Bedeviled by Donald Trump, a populist, hardball Republican presidential nominee, Americans need as rarely before, the political wisdom of their sages. The institutional protections of check and balance government are fundamental but not sufficient to deter demagogic outcomes. This year’s presidential campaign will be, if nothing else, a national political and moral education in whether the country survive a populist leader feeding its less savory instincts. The media will also be tested: will they speak truth to power? Can they make it stick?
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is one of America’s sages. He epitomized the so-called Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. His signature subjects were two: the harmony of all Nature including human beings, and self-affirmation of the individual. Emerson in his famous essay, “The conduct of life,” also had a lot to say about politics. To be sure, Emerson’s thinking is elitist—he finds that “superior people” are the key to society’s success. But this shouldn’t put off egalitarians. Wisdom can appear anywhere.
To start with, Emerson, like Trump, makes much of an individual’s physical capacities, determination and mental resilience in living an affirmative existence. First of all is good health. “The first wealth is health,” he remarks (and we berate ourselves for never having thought of things so simply). “Health is good…power, life that resists disease, poison and all enemies, and is conservative, as well as creative.” If unsavory characters sometimes approach power—many would say this about Trump—nevertheless, “Vivacity, leadership, must be had, and we are not allowed to be nice in choosing. We must fetch the pump with dirty water, if clean cannot be had.”
The saving grace is in vitality itself: “we have a certain instinct, that where is great amount of life, though gross and peccant, it has its own checks and purifications, and will be found at last in harmony with moral laws.” Moreover, a person of great willpower doesn’t rise or rule alone. “There is always room for a man of force, and he makes room for many.” A new president has the right to clean house of the previous administration’s appointments, creating a new top leadership in the executive branch. The danger is that a populist Great Man tends to appoint enthusiastic, self-important sycophants and becomes wrapped up in self-admiration, intellectual isolation and the capacity for catastrophic error.
The populist hero is always a political and social risk in any kind of politics, but particularly in a democracy because he or she arises in situations of crisis. A healthy democracy has no need for heroes. The country today is not in crisis but the Republican Party certainly is. In the Republican Party at this moment, “‘tis the power of Lynch law, of soldiers and pirates; and it bullies the peaceable and loyal.” This might be a colorful way of describing Trump’s tactics in bowling over 17 rival candidates.
“But,” says Emerson, the breakthrough of a man of brutal instincts “brings its own antidote (because) all kinds of power usually emerge at the same time; good energy, and bad; power of mind, with physical health; the ecstasies of devotion, with the exasperations of debauchery…Politics is a deleterious profession, like some poisonous handicrafts, (but) as there is a use in medicine for poisons, so the world cannot move without rogues…The affirmative class monopolize the homage of mankind. They originate and execute all the great feats. What a force was coiled up in the skull of Napoleon!”
In the world, the key position of America involves every other country. The Economist magazine, a respected British observer of world politics, says about Trump’s intentions in international relations that, “it is a Roman vision of foreign policy, in which the rest of the world’s role is to send tribute to the capital and be grateful for the garrisons…Mr. Trump wants to make those outside America pay the full cost of the hegemonic protection it gives them.” Indeed, maybe it’s time to shift the balance of payments in America’s guarantee of allies and the open world system in general. Washington as run by Trump might force other countries to pay more but in the process create a situation overall worse for American national interests and moral influence. America’s national interest is never to be isolationist, a lonely superpower locked in splendid, wealthy contentment, something like a global gated-community. Certainly the U.S. paid the lion’s share in organizing the post-WWII American liberal order, the so-called Pax Americana. But you get what you pay for and America got a lot out of the deal: not only American national security but beneficial economic relations, the collapse of communism and the general respect of the world. America, in spite of the bull in the china shop, had a deserved reputation as the least bad superpower.
The risk of populism may be endemic to democratic government, in which the people through elections can put anyone in power, even a charlatan. Emerson the elitist, nonetheless and surprisingly, is upbeat about democratic politics: “the evils of popular government appear greater than they are; there is compensation for them in the spirit and energy it awakens. The rough and ready style which belongs to a people of sailors, foresters, farmers, and mechanics, has its advantages. Power educates the potentate.”
And that’s the issue today, the unanswered question in Trump’s juggernaut candidacy. Who are today’s sailors, foresters, farmers and mechanics? Can—or rather will—our brave new world of finance wizards, computer geniuses and globalized CEOs do battle for the country against the populist? Or will they just sign on to keep the party going and hope for the best?
Even if America’s elites do what they should, the question remains whether Donald Trump can be educated. Heading into the general election and after, if he becomes president, will Trump use American democracy for his own glory or will the democracy beat his sword into a tool of the public good? It could either way and any politician who avows he has “a good brain” needs some talking to. Trump is shrewd, to be sure, and the success of his campaign shtick shows how some of the most passionate people—the Republican Party activists—can be hood-winked.
But Trump should watch out and pay attention. He’s had weak opposing candidates for the Republican nomination and the Republican Party big-wigs were to a shocking extent missing in action. He’s survived some bumps in the road and currently has the wind at his back. Playing political hardball, Republican leaders are dragooned into line. It’s a brilliant performance so far, exactly as Emerson defined it: a politics of dirty water bullying the peaceable and loyal.
Trump will have to clean up his act if he hopes to succeed if he’s elected president. Guaranteed a relatively weak opponent whichever of the two Democratic Party candidates wins the nomination, his tendency will be to double-down on what has worked so far. Numerous pundits, looking at today’s polls and delegate maps, assert he has little chance to win. But he has the momentum whereas the other side is winded.
Would power educate the potentate? An over-confident, disdainful Trump should beware: the hidden strengths in American political culture, those that don’t like the taste of snake-oil, will turn him into what he most fears becoming: a loser.