The Mysterious Timing of Trump’s Ascent

Excessive Democratic civility, the slowing of social progress, and the harsh reality of politics

Benjamin Cain

Benjamin Cain

Published in An Injustice!

1 day ago (

Photo by Gage Skidmore, on Flickr

The atrociousness of Donald Trump’s cult is obvious, as is the embarrassment of how one of the parties in a two-party political system has effectively been eliminated, making a mockery of the conceit that the United States is the leader of the free world.

But what about the timing of this national unravelling? Why is this pure anti-American demagoguery that’s meant to destroy the country’s institutions and aggrandize a grossly ill, wannabe autocrat happening in the early twenty-first century?

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there’s some continuity between Trump and earlier outbreaks of inhumanity in the GOP, from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign and Richard Nixon’s paranoia to Ronald Reagan’s prolongation of the Cold War and Newt Gingrich’s reckless sabotage of Congress, to the political and religious envelope-pushing of Fox News and right-wing talk radio, to George Bush Jr’s incompetence and Sarah Palin’s populism. So Trumpism isn’t exactly an aberration. Still, Trumpism is far worse than any of the preceding shenanigans of the Republican Party that have disgraced the US since the 1960s.

Is there more to the story, then, to help us understand why the American reckoning with chaos is happening now, in tandem with the global rise of illiberal democracies? I think there is, and it starts with the crucial period of the 1960s, which is when President Johnson passed his landmark legislation, known collectively as the Great Society program that included Medicare, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

Photo by Tanbir Mahmud on Unsplash

Why Democrats can’t do politics

To understand why Johnson’s administration is so crucial to Trumpism, we need to acknowledge a harsh political truth. As implied by the political realism of Niccolo Machiavelli and Carl Schmitt, politics isn’t for everyone. Specifically, politics arises when friends must deal with enemies within a state so politics is war carried out by nonmilitary means. In other words, politics is like a cold war between friends and enemies who must live together, friends and enemies like liberals and conservatives, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, or locals and immigrants.

One of the primary tools used in this simmering, passive-aggressive conflict is deception, and most people aren’t effective as full-time liars. Specifically, those of us with consciences and who aren’t burdened by sociopathic tendencies will feel ashamed to attempt to overcome our enemies by lying constantly in public as a stand-in for resorting to violence.

Generally, women aren’t as sociopathic as men, or the female form of sociopathy isn’t as overt as the male one, which is why incarcerated violent criminals are overwhelmingly male. Even if full-blown antisocial personality disorder is relatively rare both in men and women, men idolize violent heroes, as you can tell from the action movie genre, whereas women are more interested in romance novels, soap operas, and romantic comedies that track the vicissitudes of relationships.

By standing for the progressive prospects of modern civilization, liberals implicitly adopt feminine values of rational negotiation, empathy, and compromise, otherwise known as humanistic statesmanship. By contrast, conservatives stand implicitly for the superiority of premodern civilizations, known as tyrannies, and these were based not on reason but on myths that served as rank propaganda, excusing the gross power inequalities between the royals and the peasants and slaves.

The conservative project is therefore anachronistic in the modern context, so it calls for stunning feats of shameless obfuscation. Just imagine the chutzpah that would be needed to proclaim in 2023 that whites should go back to enslaving dark-skinned Africans. That would be the kind of regressive impudence found in all actual conservatives’ bluster about the importance of preserving ancient or medieval “traditions.” It takes a lack of a moral compass to pretend that socially manufactured inequalities between people are “natural” or are otherwise for the best, especially when any such sophistry is so transparently self-serving for conservatives who happen to find themselves in the dominant position.

Indeed, Republicans must excel in amoral politics because they’re still in business even after their host of colossal scandals: Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Reagan’s dementia, Abu Ghraib and Saddam’s lack of WMDs, Gingrich’s hyperpartisan wrecking of Congress, Fox News’ spewing of toxic lies that resulted in a $787 million payout, and of course Trump’s countless acts of supervillainy that dwarf even the former colossi.

What this means is that “conservatives” are far superior to liberals in politics. Indeed, liberals are frankly inept at politics because they’re too domesticated and empathetic to lie with reckless abandon. Conservatives are better at bad-faith mythmaking, so in free societies, they flourish as demagogues or as advertisers. Liberal mythmakers excel in Hollywood, mind you, because the goal here is more artistic than political.

Where liberals used to excel politically is in “getting stuff done,” that is, in using reason and expertise rather than self-serving lies to govern in a way that improves the social condition.

