Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him

The Bible is right: a deluge of images does encourage idolatry. Look at the cults of personality in America today. Look at Hollywood. Look at Washington. I’d like to see the next presidential race be run according to Second Commandment principles. No commercials. A radio-only debate. We need an ugly president. I know we’re missing out on some potential Abe Lincolns because they’d look gawky and gangly on TV.”—A. J. Jacobs

The United States is the first nation founded solely upon a series of shared principles. England and France, for example, became nations because of a combination of historical factors like geography and shared ethnicity. For its part America was founded upon principles articulated by John Locke (1632-1704) and Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), e.g. For a government to be legitimate it required the consent of the governed to rule; people themselves possessed the inherent right to self-determination; moreover, the people had the right to overthrow governments that did not protect the interests of citizens; and the ancient Greeks and Romans contributed the idea of Natural Law to the mix—a belief human beings are born possessing certain inherent and inviolable rights.[1]

Let me begin by admitting I love America (or at least the idea of it); and if I can say I have a faith, it is certainly a civic one reflected in the spirit of liberty as described by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, in the actions and principles of John Adams and George Washington, and in the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Something has changed for me though: until relatively recently I believed there wasn’t much difference between the Canadian and American conception of liberty and freedom. However, I came to appreciate America’s and Canada’s differences through the popularity of Donald Trump. A populist like Trump could never successfully win political office in Canada (or at least I hope this is the case).[2] If someone like Trump ran in Canada, and if they spoke in the same way as he did, they’d more than likely be arrested for violating Canada’s anti-hate laws.[3] Yet, in order to avoid charges of hypocrisy or over-simplifying a complex situation, it’s not that Canada hasn’t had its problems with violence, racism, chauvinism, intolerance, and plain old-fashioned stupidity (we have); we just go about it differently than the Americans and the differences are telling.

Many years ago I read Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada by a Canadian academic named Martin Robin. In Shades Robin describes how the Ku Klux Klan (an American white supremacist group) established itself in Saskatchewan in the late 1920s in an effort to take advantage of Euro-Canadian anti-Indian sentiment. The Klan appealed to some Western Canadians because of a growing regional distrust of the Liberal Party in Saskatchewan and Alberta. I laughed out loud, as though I was reading a punchline, when Robin explained why the Klan failed to establish itself permanently in the Canadian West:

The Canadian Klan remained a Yankee import without the cultural resonance recalling the noble days of Reconstruction, or the home-baked apple-pie chauvinism of Babbit America. A bootleg import that slipped in under the cultural barrier, the Klan ran smack into British tradition, institutions, and cultural idolatry. Itself an alien institution in British North America, the Klan could hardly feed on anti-alien sentiments. From the moment of their arrival, Klansmen had to contend with reams of editorials and political pronouncements from diverse opponents, condemning the Klan’s ways as foreign, American, and inimical to the British tradition of commitment to fair play, common sense, tolerance, give and take, and the rule of law. For all of their bombast and righteousness, Canadian Klansmen remained a nervous, fidgety, non-violent lot, who shunned tar and feathers, avoided lynching, drove cars by day instead of horses by night, and abandoned even their soiled bed sheets in search of an acceptance they never won. [4]

The Klan leadership complained Canadians were all talk (they wouldn’t actually lynch or terrorize anyone). So the Klan left. Regardless, Canadians are just as capable as the Americans of racism; however, Canadian racism is fundamentally British in character: it is understated, felt deeply but kept inside, reflecting a sort of passive aggressiveness even, and its adherents are keen to avoid drawing attention to themselves through overt acts or expressions. Even the most reactionary Canadian, with exception, deep down has an appreciation for the beauty and importance of the rule of law (something I believe is unique in a sense to Canada and England).[5]

So what makes Trump a viable candidate in the American context but not in the Canadian? I think it’s safe to say Trump’s appeal cannot be boiled down to a simple appeal to the usual suspects like either racism or economic frustration. Although these certainly are factors, I think Trump’s popularity is mainly a reflection of a uniquely American conception of liberty: fundamentally speaking, liberty to an American means government stays as much out of the lives of ordinary citizens as possible. In the Canadian context, citizens actually expect government to step in to protect the freedoms of the people while ensuring some degree of equity exists. Americans (especially conservatives) don’t look at it this way; rather, any government intervention as simply regarded as interference, even un-natural. Also, according to certain interpretations of Natural Law, Americans invoke the idea of God actually establishing the social and political order that we feeble human beings cannot and should not meddle with.[6] This belief in a divinely ordained social/political order, especially for a state calling itself truly democratic, is a curious feature peculiar to the United States—neither France, Canada nor England’s path to democracy involved an appeal to God (on the contrary, at least in France they repudiated the need for an Almighty altogether).

