A meticulous study of Donald Trump’s biography, statements, and policy “positions” will reveal no hint of political direction. It’s not that Trump is contradictory or incoherent. He’s ideologically formless. His claim to business competence is nullified by inherited wealth and several bankruptcies. His supposed nationalism consists of complaining about countries in which he has invested his own money (“I love China, but…”). He’s going to make America great again – yet that’s a wish, not a program. A run at the US presidency has been concocted out of a disorganized bundle of will and desire.
A candidate deprived of direction can only drift on the stream of public opinion. Or to flip that around: the dizzying rise of Trump can best be understood as the political assertion of a newly energized public. Trump has been chosen by this public, for reasons I’ll have cause to examine, and he is the visible effect, not the cause, of this public’s surly and mutinous mood. To make him into an American Hitler or a world-historical figure of any sort, let me suggest, would be to distort reality as on a funhouse mirror.
The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump, but the public that endows him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that have been too weak to stand in his way.
The American public, like the public everywhere, is engaged in a long migration away from the structures of representative democracy to more sectarian arrangements. In Henri Rosanvallon’s term, the democratic nation has devolved into a “society of distrust.” The reasons, Rosanvallon argues, are deep and structural, but we also have available a simple functional explanation: the perception, not always unjustified, that democratic government has failed to deliver on its promises.