This is the importance, then, of Johnson’s Great Society legislation: that was the last time American liberals in government made the country an obviously better place by exercising the powers of big government. The key word there is “obviously,” because liberals can’t fall back on the political skill of lying outright to make up for what might be the bankruptcy of their later policies. Liberals lack that skill, and it’s only the conservatives who must excel in those amoral terms because of the savage cruelty of their regressive policy platform.

Liberals are adrift in the dark art of politics because they’ve had no need for such games. After all, liberalism is just the ethos of modernity, and the progress of modernity has spoken for itself: science, industry, equality under the law, separation of Church and State, democracy, capitalism, freedom of speech — all these revolutions that distinguish, for example, the relative squalor of Christendom from the progressive era of secular republics were based on tangible, historic events and their repercussions.

These revolutions didn’t need to be sold, although modernists did spread the word with metanarratives to cover up the inconsistencies in how the benefits were initially distributed. Still, scientific skepticism and objectivity, for example, spoke for themselves since these methods resulted in technologies that dramatically improved humanity.

Image by ar130405 from Pixabay

Democrats’ need for their real social progress to speak for itself

The promise of liberalism in politics was that society could be improved by similar applications of reason and the humanistic ethos. You wouldn’t need the sort of cynical, “noble” lies that used to conceal the injustices of patriarchy, slavery, tyranny, and imperialism, which prevailed in most civilizations for thousands of years. Instead, you’d let the facts of secular humanistic progress speak for themselves.

Recall the American Revolution, which the Founders justified by liberal, Enlightenment principles; the Civil War and the Reconstruction Acts (including the Constitution’s 14th Amendment) that ended slavery; the Progressive Era (including the creation of the Department of Labour, the FDA, the FTC, plus the Federal Reserve Act, the use of the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up the robber barons’ plutocratic monopolies, and women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment); FDR’s aid to the Allies, which helped defeat the fascist powers in WWII; the New Deal legislation and the Great Society.

Those landmarks of American progress spoke for themselves. They tangibly improved the lives of ordinary Americans.

The problem, then, is that there were arguably no new major progressive reforms in the US after the 1960s — and this was so even though American society was still beset by structural problems that called for big government reforms. For instance, liberals ought to have been pushing for a rewrite of the 2nd Amendment, an overhaul of the Electoral College and of campaign financing, and a reining in of the Supreme Court.

Although he created the Departments of Energy and Education, and he had some other successes such as the Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter’s administration was plagued with crises that he couldn’t resolve, including an economic malaise, stagflation, the energy crisis, and the Iran-hostage crisis (co-engineered by Reagan). Carter was also captured by the neoclassical economists who pushed for deregulation, as part of big business’s backlash against the zeal for progress in the late 1960s, a backlash that started with the 1971 Powell Memo. Even before Reagan then, Carter started to deregulate sectors of the economy, including the airline industry.

Perhaps a little unfairly, therefore, Carter is remembered not as a triumphant Democratic force for progress but as a naïve bumpkin who was out of his depth, and who had to be bailed out by the mighty, patriotic Reagan.

Crucially, the lack of great Democratic policy successes after the 1960s was no accident since the liberals’ Keynesian consensus faced an anomaly in the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, and this fuelled Ronald Reagan’s Evangelical-Libertarian revolution. As an actor, Reagan captured the public’s imagination with his expert delivery of conservative myths, shifting the Overton window to the right, and he won the presidency with two landslide elections, carrying 44 states in 1980 and 49 in 1984.

Photo by Matt Johnson, on Flickr

The rise of centrist Democrats

Democrats might contend that Bill Clinton’s free trade deals in the 1990s benefited ordinary Americans, but that claim about the results of Clinton’s presidency would be debatable rather than self-evident. Free trade worsened economic inequality in the US and returned Americans to the boom-and-bust cycle, resulting in the dot-com crash and the 2008 financial crisis.

Clinton was a triangulating centrist rather than a progressive, and like Barack Obama, another centrist, he excelled at selling his policies. But neither was a transformative leader like FDR or Johnson. Neither’s policies spoke for themselves because they weren’t obviously progressive for most Americans.

Free trade made products cheaper in the US, but it also empowered business owners at the expense of unions and ordinary workers, which led to wage stagnation which forced Americans to go into debt to pay for things like private healthcare. The wave of privatization that followed Reagan’s trickle-down myths and the pseudoscientific neoclassical economic models led to the capture of both political parties by transnational corporations and the billionaire class. This exacerbated the resentment of the abandoned working class which would ultimately turn to the GOP’s sinister demagoguery and toxic conspiracy theories, culminating in the cult of Trumpism.

While Obama ended the financial crisis without leading the country into a depression, he neglected to deal with the moral hazard faced by the banksters who perpetrated the frauds that led to the 2008 financial crisis. That too bred resentment, which fuelled the Tea Party protesters who turned into Trump’s confused but genuinely aggrieved supporters.

