Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s scathing June 2 speech denounced Republican nominee Donald Trump’s qualifications to run American foreign policy. Clinton charged Trump with a general ignorance of world politics, as well as a personal unreliability and irresponsibility. “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes,” said Clinton.
Bedeviled by Trump, Americans need, as rarely before, the political wisdom of their sages. They need some means of gauging how this upstart measures up against the country’s historical experience. Trump is, or wants to be, a populist hero. Populist politics are always bad for representative democracy, however, as a healthy democracy does not need heroes.
The institutional protections of checks-and-balances 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 could survive a populist leader who feeds its less enlightened instincts.
Turn to the sage
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is one of America’s great sages. He epitomized the so-called Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. Emerson’s signature subjects were two: the harmony of all nature including human beings, and the self-affirmation of the individual. In his famous essay “The conduct of life,” Emerson 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 comes 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 and intellectual isolation, and holds 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 amid 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 countless 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 writes “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 is time to shift the balance of payments in America’s alliances, and in the global commons in general. However, while Washington as run by Trump might force other countries to pay more, in the process he could create a situation that is worse for the United States’ national interests and moral influence. It is never in America’s interest to be isolationist, a lonely superpower locked in splendid, wealthy contentment, something like a global gated community. Certainly the United States paid the lion’s share in organizing the post-World War II 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, while reckless at times, has earned a reputation as the least bad superpower.
Power educates the potentate
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,” he said. “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? 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? Will the suddenly aggressive media stay the course?
Even if America’s elites do what they should, the question remains whether Donald Trump can be educated. A nominee who enthuses ‘I have a good brain’ surely needs to listen more and talk less. An overconfident, disdainful Trump should beware, lest the latent strengths in American political culture, those that don’t take to the taste of snake-oil, turn him into what he most fears becoming: a loser.