Many people in Europe believe without saying, or say without believing, that one of the great advantages of universal suffrage is that it calls men worthy of the people’s confidence to take charge of public affairs. The people do not know how to govern themselves, but, it is said, they always want the State to thrive, and they but rarely fail to choose for leaders people who both share this desire and are the most fit to wield political power.
For my part, I must confess that what I have seen in America by no means allows me to agree.
— Alexis de Tocqueville (in translation), “On the Government of the Democracy in America” (1835)
I succumb. As if ineluctably, I must play my small part in the current spectacle and say a few words about Donald Trump. But Zeteo words—seeking to climb out of the raucous arena and up cliffs that may offer a larger view; and using, for handholds, the piercing observations of other writers from times past.
A Zeteo response to the present election season—and to Donald, Marco, Ted & Hillary—might be that the people need to read more, or to go back to reading, and to thinking (this not being the same as expressing opinions). De Tocqueville might be said to waylay such a response with his observation that to develop one’s native intelligence takes a great deal of time, and Americans, caught up as we are in trying to earn money and in the things that money can buy—we simply lack the time and inclination necessary for playing a significant role in the government of a country. I leave for readers to decide whether the following three cliff scrambles should be considered more evidence of the truth of this observation.
1] The Swollen Amoeba
At some point it may come to seem that what is most notable about the current US Presidential campaigns is what it has to tell us about the power of the people in American-style democracy. We are forever deluded, our delusions played upon and augmented by the candidates, their backers and agents, and yet at times these delusions burst their bounds and breach the walls of the channels in which we were to be contained. Sacred cows are drowned, and—if we’re lucky—fallow land ends up being fertilized.
Another analogy comes to mind: of a vast amoeba on which mad scientists (political along with economic forces) are conducting experiments, seeing if an injection of this or that chemical might improve not the health but the flaccidity and pliability of the organism. For the most part this is simply a cruel process, but every once in a while, with justifiable yet confused rage, the stuff within (“we, the people”) becomes so swollen that we rupture the membrane, swamping the laboratory.
Denying that his own incendiary language was responsible for the recent clashes between supporters and opponents, Trump recently told Fox News, “I represent a lot of people who have great anger.” De Tocqueville—from an old Norman aristocratic family; his parents nearly guillotined during the French Revolution—proposes:
[D]emocratic institutions promote very strong feelings of envy in the human heart . . . [because they] arouse and stimulate a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy. . . . The people are stirred by the chance of success and irritated by its uncertainty. They strive; they are exhausted; they become bitter.
We seek here not to bewail our present pass, but to think about what it tells us, more generally, about our political system and about forces at work within and around us.
2] Can Trump Pale by Comparison?
Were Donald Trump elected President, he would hardly be the first to win the job without being qualified to do it well, nor even the first intemperate person (think Richard Nixon) to have his finger on the button. We might make a list of those (Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, . . . ?) who could not have passed a physical exam, who lacked the necessary health or stamina to do an ostensibly demanding job. We might list those (John Adams, James Madison, U.S. Grant, . . . ?) who, once in office, proved to have the wrong character or psychology for the job.
If Zeteo seeks to promote the reading of old texts, this may also imply that we value repetition and recollection. I have specifically in mind other lines from De Tocqueville which many well-educated Americans may have encountered while in college:
[T]he natural propensities of democracy induce the people to keep from power its most distinguished citizens, and these individuals are no less apt to distance themselves from political careers, in which it is almost impossible to retain one’s independence or to advance without degrading oneself. . . . [Instead] it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortune of the State until he has discovered his incompetence to conduct his own affairs. . . . In the United States, I am not sure that the people would choose men of superior abilities who might seek public office, but it is certain that men of this description do not come forward.