Bill Clinton’s greatest reform was regressive rather than progressive since by conceding the myth of the Reagan Revolution and falling for the laissez-faire economist’s propaganda for plutocracy (as purveyed, for instance, by Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin), Clinton was forced to abandon the liberal’s faith in big government. Clinton ended the progressive narrative that government could be as modern as science, industry, and law in improving everyone’s lives. Indeed, Clinton transformed the government by shrinking it, by deregulating sectors, and ceding power to transnational corporations, hoping the market would take over and prosper by itself.

Before Clinton, liberals thought the government could stand for progress by enacting major reforms. After Bill Clinton, liberals like Obama and Hillary Clinton thought the government’s role should be more limited because private industries are more efficient, due to the rigors of competition, the threat of bankruptcy, and so forth.

Consequently, after Carter’s perceived and real failures, and Reagan’s shameless selling of patriotic myths, Democrats had to fall back on their wholly inadequate salesmanship.

The closest we could come to recent counterexamples would be the presidential campaigns of the progressives Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders, but they’ve gone against the grain of the DNC, and Sanders has had few legislative accomplishments, due partly to his abrasive mannerisms. Neither progressive was able to lead the Democrats.

And as president, the one-time centrist senator Joe Biden pursued some progressive policies, such as the loosening of restrictions on cannabis and the forgiveness of student loans, but this is offset by his inability to sell anything, due to his age-related handicaps.

At this point, I can imagine centrist Democrats complaining that there’s no hope of progressive reforms in the US since the country’s population is generally right-of-center. Supposedly, that’s why Democrats were smart to move to the center since otherwise they’d have had no hope of winning a general election.

But that would be a pitiful rationalization. People’s minds can be changed in a free country. Look at how Trump normalized neo-fascism and turned a whole political party into a cult of personality. He was able to do that not because of what Americans already believed, but because he’s a better salesman than all the Democrats put together.

The reason there’s no longer a chance for progressive reforms in the US is that Democrats can no longer sell anything. They can no longer do politics because they’re too genteel. Americans were once eager for progressive reforms, and they got them. Historians call it the Progressive Era. Americans still want radical change, but Republicans have captured that energy and resentment because they’re more willing to say and do whatever it takes to get their way.

Here, then, we have a structural explanation of the rise of Trumpism.

The frustration of ordinary Americans has been brewing for decades because while the GOP has taken itself out of the running as a legitimate political party under Trump, the Democrats effectively abandoned their posts long beforehand, by turning their party into a sham of its former self.

Leading Democrats became centrists who served the professional class (the wealthiest ten percent of the country). They no longer believed in the progressive power of big government, so they had no compelling counternarrative to the conservative’s devil-may-care, manipulative promises. And again, even if Democrats had such a narrative after Reagan, they couldn’t be expected to sell it because they’re too scrupulous and intellectual to be effective political operators for the progressive cause.

Progressive Democrats have always needed their actions to speak for themselves. Those heroic actions, being the stuff of modernity, dried up after Johnson’s Great Society, leaving a giant vacuum in the American political discourse. The US essentially lost its representation for progressive policies or for the ideals of social democracy. The libertarian myths that the market could improve on government won out due to the economic anomalies of the 1970s, Reagan’s leadership, and the scientistic obfuscations of neoclassical economics.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, on Flickr

Trumpism fills the vacuum

What many Americans seem to want is for something great to happen in their country, and they barely care whether they would personally benefit from that greatness. They just want to be swept up in a revolution. The climate is right for an authoritarian showman like Trump because the Democrats’ only defense is to enact real-world improvements. Yet they haven’t resorted to that defense in decades.

This is partly because Republicans have succeeded in polarizing the country with their superior public relations and have benefited the most from the plutocracy’s rigging of the government with the filibuster, gerrymandering, and the unrepresentative Senate and Electoral College. But it’s also because Democrats lost their way, which means that the modern faith in social progress that could be compared to advances in science and industry might have been misplaced.

And it’s obvious that Democrats are outmatched on strictly political grounds since Democrats, on average, lack the Republicans’ hypermasculine esteem for functional sociopathy. Trumpism happened when it did because it took these decades for many Americans to realize that the Democrats stand now only for piecemeal pseudo-progress, that they’ve become mealy-mouthed centrists who could no longer be counted on to fix the country’s problems with dramatic reforms. Americans craved political drama to match the kind that became commonplace in Hollywood and on social media, and Trump caters to this appetite for revolution.

Trump fills the void left by the absence of effective progressive Democrats, who haven’t been seen in power since the 1960s.

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