The belief that there exists a natural order to things is synonymous with the idea of liberty in the American psyche. For this reason the Thirteen Colonies could fight a war of liberation (1776-1783) from Great Britain while simultaneously maintaining the institution of slavery at home. There was no contradiction in it. Natural Law dictated some men are slaves and others are masters; it was sufficient that the masters (the white people breaking away from Britain) had liberty. This psychological compartmentalization of liberty—that it does not exist universally but exists in “pockets” (or tight spaces)—is foundational to American political culture; and for this reason it was not incompatible to believe liberty was preserved while whites enjoyed full-citizenship while it simultaneously denied to African-Americans until the 1960s.[7] Trump’s popularity reflects this fundamental lack of flexibility within America’s democratic tradition.[8]

People support Trump because he’s promises to bring certainty to an uncertain situation: many Americans are tired of decades and decades of post-modernist[9] and socialist reforms altering the fabric (natural order) of American society: people are tired of political correctness; tired of feminism; tired of apologizing for past wrongs; tired of empowering historically marginalized groups like gays and blacks; there’s too much democracy, too much liberty, too much change to the natural order of things. Interestingly, despite Trump’s abrasive style he appealed to people across all sorts of educational, financial and ideological lines.[10] According to Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, authors of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, there is one thing Trump supporters do share in common with one another: they are all favorably disposed to the idea of authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is an ideology where power isn’t shared but is concentrated in the hands of either a dictator or small group; authoritarian societies tend to sweep away diversity in an attempt to make citizens “one”. Authoritarianism creates the illusion of security and certainty; it promotes the belief of people that the world works a certain way (a “natural” way) so you better accept it, or get out…or else. Authoritarian-minded individuals do not see any value in pluralism[11] or sharing power across the population; moreover, power should only be in the hands of a chosen few to maintain order and stability above all else. Italians in the 1920s and Germans in the 1930s gave in to the temptation to solve their problems by abandoning democracy and embracing populist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively. Trump, arguably, belongs to this tradition. Non-authoritarians also exist in the United States obviously: unlike the authoritarian-minded the non-authoritarian tends to value personal autonomy over conformity. Hetherington and Weiler contrast authoritarians (conservatives) with non-authoritarians (liberals) in the following way:

…[Authoritarians] tend to favor the concrete and immediate, seeing the world in black and white terms. Those scoring low in authoritarianism are more inclined to favor the abstract, seeing the world in more complex terms. Solutions to problems that might be obvious to one side might seem overly simplistic to the less authoritarian or relativistic to the more authoritarian. Even if issue preferences are not miles apart, political conflict can seem polarized if it has a fundamental difference in outlook at its foundations. It is this more subtle understanding of polarization that we believe characterizes American politics today.[12]

The polarization in America right now is not new: despite assertions to the contrary, there’s always been significant divisions in the United States. America was never a “melting pot”. If anything, it was a series of different pots—black, yellow, white, Christian, Muslim, atheist, gay, straight, and so on. Many of these groups not only oppose one another in theory; some go so far as to refuse to recognize the right of the others to even exist at all. Tolerance it seems is a luxury people only can afford when the economy is doing well. Yet, even before the Great Recession in 2009 the sense of division among average Americans—Democrat and Republican alike—was palpable.[13] The melting pot metaphor is an idea the wealthy and well-educated liberal elite understand and might even assent to; however, as you climb down the socio-economic ladder tolerance for differences disappears and the illusion of a melting pot boils away.