De Tocqueville admits one exception to this rule: times of crisis. Extraordinary virtues arise “from the very imminence of the dangers. . . . [G]enius no longer abstains from presenting itself in the arena; and the people, alarmed by the perils of its situation, briefly forgets its envious passions.” De Tocqueville, who visited the United States during one of its populist moments, the era of Jacksonian Democracy, seems to have been looking back fondly at the countries’ Founding Fathers, people such as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and (as legislators and lobbyists) Adams and Madison. But his sentences also speak clairvoyantly—about how immanent civil war brought to the Presidency Abraham Lincoln (and made of Lincoln a strong leader), and similarly with the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt.
Otherwise, is an American’s best hope a President who serves as figurehead and spokesperson for a segment of the society whose self-interests overlap her or his own—the interests of the particular voter’s social class? And thus, for example, for some classes Reagan was a great President and for others Kennedy? And we might distinguish between those Presidents (e.g. Obama) whose self-interests seem to connect them to a relatively wide range or disparate collection of segments of the society, and those Presidents who seem to be involved in using high office to enrich their friends and families (e.g. George W. Bush).
From this perspective, one thing that is worrisome about Trump is how there seem to be no friends or family who he is interested in helping, nor does he seem to want to champion the interests of his particular segment of the society—the capitalist class of unscrupulous, every person for himself, businessmen (and businesswomen).
On a Vanity Fair website, I have read the following Trump campaign comment regarding one of the magazine’s stories:
Stop saying I went bankrupt. I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage—smart!
And yet I have not gotten the sense that Donald Trump’s interest in the Presidency has to do with wanting to be in a position to strengthen laws such as those relating to bankruptcy—e.g. for people buried under student loans, or, rather, in order to increase the “corporate advantage.” Trump did, at one point, say that, if elected, he would “open up” federal libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets such as The Washington Post and New York Times, but this seemed less a matter of policy than of intimidation—an attempt to silence critics of Donald Trump, rather than to help any larger class of people. Perhaps there is indeed a hidden agenda and a hidden set of interests and supporters for which Trump is the figurehead and spokesperson. But one may, alternatively, worry that he is not representing anyone but himself, and thus could end up yet more isolated in the White House than Jimmy Carter proved to be.
3] Monetizing Celebrity
Like Lady Gaga, the Kardashians, Philippe Petit, et al., Trump represents a phenomenon of our “information age”: how celebrity can be monetized. This fact has helped me think about why Trump decided to make a run for the Presidency, and on his own dime. If he can—and particularly by saying obnoxious things on national television—generate yet more publicity for the Trump name, he can earn more money. That is, when his campaign began, I did not think his objective was to be elected, and I continue to wonder: Beyond the thrills of victory and of getting his name in some more history books, does Donald Trump actually want the job?
I began drafting the present piece after reading in the New York Times Sports section the following anecdote. In 1983, Trump bought the New Jersey Generals in the short-lived United States Football League. He
immediately began pushing the league to move its season from the spring to the fall and take on the mighty N.F.L. His campaign generated a tremendous amount of publicity for Trump, but produced nothing but misery for the other owners. After a Trump-orchestrated antitrust suit against the N.F.L. backfired spectacularly, the once-promising U.S.F.L. went kaput.
This anecdote was of course urging readers to connect USFL to USA, and to see that running for President or indeed becoming President could generate a yet more tremendous amount of publicity for Trump, while leading our once-promising country to go kaput. From the perspective of a name-licenser, however, the results of his behavior for non-licensing purposes (e.g. for the health of the country) are not relevant. And Trump is not too stupid to appreciate that mismanaging a country will garner him more attention than has badmouthing Mexicans and Moslems or declining to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.
