Larry Lancit —
In the United States we have spent the last two years enduring all manner of insult to our democracy. With the election of Donald Trump, an era of autocracy began. The hints of its arrival have been foreshadowed for the past 20 years by movements like the Tea Party, the Alt Right, and the Freedom Caucus. But then, on January 20, 2017, the full force of this new modality of government took full shape (see also Ron Berger’s “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?”).
As Americans, we were raised on the notion that whatever the result of an election, we must abide by the will of the electorate, which is entitled to have its way by virtue of a majority vote. But beginning on that dark January day, the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump watched—along with the minority who did vote for him—as our new Chief Executive set about methodically dismantling the levers of government that over the past 240 years had delivered a society that certainly has plenty of flaws, but has given so many of us a standard of living that is the envy of the entire world.
Those first actions were a harbinger of the chaos that would soon envelop us: the Muslim ban, the escalating prejudice against minorities, the effort to instill fear in our populace concerning the “other,” the constant lying, the appointment of corrupt executives to the President’s cabinet, and so forth.
So, here we are more than two years later with a government that is purposefully understaffed in almost every realm; a sinister strategy to undermine our law enforcement structure and corrupt the rule of law; the unbridled effort to undermine the Mueller investigation; the abdication of Constitutional oversight responsibility by the Republican Congress; the reversal of practically every regulation promulgated over the past 50 years to clean up our environment; the ominous rise of white “nationalism” and hate-related crimes; the rise of pernicious racism; the campaign to paint the press as the “‘enemy of the people”; the creation of new tax cuts that do nothing for the average citizen except add over a trillion dollars to the national debt; the poisonous destruction of the fabric of who we are as a nation.
The results of the midterm November 2018 elections have shined a light on what has evolved, and have made a start at revealing all the bad things that have resulted from this new Trumpian era. But that does not mean we are out of the woods—just look at what has happened in the short time since the election, as Trump continues to threaten a warlike stance against the new Democratic majority in Congress. His methodology of distracting and creating unnecessary crises continued with the “threat of the caravan” from Mexico. His policy of voter suppression expressed in his and his sycophants’ statements and actions about the election results from Arizona, Georgia and Florida. Trump is purposefully sowing the seeds of doubt in voters’ trust of the integrity of the electoral process. You can be sure that he will double down on that effort in advance of his attempt at re-election in two years.
Considering all of the above, the question arises: Why is it so difficult to reign in Trump and his legions? One would think that the majority of Americans would have more power in containing this malignancy. It is a constant struggle to oppose his endless efforts to fulfill some sort of personal mission he has to make this country his empire, with himself as king, and poison our relationships with our allies around the world.
Faster action is stubbornly opposed by forces that do not relate to an understanding of society as the majority of us know it. The minority is still ruling the country! And that is perhaps the major flaw in our democracy. It is true that the rights of the minority should be protected in our country, but that doesn’t mean that the minority should rule when they have not actually obtained a voter mandate.
In theory, a democracy is supposed to be guided by the majority. But over the past 30 years there has been an effort by the Republican Party to undermine that basic rule. From voter suppression to gerrymandering to corrupt special interest money financing politics, the will of the majority has been consistently thwarted. The Republicans claim majority, but the reality of their actual majority is a lie.
However, there is another question to ponder that will affect our thinking about what the concept of “majority” means. We must ask ourselves why a significant part of our population accepts the deviant behavior of Donald Trump. It is simple to list the egregious acts and behaviors of the man, but the real question is why we tolerate it. The media describes each new outrage as “unprecedented.” That is true enough, but how is it that society (the majority?) becomes numb to these unprecedented behaviors? What can the majority do—even as it chooses to tolerate these actions?
Part of the reason is due to the mainstream media’s fascination with the outrageous. Our media focuses on the fluff of an event rather than on the issues of substance that are the platform for the outrageous behavior. During his campaign, Trump was such a flagrant exhibitionist that the critical issues in the race were lost to the ever present indignities that supplanted coverage of the actual issues and proposals the candidate was making in his bid for leadership. Everything egregious in his behavior was a distraction, a new shiny object. That continues today. The purpose of a distraction is to turn the audience’s attention away from what is perhaps most important, to something that is less consequential and certainly more alluring. Trump does this brilliantly. With him it is all about the fight and not about the outcome. His behavior stokes our emotions by blinding us with flashpoints and drama that provoke responses on an emotional level—a distraction to the substance of issues and policy on an intellectual level. And of course, today’s mainstream media, always in the quest of bigger audiences, latches onto the obvious spectacle and emotional response, so the substantive issues are lost in the frenzy (see also Jeff Berger’s “Reflections on Fake News”).
But that still does not completely explain the populace’s acceptance of this deviant behavior. How is it that Trump’s corrupt behavior is there for all to see, yet nothing is done about it? Some would say that we have experienced what sociologist Diane Vaughn calls the “normalization of deviance”—by which she means that people within an organization become so accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it unusual, despite the fact that the behavior far exceeds their own rules for elementary safety.
But what about people outside the organization? That would be anyone who would not be considered a Trump supporter. According to Vaughn, those people shouldn’t be as accepting of this behavior—and yet they (we) are! Why? Perhaps they are deceiving themselves by saying that they are outside the membership of the organization that is subjected to these behaviors. Maybe they are, in fact, members of the “organization” that Vaughn describes. Simply by being citizens who are supposed to be represented by our President, they are automatically engulfed by the “organization” that suffers from the normalization of deviance. Therefore over time they become accustomed to the deviance and are unable to resist it.