A good friend of mine, an American, admitted he wanted to live in a “conservative” country.[14] I understood what he meant but, as a Canadian, I wondered to myself: regardless of the label you apply to yourself you live first and foremost in a Liberal democracy. Just to clarify I am not using the word “liberal” in the 20th century sense, i.e. liberalism broadly associated with a series of social reforms like universal healthcare, unemployment insurance, or political correctness. Instead, I am using the word in its Lockean[15] sense where according to Natural Law every citizen is born free, enjoys certain inalienable rights, e.g. right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and, more importantly, no other citizen, not even the government, has the right to dictate what shape that happiness ultimately takes for the individual affected. The problem, I suppose, with my interpretation of liberalism is it can be used to defend the “pocket” approach to liberty where one group enjoys liberty and security while simultaneously denying it to others who are different, e.g. I am justified not selling wedding cakes to gay people because doing so violates my faith and my particular “happiness”.[16]

The problem with possessing a self-centered, inflexible conception of liberty is it encourages social and legal inequality. In principle people are all born equal in a society governed by the rule of law; however, the First Amendment[17] in America is being used as a legal instrument to quite literally justify segregation—people are not only not being sold wedding cakes for being gay; gay people are also fired from their jobs, do not enjoy full child custody rights of their children, and are being denied access to healthcare providers and obstetricians. Although the right to disagree is protected by law, when that same law is used to justify oppression (or second class citizenship) the law becomes less an instrument of justice and more one used to justify the exercise of arbitrary power. Martin Luther King Jr. observed as much saying when law and order fail to secure everyone equally or uphold justice they become “dangerously structured dams blocking the flow of social progress”.[18]

This speaks to the problem of not having a more universal understanding or application of liberty. Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by the political philosophy of John Locke. Locke’s approach was at its root rational, not emotional. The English philosopher formed this understanding of liberty as a result of seeing his countrymen needlessly butcher one another over religious differences. Locke conceived of a liberal society where governments didn’t exist to discourage conflict or force agreement between society’s members; people were free to form their own attitudes and believe in what they wanted; yet, and this is important, Locke didn’t favor a completely hands off approach to social order either; membership in society came with certain obligations like respecting the rights of others and taking the needs of one’s neighbor in to proper consideration; and finally, government played an essential role in managing the differences inevitably emerging between people living in a complex society; therefore, the role of the law in such societies, at least ones calling themselves democratic, Locke argued, was “not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge [my emphasis] freedom”.[19] Unlike many Americans believe, if full and equal rights were given to everyone their society would not fall apart; being cruel and repressive isn’t any more “natural” than being compassionate or considerate. The fact remains though is American democratic traditions are not recent innovations but emerged out of a time when individual’s tended to relate first and foremost with their tribes instead of the nation as a whole. This might cause one to despair nothing will change: nevertheless the United States might take a lesson from the French intellectual tradition where people acknowledge that all institutions are created by man and therefore can be changed by man.[20] We are never quite as pigeon-holed or without options as we think except in our own thinking.

 

[1] Natural Law: the doctrine that human affairs are governed by universal ethical principles that are part of the very nature of things and that can be understood by reason. For example, it was God (and not kings or queens) who endowed a person with the right to freedom, liberty and equality. Natural Law, or the origins of human rights as we know them, were first articulated by Greek and Roman classical philosophers and jurists.

[2] The last three populist politicians of any significance in Canada were John G. Diefenbaker (1957-1963), Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), and Justin Trudeau (1971-present). All three men became prime minister at times when Canada was experiencing problems related to regionalism, economic downturn, and social malaise. Canada has elected overtly racist and xenophobic members to Parliament, e.g. Conservative Jim Pankiw (1997-2004).

[3] Trump publicly called Latinos rapists and murderers, generalized all Muslims were terrorists, and said some pretty disgusting things about women and the disabled during his campaign in 2016. According to Canada’s Criminal Code he would have been guilty of violating our anti-hate crime laws: everyone who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of an indictable offense (Section 319).

[4] Martin Robin, Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada: 1920-1940, p.83-86.

[5] The rule of law is in the blood of Canadians: for example, we preserve the integrity of our political decision making process by wisely limiting the ability of special interests to donate money to candidates and shape elections; we apply concepts like freedom and equality universally and consistently instead of arbitrarily, e.g. minorities and the majority experience roughly the same security; most Canadians see some value in pooling the country’s collective wealth to take care of society’s most vulnerable; and we have a tendency—and I’m convinced we’ve picked this up from the Scots—of being self-deprecating as opposed to overly proud thinking we’re the best or only country on the planet. Canadians understand they do some things well, and some not so much, and that’s just how it is. This humility reflects a distinctly Canadian tendency to think of themselves as simply one of many as opposed to the one and only.

