Is this how democracy ends?

David Runciman

On election night, almost as soon as it was clear that the unthinkable had become a cold reality, Paul Krugman asked in the New York Times whether the US was now a failed state. Political scientists who normally study American democracy in splendid isolation are starting to turn their attention to Africa and Latin America. They want to know what happens when authoritarians win elections and democracy morphs into something else. The demagogue who promised to kill terrorists along with their families is moving his own family into the presidential palace. Even before he has taken up occupation his children are being seeded into positions of power. There he is on television, shiny and golden, his wife beside him and three of his children lined up behind, ready to take up what daddy has to offer. Here he is back on Twitter, unshackled by victory, rounding on his opponents in the free press. His ten-year-old son is still too young to join in, but he was by his father’s side on election night, looking hardly less bemused than the rest of us, as Trump delivered his notably conciliatory victory speech. Words of conciliation followed by the ruthless personal appropriation of the machinery of government, children in tow. Isn’t this how democracy ends?

It is not to belittle the crisis facing the American republic, and indeed the world, to say that these are the wrong questions. The US is not a failed state. How do we know? Because that’s what Trump said it was during the election campaign and he was lying. He portrayed his country as a place of failed institutions and widespread corruption, its inner cities racked with violence and its political class interested only in enriching itself. It would be a big mistake to think that he won because people believed him. Had they believed him they would hardly have voted for him: putting a man like Trump in charge really would spell the end for American democracy, because it would have left him free to do his worst. People voted for him because they didn’t believe him. They wanted change but they also had confidence in the basic durability and decency of America’s political institutions to protect them from the worst effects of that change. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump. How else to explain that many people who reported themselves alarmed by the idea of a Trump presidency also voted for him? The Clinton camp made a basic error in choosing to target Trump’s obvious character flaws as the reason to keep him out of the White House. It’s not as if those flaws were hidden. For his supporters they were already baked in: harping on them did nothing except make it sound like the Democrats were crying wolf. If this guy were as dangerous as they say, would he really be a serious candidate for president? Yet he must be a serious candidate for president for them to be saying he’s so dangerous. QED he’s not as dangerous as they say.

This is the crisis facing Western democracies: we don’t know what failure looks like anymore and we have no idea how much danger we are in. The language of failed states doesn’t fit the present moment because it conjures up images that are completely inappropriate for a society like the contemporary United States. There will be no widespread civil conflict, no tanks in the streets, no generals on television announcing that order has been restored. Trump’s victory has been greeted with some haphazard protests around the country, accompanied by sporadic violence. Had he been narrowly defeated, and then refused to concede, the story might have been different. But even then I find it hard to believe that civic order in the US would have broken down. The violence would doubtless have been greater and much of it would have been hateful. But widespread armed resistance to the regime is still very difficult to imagine. The US is nothing like the societies where we know what happens when politics falls apart, including Europe in the 1930s, which is often held up as a warning for what might be around the corner. Contemporary America is far more prosperous than other states where democracy has failed in the past, however unequally that prosperity is distributed. Its population is much older. Civil disorder tends to happen in societies where the median age is in the low twenties; in the US it is close to forty. Its young people are far better educated, or at least educated for much longer. Its levels of violence, though high by 21st-century European standards, are low by any historical measure. Its frustrations are those of a country where all this is true and yet still things are going badly wrong. These are First World problems. That doesn’t make them any less serious. It just makes it much harder to find historical precedents for what comes next.

The Clinton campaign, which included Obama in the later stages, made it sound as though Trump were a genuine outlier from basic democratic norms, capable of tearing the whole thing down were he to triumph. In the second presidential debate, Clinton effectively accused him of working for a hostile foreign power, of being a stooge of the Russian regime. Had that been true, then the national security state ought by now to be swinging into action in order to protect the republic. Generals appearing on television to take charge would be an appropriate response to the risk of the nuclear codes falling into enemy hands. Instead, the American state has pivoted as rapidly as it normally does to accommodate its new master and to offer its services to his cause, in the hope of making that cause reasonably effective. Obama came on television to insist that he wishes Trump well, because if Trump succeeds then America succeeds. This suggests that the people who voted for him were right to suspect that the system would do everything in its power to soften the blow of their choice. It also means that if Trump poses a serious threat to American democracy, we lack the language to express it.

However, the real perils of crying wolf lie on the other side. Trump said that America was a broken society and that he was coming to fix it. But it isn’t broken in the way he said, so he can’t fix it. It’s the inverse of the Pottery Barn rule: you didn’t break it, you don’t own it. Instead, Trump will have to become something much more like a conventional politician, reneging on his pledges, hiring experienced Washington hands to help him negotiate the swamp rather than drain it. It has already started happening. What’s so scary about this prospect is that Trump has no experience of how to do any of it: he isn’t a politician, and the chances are that it will be done badly, with lurching heavy-handedness and regular bouts of outright incompetence. These episodes will then be papered over by fresh waves of Trumpian bombast. That presumably is the job of Steve Bannon and his Breitbart colleagues, now duly installed in the West Wing: they are there to cover up the cock-ups with fresh conspiracy theories. But the incompetence will also be smothered by the functional capacity of the American state, which was designed to absorb large amounts of ineffective government in order to forestall the possibility of really bad people being able to govern effectively. In a country that has seen more bad presidents than good ones, Trump isn’t such an outlier. Not even if he is the nastiest of them all.

