By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch
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Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0
The authors of our Constitution were of many minds on many issues, slavery most of all. But they all agreed that the United States would be a republic, that there would be no king.
They got what they wanted. We have had an “imperial” presidency for quite a while, but we have never had a monarch – not in the literal sense.
Even so, our founders never quite dispatched the spirit of monarchy, the idea that the state and its laws must be shrouded in majesty. They could hardly have done that and also founded a modern state.
Even in the modern world, political legitimacy depends, to at least some extent, on what Max Weber (1864-1920) called “charisma,” an awareness, usually unconscious but psychologically real, of a connection to a transcendent power that confers authority upon political leaders or upon the offices they hold.
The general idea, in pre-modern times, was that authority was somehow divinely conferred. Modernity disenchants both the natural and social worlds, but not so much as to do away with charismatic authority claims altogether.
We are all naturalists now, and are therefore inclined to think of charismatic authority as a relic of a bygone past. However, at an experiential level, there is no denying that the phenomenon is real.
Nevertheless, nowadays, authority claims depend, for the most part, on factors that are less affectively compelling. Modern states are therefore always at risk of falling prey to legitimation crises. The more a sense of the majesty of state offices and functions declines, the greater the risk becomes.
In the United States, this is happening now, before our very eyes – thanks to Donald J. Trump.
There are many reasons why Trump’s occupancy of the Oval Office discomfits roughly two-thirds of the population.
Part of the problem is that he is unfit for the office he occupies; anyone chosen at random could do as well or better.
A greater problem is that not all is right in his head. There are few words in the political lexicon that are more carelessly overused than “existential threat,” but is there any more apt way to describe a bully with nuclear bombs who seems to be perpetually on the brink of losing control?
Some two-thirds of the American people already know this, and, with each new tweet, more are figuring it out.
If they kept book on such things, the odds that the Donald will make it through the four years of his term would probably already be less than fifty-fifty. The odds that the world could survive four or eight years of Trump would be no better.
But this does not entirely explain the sense of unease that Trump’s presence in the White House elicits. Much of the blame for that lies with the ways his comportment denigrates the majesty of the office he holds.
One would think that Trump-like characters could never rise to positions of great power in real world republics, especially ones that hold officials democratically accountable. Historical evidence generally bears out this expectation.
It is different in monarchies.
Thanks to rules of succession, heritable offices sometimes fall to children. When that happens, there are usually institutionally prescribed ways for dealing with the problem; regents, or their functional equivalents, do the monarch’s work until the child is sufficiently mature.
Adult monarchs who go berserk or who otherwise seem unable to exercise their duties are usually dealt with in other ways – typically out of sight, and outside the normal ken of laws and customs.
Republics are supposed to have better ways of dealing with problems like that. Our founders took this for granted. They imagined that, by imposing age requirements for holders of elective offices, they addressed all the problems of intellectual and moral immaturity that were likely to arise.
Already by the late eighteenth century, a democratic veneer was indispensible for winning over popular support, just as it is today. And at least some of the Constitution’s authors had genuinely democratic inclinations.
However, this didn’t stop them from restricting the franchise in ways that bolstered the power of the merchant and planter classes from which they came, or from guaranteeing white supremacy and patriarchal rule. Our “founding fathers” were a conflicted and disingenuous lot.
Thus when they sought to justify the restrictions on voting that they imposed, they argued that the main reason for restricting the franchise in the ways they did was to assure that the state would be wisely governed; in their view, only property-owning white men had the means and leisure required for cultivating the requisite rational capacities.
Views of this sort had been in circulation in England at least since the late seventeenth century. They were defended by some of England’s most august and influential thinkers, including John Locke (1632-1704), a philosophical hero in Enlightened colonial circles.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since the late eighteenth century, and it has been a long time since anyone has seriously tried to argue that differential levels of wealth and leisure give rise to differential levels of rationality or other skills useful in governance that justify restricting the franchise.