It is not quite so simple, however. Perhaps it is because the “ideal of majoritarianism” (if there is such a thing) in our society is being thwarted by all the anti-majoritarian features that are part of the Constitution and the history of American democracy. I refer here to role of the electoral college in electing our President; the Supreme Court of the United States whose current make-up allows five judges to make policy for the entire nation, overruling Congress and the population of some 326 million people; the bicameral legislature that requires a concurrent majority in both houses of Congress to pass legislation; the equal representation in the Senate that allows the population of small states such as Wyoming or Rhode Island to have the same impact as the populations of California, New York, or Ohio; the long established practice of gerrymandering; the requirement in the Senate that 60 votes are needed to pass legislation; the impact of money as “free speech” in the Citizens United case; and, systematic voter suppression as demonstrated by Republican efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina.
These “non-majoritarian” features of American politics are both constitutional and non-constitutional. The constitutional features are part of the system of checks and balances authored by James Madison and defended in the Federalist Papers. And the subject of Senate representation is part of the Great Compromise designed to get small states to ratify the Constitution. These features were not designed to impinge on the question of majority will in elections or in the passage of legislation.
The non-constitutional features, however, are a different matter. They are the product of partisan politics. Here I refer to gerrymandering, the suppression of the vote, and the winner-take-all system for counting votes in the electoral college. Even with these outstanding issues that threaten majority rule, the will of the majority should still prevail in major political decisions such as elections or legislation. For this reason it is not easy to accept Trump’s behavior because of political threats to majority rule. Moreover, his behavior should affect all of us on a moral level. Most of the actions he takes and the opinions he holds go against the prevailing moral codes and sensibilities.
But then, am I saying that the moral sensibilities of his supporters, his base, are all corrupt? Are they, as Hillary Clinton quipped, a “basket of deplorables”?
Trump has been lying so consistently since before he was elected. His supporters know he is lying. According to a CNN poll, only about a third of the American people view Trump as honest and trustworthy (the worst result in the history of CNN polling). In the same poll, only three quarters of those who approve of Trump believe he is honest and trustworthy. This means that there is a significant portion of his supporters who know he is dishonest and don’t care. It is probably not a “reach” to assume that a large portion of these individuals have convinced themselves that he is honest and trustworthy against their better judgement. So how can this large portion of the country support a man who they know is habitually dishonest?
Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee says his supporters stick by him because they (his base) are emotionally needy. They perceive that no matter what the world says about him he fights back against criticism. He continues to lie in the face of truth, and above all is still President. What matters is that he is winning, not whether he is honest and law-abiding. When you are overcome by feelings of powerlessness, which a substantial portion of Trump’s base is (both economically and intellectually), this cartoonish, exaggerated force is more important than true ability (see also Stephen Ducat’s “Trump’s Pathology Is Also His Brand”).
This exemplifies the more primitive morality of “might makes right,” which in the process of normal development, humans grow out of by age 5. So what Lee is saying is that his supporters are exhibiting the emotional development of 5-year-old children when they back him without acknowledging his lies or the logical fallacies in his arguments. It’s not about whether he is right or not, it is about how strong he appears. Trump does not appeal to logic or reason, he appeals to emotions, which is why calling out his lies and blunders is ineffective.
So what is the solution? Does majority rule even exist in America, and if it does, is it something we can re-invigorate? We must attempt to bring it back incrementally—turn the boat, so to speak. But the proverbial battleship cannot turn on a dime. The midterm elections have turned us in the right direction, but we can hardly see the change yet. We have to be committed to hold the wheel firmly in the right direction. Our vigilance will, over time, hopefully return us to a more humane and less chaotic society.
It is a painfully slow process to fix this mess, and we will still suffer mightily during the next two years, as we fight this sickness infecting our country. I hope we all learned a lesson about vigilance and the value of our democracy. One midterm election does not a victory make, but at least we are embarking on our own rehabilitation.
What can each of us do to persevere in the face of the difficult two remaining years of Trump’s presidency? We can try to hold back our passion and rage at each indignity Trump hurls at anything having to do with truth. We must simply understand that he is who he is, and will be that way until the bitter end. We must focus on the future and what we will need to do to fix the damage after he is gone. That’s why the recent resistance campaign on healthcare tructure was more successful than Trump’s focus on fear and dangerous immigrants. I think our citizenry implicitly understands this. Bandy X. Lee says that the only real antidote to the emotional appeal Trump provides his base will be the relentless presentation of substance on the issues and truth. It will be impossible to engage him on an emotional level.
Our challenge is to relax about the fact that he is unchangeable. We must continue to counter each abuse he hurls with a “wall” of truth and integrity. We can only oppose each outrage with steadfast belief, and the action available to each of us to support the rule of law and speak out for what we know is right and true.
We have what it takes to win the long game. We must all keep the faith. In the end, let’s hope majority rules.
Chris Cilliza, “People Don’t Think Trump Is Honest or Trustworthy. And They Never Really Have.” CNN.com (Sept. 11, 2018).
Tana Ganeva. “Yale Psychiatrist Bandy Lee on Donald Trump: ‘His Disorder is on Display for the World to See.'” Salon.com (Dec. 4, 2018).
Diane Vaughan. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (University of Chicago Press, 1996).