Donald Trump’s propensity to mess everything up is boundless, enough to soil anyone and anything he touches. Given what we’ve seen of this empty, foolish man for more than two years, it’s only to be expected that his ignorance-laced narcissism is integral to his presidency as much as to his personality.
But enumerating Trump’s defects is not my intention here. He is what he is. He is what he’s shown us for years. His is an authoritarian personality, fatal to democracy if allowed to run its natural course. For years past and certainly during 2016, Americans had ample warning of what was to come. The party he handily usurped saw what he was until it became to their political advantage to don their red caps.
This month we embark on a third year of his despotism-prone presidency. The percentage of American voters still supporting him is frightening large. The number of Republican elected officials willing to put the country before his authoritarianism is frighteningly small. Because American voters chose him and Republican senators and representatives protect him means they are all responsible for the damage to America that he and his sycophants produce. It can therefore be said that Trump voters and Trump-backing elected officials chose and continue to choose to put the American Constitutional system at grave risk.
It is important to understand that the problem with Trump is not just another instance of partisan politics. Voters and their representatives will always have disagreements, some easily resolved, some not. I’m not referring in this essay to issues politicians normally struggle with, like agriculture subsidies, military budgets, social security benefits, and a host of other “normal” matters. That process can be visualized as a sport wherein teams of differing approaches compete within fixed rules. Exercising the strengths and methods can be vigorous. Violating the rules, however, destroys the game.
For America, those rules consist of the Constitution as augmented by whatever additional rules to which both teams have agreed. Weakening the rule of law, disregarding the boundaries of authority, or politicizing the court system are ways in which we threaten or trash the rules of the game. Consequently, while rigorous political competition is safe and can be healthy, impairing the rules of the game threatens the country. It is the latter type of damage that voters and a scary proportion of their representatives have chosen to allow and even cheer from Donald Trump.
Like you perhaps, I’ve been engaged in trying to understand Trump, to grasp his propensity for childish narcissism, to wonder how to separate stupidity from calculated craftiness. Does he not know coal isn’t coming back, or is the hope of unemployed miners just another malicious tool? Is he stupid about global warming, or are his dimwitted comments that confound climate and weather meant to show his base he’s as confused as they? Does he really think citing crimes by individual undocumented immigrants represents any proof that immigrant crime is rampant?
Recently a friend suggested I read the ideas promoted by Bob Altemeyer in The Authoritarians and in his shorter publications. Altemeyer is a psychologist who did extensive work on the psychology of both authoritarians and persons prone to follow authoritarians. His concentration was on the latter, which in 1986 earned him the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize for Behavioral Science Research. It is his specialization in the psychological aspects of authoritarian followers that I’m hoping will offer insights into why generally intelligent voters can accept illogic, believe lies, be blind to non sequiturs, and overlook cruelties as long as they come from an authoritarian they’ve adopted or whom they fear.
Whether Altemeyer’s or others’ research—or for that matter, further thoughtful philosophical considerations—can help us understand the grievous Trump phenomenon, it is a dynamic we must confront, for it threatens democratic government. Moreover, will we emerge more able to deal with a subsequent Trump-like character, or will we have accepted the new normal so thoroughly that a later despotic president will be welcomed to the White House? While it is easy to blame Trump for what amounts to anti-Americanism in sheep’s clothing, the most productive analysis will be the study of how you and I, along with our fellow citizens recklessly, even passionately, choose to imperil American democracy.