Nevertheless, the Trump phenomenon sconcerts and terrifies two-thirds of Americans nowadays just as surely as it would have disconcerted and flabbergasted the authors of our Constitution to imagine that, in the regime they concocted, a man – a white, property-owning septuagenarian man, no less — with the mind and manners of an adolescent playground bully would someday be vested with the power to launch a nuclear Armageddon.
But this is what has come to pass, and we have no choice but to deal with it.
Thanks to Trump, we are now in the midst of a legitimation crisis of an unusual kind. For the time being, it is most manifest in a widespread feeling that the norms and expectations that constitute the political sphere we have always known no longer hold, and that while anything could happen at any time, what is most likely to happen will be both preposterous and deleterious, if not outright catastrophic.
It is a crisis that grows out of the absurdity that pervades the Trumpian universe. Even the fact that a legitimation crisis exists at all is absurd.
Like Trump, George W. Bush lost the popular vote in the 2000 election. Unlike him, though, he won in the Electoral College in a way that violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
He won because Republican Supreme Court Justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas saw to it. They were able to get their man, Bush, across the finish line because his people were more adept than Al Gore’s in dealing with the post-election recount in Florida. The Bush family fixers handled the situation there so well that, for good or ill, the country avoided a constitutional crisis.
Trump, on the other hand, won a majority of Electoral College votes without judicial finagling. He won according to the rules. The rules are undemocratic, indefensible, and stupid. But they are the rules of the game and according to them, Trump won — fair and square.
One would therefore expect that, of the two presidencies, Bush’s would be the one with the more tenuous hold on legitimacy.
Nevertheless, by the Fourth of July of Year One of the Bush era – months before 9/11 – the idea that Bush occupied the Oval Office rightfully was secure.
He seemed to be, and was, an overage frat boy, a poltroon, a spoiled rich kid incongruously sporting an exaggerated Texas accent and degrees from Harvard and Yale. It wasn’t yet clear that he would go on to become the worst President ever of the pre-Trump era, but it was plain that he had it in him. Nevertheless, once the post-election spectacle was over, his right to be President was uncontested; people had moved on.
In Trump’s case, no one has moved on – least of all Trump himself. The post-election spectacle rages on even more intensely in mid-summer 2017 than in the late winter and early spring.
According to the polls, barely a third of the electorate approves of Trump’s performance in office. The rest disapprove or “don’t know.” It is a good bet that many of them do know, but cannot bear to think about the situation at all.
The polls don’t quite get it, though; the words “approve” and “disapprove” hardly describe what is going on in respondents’ heads.
It is a safe bet that most of the people who say they approve don’t care much about Trump’s policies or how much or little he accomplishes; and there is certainly no “Trumpian” ideology that they favor. They like Trump because he is pugnacious, ignorant, and crude.
Or maybe it isn’t Trump’s personality that appeals, but the fact that he defeated Hillary Clinton, or that he gets under the skin of the kinds of people whom the late (unlamented) Spiro Agnew used to call “effete intellectual snobs.” Or maybe like Trump, they don’t have reasons, only grudges and animosities.
In marked contrast, the people who disapprove of Trump have plenty of reasons, but most of them, though compelling, are only barely relevant – because their sense of the illegitimacy of Trump’s hold over the office he occupies matters to them more. In comparison, the soundness or probity of what Trump and his minions have done or are likely to do is of only secondary importance.
Therefore those people are not moving on. Quite to the contrary, their feelings are intensifying and their ranks are growing.
With each passing day — indeed with each new tweet – Trump adds to the mound of evidence that long ago proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not just temperamentally and intellectually unfit for the office to which he was elected, but also, and perhaps of even greater significance, that he is putting the majesty of that office in jeopardy.
Trump is good at garnering media attention – in the tabloids, of course, but also now in “quality” media, and he is a good enough showman for reality TV and the broader political scene insofar as it mimics reality TV. He is also a past master at conspicuous, and tasteless, displays of obscene wealth.
But, when it comes to governance, he is a great big zero who flip-flops so shamelessly that his minions have a hard time keeping up.