[6] Conservatives and monarchists like Edmund Burke (1729-1797 AD) used essentially an identical argument to justify keeping England locked in tradition under the rule of a monarchy forever into perpetuity. Arguably, it’s this sense of a God-given traditional order that has contributed to so strong a sense and respect in the rule of law held by both Canadians and British alike today. The Americans also have a love for the rule of law; however, they strangely appeal to Natural Law to justify the preservation of inequities, e.g. the “natural” segregation of African-Americans from whites or, more recently, the 2016 decision by legislators in North Carolina to pass laws requiring people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex, i.e. this law was clearly directed at people identifying as trans-sexual which law makers regarded as “un-natural”.

[7] History is repeating itself in America in 2016: despite being granted marriage equality discrimination against gay people is actually increasing; and the First Amendment (the law) is being invoked by opponents to homosexuality to justify the discrimination. For anyone interested in learning more about this unfortunate trend check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGkGfznvijg.

[8] Most people associate the word “democracy” with the idea of the “rule by the many”. In reality, the word literally translated means “people power”. So, in principle, if the majority (white people) have power they possess freedom and therefore democracy exists: whites alone possessing power was the litmus test, at least in the American context, for the existence of liberty. The powerlessness of African-Americans was not, and is not, indicative of a lack of either freedom or democracy; instead, the lower status of minorities reflects what is believed to be a divinely inspired order where God apparently favors white Americans over black.

[9] Post Modernism: is defined broadly as a rejection of the idea of objective morality (or that anything like universal morality exists); it is also philosophical position that is skeptical anything is true or can be proven; and it is suspicious of reason while emphasizing the role of ideology plays in maintaining the political and economic status-quo, e.g. post-modernists make arguments like governments run by white men are fundamentally racist and chauvinist.

[10]Following the presidential election in November (2016), on CBC’s The Investigators journalist John Cruickshank provided some interesting insight as to the significance of Trump’s unexpected victory. He said the campaign was covered “as if it were a plebiscite on the character of Donald Trump, but it wasn’t, really. It had a lot more to do with the fact that for almost all of the American population, they haven’t had a raise in 40 years”. All of his supporters weren’t racist so much as opportunists trying to improve their employment situation. You can watch the interview by following this link: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/americans-vote-out-media-1.3846307.

[11] Pluralism is a condition or system in which two more groups co-exist in a single country enjoying equal access to resources and equal protections under the law, e.g. Canada.

[12] Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, p.32.

[13] The Great Recession is a term in reference to a sharp decline in economic activity (2008-2009) which is generally considered the largest downturn since the Great Depression (1929-1939).

[14] Although political conservatives are closely identified with anti-gay rights positions and more hawkish responses to foreign policy, it is important to note that authoritarianism and conservatism are not the same thing. Authoritarianism is not preference for laissez-faire economics and conversely, that conservative “distaste for change” does not automatically imply “distaste for other races”; nor is it true that “commitment to economic freedom” somehow suggests an interest in moral regulation and political repression. Hetherington and Weiler, p.39.

[15] John Locke (1632-1704 AD) was an English political philosopher who was one of the first thinkers to articulate what a modern liberal state should look like, e.g. government’s role was to ensure disagreement between society’s members was managed peacefully instead of destructively; and that genuinely democratic societies emphasized values like tolerance and pluralism rather than blind conformity or obedience to rules. Locke was one of, if not the first political theorist, to argue citizens had a right to overthrow the government if leaders acted selfishly or followed policies not in the public interest. See Locke’s books Letters on Toleration and Two Treatises of Government for more.

[16] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3464222/Gay-couple-feel-dehumanized-Christian-baker-refuses-make-wedding-cake.html

[17] The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, ensuring that there is no prohibition on the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

[18] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Why We Can’t Wait, p.88.

[19] John Locke, Two Treatise of Government, p.234.

[20] “All the idols made by man, however terrifying they may be, are in point of fact subordinate to him, and that is why he will always have it in his power to destroy them”—Simone de Beavoir, Nature of the Second Sex, p.97.

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