libertarian right. By 2016, the Koch organisation had become almost like a third force in US politics, with the $1 billion war chest they and their allies had assembled “allowing their political organization to operate on the same scale as the Republican and Democratic parties”. (Reich, R. Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, p.178)
The Koch’s were the most prominent members of America’s new class of oligarchs; super-wealthy individuals who invest millions into subverting democracy for their own purposes. As the political scientist Jeffrey Winters notes, these oligarchs “constitute only a fraction of 1 percent of the population” but have political power that is perhaps tens of thousands of times higher than that of the average citizen. (Winters, J. Democracy and Oligarchy, p.23)
Winters describes the extent of the economic power oligarchs have at their disposal:
A full appreciation of oligarchy in America must begin with an estimate of how much material power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. I call this a Material Power Index (MPI), which can be approximated using both income and wealth data. The MPI assigns a base value of one to the average material power position of Americans across the bottom 90 percent of the population. The MPI of the richest strata in society are a multiple of this base value. . .Measured by income, oligarchs at the very top of American society have an MPI just over 10,000, which happens to approximate the MPI of Roman senators relative to their society of slaves and farmers
(Winters, J. p.22)
The power such oligarchs exercise does not mean that oligarchy has completely replaced democracy. Instead, oligarchy exists side-by-side with democracy; subverting and controlling it when it needs to but still allowing for whatever level of democracy it finds tolerable or is unable to control. “The complex truth” notes Winters, “is that the American political economy is both an oligarchy and a democracy”. (Winters, J. p.20)
The Game is Rigged
While one could have endless debates about whether the US, in the years preceding Trump’s presidency, was a liberal democracy, a plutocratic democracy, or even an oligarchic democracy; the outcome was the same. The political system operated in a way that gave the wealthy a vastly amplified voice. One well-known study examined which social groups had the most impact on policy-making and found that economic elites were highly influential while ordinary people had almost no impact. The authors of the report stated that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy”. The result is that, in what was still nominally a democracy, policies that harm the interests of the wealthy are never pursued, even if they have widespread popular support.
In many causes, voters do not even have the chance to vote for a candidate who offers the policies that the economic elite are opposed to, a situation stemming from the necessity that candidates for high office must secure funding from the wealthy. Meaningful political choice, surely a crucial pre-condition for democracy, has therefore been largely absent in American elections (although Trump’s arrival on the scene has arguably changed this, a point we will return to). Consider the 2012 presidential election: voters were offered a “choice” between Mitt Romney, a billionaire hedge fund manager, and Barack Obama, the sitting president who had spent the previous four years bailing out (and not reforming) a financial system that operated largely for the benefit of people like Mitt Romney. It was a case of choosing between the backers of Wall Street, and Wall Street’s backers. Those making their money on Wall Street know how to maintain such a situation: throughout the 2017–18 election cycle, “financial groups spent $719 million in politics, allocating 60 percent to Republicans and 40 percent to Democrats”.
Politics as Spectacle
If much of the choice was removed from democratic politics, what was left? Absent any meaningful political choice, politics was reduced to other concerns. The so-called “culture wars” featured prominently as did issues such as “lifestyle choices, political correctness, the age and sex of politicians, and the way they dress and look”, all of which allowed for the continuation of the appearance of democratic debate that ultimately was nothing more than an “unending supply of opportunities for pseudo-participation in pseudo-debates” that avoided any meaningful questions about economic justice. (Streeck, W. How Will Capitalism End? p.188) Democratic politics became more concerned with the “self-centered power games” that politicians played among themselves and the scandals they got themselves caught up in became a source of public outrage and entertainment. (Streeck, W. p.111) Stripped of the economic choices that democracy should offer voters, politics became just another form of show business. The late democracy theorist Peter Mair put it well: “When mainstream party competition matters little for the substance of decision-making, it is only to be expected that it should drift towards an emphasis on theater and spectacle”. (Mair, P. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, p.44)
With politics reduced to a theatrical spectacle, the stage was set for the rise of perhaps the most spectacular, theatrical politician yet. The “particular accident” that we know as Donald Trump inherited his wealth and enjoyed mixed success with his various business venture. Yet this was no businessman, nor even a politician. Trump’s main trade was in show business and he pursued it expertly. He burst onto the political scene and turned what was likely to be a fairly standard spectacle of American democracy (Clinton versus Jeb Bush, or whichever bland Republican would have won the nomination) and transformed it into the 21st Century’s most entertaining and horrifying reality TV show.
A Symptom of America’s Sickly Democracy
Trump is the natural culmination of the thinning out of American democracy. He capitalized on the disdain felt for America’s democratic institutions and its mainstream politicians by crudely lambasting every last one of them. He promised a complete clear-out of the hated political class in Washington (“drain the swamp!”), a pledge inevitably reneged on. Trump took the fact that money buys power in America and elevated it to its logical conclusion, spending $66 million of his own cash to literally buy his way to power (of course, he also needed the help of oligarchs like Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel). He expertly exploited the fact that all his rival candidates were beholden to moneyed interests by pointing out the times he himself had bought their favor, even bragging that he had donated money to Hilary Clinton. Not a single one of his rivals was in any position to dispute the fact that they had for decades been beneficiaries of a legalized system of political corruption. Trump’s innate ability to execute a con trick meant that he also successfully presented his own wealth as meaning that he was immune to the corrupting influence money has on US politics.
Finally, he allowed the electorate to have that which they had not had for a very long time: a meaningful choice. Granted, that choice may have been between whether to stick with business-as-usual or try out Trump’s new brand of grotesque political spectacle that combined elements of fascism with crude stand-up comedy. Just about enough Americans to matter decided that business-as-usual was no longer an option, no matter what the alternative.
None of this could have happened without the decades long withering of America’s democracy. A sick political system delivered to the American people a sick president.
Americans now have another choice. They can return to politics-as-it-once-was or they can take a step into the unknown (unknown, that is, until we look back at the history of 1930s Europe) and see just how far this vulgar, neo-fascist reality TV star will take them and their democracy.
It would be a little bit too much to describe the fact that American voters have a clear electoral choice as being the silver-lining to the gathering clouds that signal the decline of their democracy. But they do now have a choice, and if they choose the sane option then there remains the slim hope that America’s democracy can be cured. For that to happen, supporters of Joe Biden need to remember that it was eight years of politics-as-usual under Obama and his vice-president that laid the ground for Donald Trump. If Biden wins, it could represent the last chance democracy in the US has to save itself.
One thing is for certain, Donald Trump will not be the last barbarian seeking to tear down democracy’s walls.
This article is included in my new book Donald Trump: Deadbeat Tyrant, published 13th January, 2021.
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