Largely outside of public view – at the Environmental Protection Agency, for example – his appointees are doing all kinds of injurious “deconstructing.” It isn’t clear how much of it, if any, Trump understands or knows or even cares about. It is happening under his aegis, however; so the fault is ultimately his.
The administration he has cobbled together – or had cobbled together for him – famously speaks with many, often inconsistent, voices. Indeed, it often seems that there is no Trump administration except in a technical sense; that where an administration should be, there is only a hodge-podge of rightwing malefactors and nincompoops whom Trump empowered to do whatever they want without regard for anything except making him look good to his base.
Above them, there is the retinue surrounding the Sun King wannabe. It is a tiny circle, comprised of a few “alt-right” miscreants like the two Stephens, Bannon and Miller, and a handful of staff people whom the Donald trusts. And, at the pinnacle, there is Jared the airhead son-in-law whom Trump made Minister of Everything, and Ivanka, the fashionista daughter, who is supposed to be the token non-maniac of the group, but emphatically is not.
Where is the legitimacy in any of that?
There was once a Left that sought to change the world radically for the better. Thanks largely to neoliberal globalization, but also to the end of Communism and the general decline of socialist movements worldwide, the goals of a much diminished Left today are more modest, often amounting to little more than trying to secure relief for the victims of neoliberal austerity policies. This would include anywhere from eighty to ninety-nine percent of the population of particular countries.
In the United States, there is even less of a Left than in many other countries, and its goals are even more modest. Thus the vaunted Bernie Sanders campaign aimed only at establishing forms and levels of social provision that have been standard throughout the developed world since the end of the Second World War.
There were anarchists too who were not just extremely militant – so militant that they are often taken for agents provacateurs (or dupes of agents provacateurs) – but who also tried, often with some success, to organize non-coercive forms of social and economic cooperation.
For them especially, but for the broader, statist Left as well, legitimation crises could sometimes present strategic opportunities.
In those circumstances, attacks on the majesty of the state and its laws were more often welcomed than feared – not just because it feels good to dump on or mock the authorities, but because demythologizing them weakens them.
But those circumstances are not our circumstances. There are no forces out there now capable of putting this Trump-induced and Trump-sustained legitimation crisis to good use.
Trump himself can and probably will be brought low by it, but neither the conditions that made Trump possible, nor the consequences of what Trump and his minions have done or will do, are about to go away.
Contrary to what some hoodwinked Trump voters who should have known better thought, and to what some diehard Trump supporters evidently still believe, Trump’s election in no way undermines the neoliberal consensus that the Clintons have been promoting for decades. It reinforces it.
Thus voters who thought that they were voting against Clintonism could not have been more wrong. The error is proving difficult to expunge, but the scales have already fallen from the eyes of some of them, and, day-by-day, it is becoming harder for the rest of them to remain steadfast.
What they thought they were voting for when they voted for Trump was never clear, but they all believed that it would at least be different from what they had gotten under Barack Obama or would get with Hillary Clinton. In fact, what they got is Clinton 2.0. No matter what happens with Trump, this is not about to change any time soon. It serves them right.
If participants in the self-described anti-Trump “resistance” use the legitimation crisis brought on by Trump’s policies, politics and personality to support a less equivocal version of Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist, military first) politics, it will serve them right too. It would be better to let a good legitimation crisis go to waste than to use it for that.
The situation would be different, of course, if we had a real opposition party that did not have to rely solely on Trump to self-destruct, but that was instead capable of winning over hearts and minds through vigorous organizing around a sound progressive – and even radical — agenda.
It would be even more different, and much better, if we had non-coercive institutions in place or, failing that, well enough thought out to be capable of becoming operational in short order when the time is right, that would enable people freed the burdens of both the visible hand of the state and the invisible hand of capitalist markets to coordinate their behaviors freely and cooperatively.
Then like the anarchists of old, we could be grateful for anything – even Donald Trump — that undermines the all-too-human tendency to believe in the majesty of the state and its laws.
But we are a long way from that, just as we are a long way from radically transforming – or, better still, replacing — the Democratic Party.
This legitimation crisis is therefore on track for turning out poorly. Worry!
ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).