The National Review has devoted a good deal of time and attention to describing how Trump’s particular name-monetization efforts work. For example—we repeat again—the infamous case of “Trump University.” The Review notes:
A class-action lawsuit in California and an ongoing civil suit brought by New York State allege that the now-defunct Trump University, later known as the Trump Entrepreneur Institute, defrauded up to 5,000 students, who paid as much as $35,000 to learn Trump’s real-estate investment strategies and techniques. The students were . . . pressured into paying for more expensive seminars where they were led to believe that Trump would personally impart his business secrets. Instead, . . . some attendees were taken on tours of dilapidated Philadelphia neighborhoods. Some of the students were offered the opportunity to take pictures with Trump—or, rather, with a cardboard cut-out of the Donald. . . . . . Trump University reportedly earned nearly $40 million in revenue before its unceremonious shuttering . . .
In de Tocqueville’s view—faute de mieux, we might say; for lack of anything better—Americans of great talent and passion have decided to pursue wealth rather than political power. He did not see how these “great talents” have, from the very first days of the republic, used government and elected officials to divert the great wealth of the country into their bank accounts. And I would like to say, and in harmony with those sons of the ancient Greek oligarchs who brought the world philosophy: there can be no greatness in crass, commercial, corrupt undertakings. (See Socrates speaking to Callicles in The Gorgias: Don’t tell me again that anyone can strip me of whatever I have, so that I won’t have to tell you again that, once he has stripped me, he won’t know what to use to make of the spoils. Having stripped me unjustly, he will use my stuff unjustly and to no good end.)
“What is there left to say?” William Butler Yeats asked in a rather different context. Arch conservative that he was, he was condemning the ascent of bourgeois materialism—to include Cromwell, Lenin, and the French revolutionaries. I suppose that, unfortunately, the argument here might come down to: feudal tyranny was better, or at least better for the upper class, or for people of great talent and passion.
In any case, at least in de Tocqueville’s and Yeats’s cases, great talent and passion led them, respectively, to sociology and poetry. And even if only to bemoan, not incorrectly, a certain lack of wisdom, poetry, and greatness in the lives we now lead.
All neighbourly content and easy talk are gone,
But there’s no good complaining, for money’s rant is on.
He that’s mounting up must on his neighbour mount,
And we and all the Muses are things of no account.
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo and a writer of essays and dialogues. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website.
Credits & Links
“Give me a good cartoonist, and I can throw out half the editorial staff,” H.L. Mencken (photo at right).
- Thomas Nast cartoon, “The Brains,” Harper’s Weekly, October 12, 1871
- Cartoon with skulls: “An Available Candidate. The One Qualification for a Whig President.” From the 1848 Presidential election. Refers to Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott, the two leading contenders for the Whig Party nomination in the aftermath of the Mexican–American War. Published by Nathaniel Currier in 1848. Here as digitally restored.
- Lady Gaga, global warming, Republican mandate, God’s wrath for gays in the military . . . by Clay Jones.
Alexis De Tocqueville. All quotations are from chapter XIII of the first part of De la Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America). The translations from the French are mine, though I have been aided by and have borrowed phrases from the Henry Reeve translation that the Project Guttenberg has made publicly available.
Trump “great anger” quote as reported by Jessica Taylor, Donald Trump Rally In Chicago Canceled Amid Widespread Protests, NPR, March 11, 2016.
Mark Antonio Wright, Donald Trump’s Business Career Has Been One of Bullying Ordinary Citizens, National Review, February 1, 2016. See also, from the same (right-wing) publication, Did Donald Trump Run a Scam University?, by Jillian Kay Melchior, July 16, 2015.
Joe Nocera, Golfers Say Trump Reneged on Deal, New York Times, February 26, 2016.
Plato, The Gorgias, 521B-C. Extract given above is my work, crafted in dialogue with the bilingual text offered by Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library, Gregory R. Crane Editor-in-Chief.
William Butler Yeats, “The Curse of Cromwell.” For the historical background regarding Cromwell and Ireland, one might see an Ireland’s Eye website. Yeats wrote in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, poet and Duchess of Wellington, that his poem was to express, first and foremost, his rage at pro-Soviet Western intellectuals—Cromwell having been, in Yeats’s opinion, the Lenin of his day.