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who put his head above the parapet to come out for Trump before election day and now looks likely to be rewarded with his own perch in government, said that a Trump presidency would be a reckoning with reality. If only that were true, then reality might have a better chance of fighting back. Instead, it seems far more likely to conceal what is going on with yet another layer of bluster and confusion. The heart of Thiel’s case for Trump was that the generation of Americans represented by the Clintons – the baby-boomers – had inflated one bubble after another in their desperate desire to avoid facing hard truths and continue their own soft existence. There hadn’t just been equity bubbles and housing bubbles: there were humanitarian bubbles and political correctness bubbles – anything to keep the wolf of how-things-really-are from the door. Yet the idea that Trump, who is from the same generation and has been as cosseted as anyone, offers something different is laughable. The Trump bubble is likely to be the biggest of all.

His immediate agenda is to get a massive infrastructure bill through Congress, along with big tax cuts. There are few barriers in his way. He can rely on Republicans to deliver the tax cuts and Democrats to support the infrastructure projects. The short-term boost this stimulus gives the economy can then be used to buy him time while he fails to get to grips with his other campaign pledges, on immigration, on manufacturing jobs, on taking the fight to the terrorists, and on sharing the love at home. He may even be able to claim for a while that by offering something to each side of the partisan divide he is starting to bridge it. But all he will be doing is papering over the gaping cracks. Tax cuts coupled with unfunded government spending will fuel inflation and create the conditions for a future crash. It will also lead to a head-on collision with the Federal Reserve and Trump won’t find it so easy to get his way there. If he tries to replace Janet Yellen or stuff the board with his own nominees, partisanship will reassert itself with a vengeance. Reality will bite back at Trump eventually. When it does, he will be inclined to lash out. But by then it may be too late. He will be trapped.

Meanwhile, the real long-term threats faced by American society will continue unaddressed. By fixing on the risks of direct political violence, we set a low bar that Trump will be able to clear with relative ease. The truly destructive violence of American society takes place under the surface and often passes unnoticed by all except its victims. It is the violence of a prison system that incarcerates and disenfranchises significant segments of the adult population, especially young African-American men. It is the epidemic of white-on-white violence that is estimated to have cost the lives of nearly a hundred thousand Americans since 1999 and yet has remained more or less invisible, until noticed by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in a paper published in 2015. These deaths are the result of self-inflicted violence, either suicides or drug and alcohol overdoses (‘poisonings’ in the language of the report), particularly affecting white Americans living in the parts of the country that voted overwhelmingly for Trump – the South, the Appalachians, the Rust Belt. People in these communities are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill others, and they are dying younger than their parents did, a trend that is unique in a developed society. Trump’s victory might provide the victims of this epidemic with superficial respite – including the chance to direct some of their self-loathing outwards – but it will do little to address the causes of their underlying hopelessness. America is a society where many working-age people have given up and others have had their chance for a decent life taken from them by a violently punitive criminal justice system. If it is failing, it is failing here. When the Trump bubble bursts, there won’t have been a reckoning with this reality. But there will be an ever greater sense of betrayal.

A Trump administration will have no difficulty fulfilling its campaign pledges on climate change, since it promised to do nothing and doing nothing is relatively easy. It may find it harder work to undo the entire environmental agenda promoted under Obama, but given that Obama was forced to use executive orders to achieve much of this – for six years it has been impossible for him to get legislation through Congress – it will be much simpler for a new executive to overturn his predecessor’s work. In the field of foreign policy Trump will likewise be able to pick the low hanging fruit early on: undoing deals that are yet to be signed, withdrawing support from regimes that lack leverage, finding little people to bully. Trump has shown that he is happy to follow the path of least resistance, all the way to the White House. Why should he stop now? America will posture under his leadership and talk up its clout. But tough decisions will be shirked and enemies conciliated. Perhaps it is in the international arena that there will be a moment of truth, when one of those enemies decides to put the US to the test of an overt confrontation. But it seems unlikely. The American security state remains a formidable machine and no one would take it on lightly. The basic functioning of the American political establishment provides Trump with all the cover he needs to pretend to be dismantling it. What he will in fact be doing is continuing its steady erosion. Nothing too dramatic is likely to happen, which means the reckoning with reality can be put off for a while longer yet. That surely would be better than allowing something truly dramatic to happen on Trump’s watch. Who would want that? Probably not even the people who voted for him.

The heart of Thiel’s case for Trump was that America has become a risk-averse society, frightened of the radical change necessary for its survival. It needs disruption. But Trump is not a disruptor: he is a spiteful mischief-maker. The people who voted for him did not believe they were taking a huge gamble; they simply wished to rebuke a system on which they still rely for their basic security. That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice. It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

This is where the real risks lie. It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible. Trump – and indeed Brexit – are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.