by E. John Winner
The presidency of Donald Trump has revealed two truths, not merely inconvenient but tragic.
These truths are only hinted at by pundits on the contemporary political scene, for they violate long inculcated beliefs and assumed norms that allow us to communicate and share living space – however uncomfortably – with others in our assumed communities. Their solutions are uncertain, but such problems are now surfacing, whether we confront their underlying truths or not. So perhaps it would be better to admit these truths and begin discussing them in a real way and hope that some good solutions present themselves before the worse make themselves necessary.
We begin with a quick glance back at two historic phenomena. The first of these is a dilemma that European intellectuals found themselves in after the First World War, which continues to have consequences today. This doesn’t immediately impact our problems in America, but it does foreshadow them. Little realized in the US, every European state entering the first World War was by definition a liberal state. This doesn’t register here, because all of those states but France were headed by a monarch. But they were some form or other parliamentary monarchies. The parliament could enjoy considerable power, as in England, or virtually none, as in Russia. But they were representative liberal states as defined (indeed prescribed) by Hegel, the most influential philosopher of the preceding 19th Century. And indeed, as the “Guns of August” began their devastation in Belgium in 1914, it was quite obvious that they were representative of a general popular will to war. Following the horrors of WWI and the revolutionary changes and economic collapses that marked its aftermath, the crisis European intellectuals invested in politics faced could be simply put: The “liberal state” had failed. Representative government was suspect, and the will of the people needed strenuous guidance or abandonment. In America and to some extent England, it has become common to shake one’s head in baffled disapproval at the political thoughts that sometimes surface among intellectuals on the Continent. But for those who flirted with Communism, as for those who embraced Fascism, the problem seemed – and for some, still seems – obvious: the liberal state doesn’t work.
But surely, look to the United States! That beacon of democracy, of liberty and of freedom for all! It not only survived the First World War, but the Second as well, coming out stronger, wealthier, more influential than ever. It even survived a Civil War, and came out of that much improved, with increasing opportunities and liberties for more and more of its recognized citizens.
Well, not quite. Although the insurrectionist governments and their armies were brought low in 1865, the social conflicts that engendered the Civil War were only tenuously resolved (and certainly not to everyone’s benefit) in the Compromise of 1877 that finally, after considerable contention, settled the election of 1876 and in effect ended the Reconstruction. In the Compromise, Southern Democrats ceded their contested electoral College votes to Republican Rutherford Hayes, with the understanding that there would be no further interference by the Federal government in the re-establishment of the “Southern way of life.” Let’s be explicit about what this meant. Economic and legal issues aside, the war had been fought over one important question: what to do with millions of descendants of those brought to America as slaves? The Southern answer was simple: keep them as slaves, work them ’til death. Southern intellectuals doubted they were even human. The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, ruled that (according to the Bible) God had so predetermined them slaves, that they couldn’t even be measured as citizens (three-fifths or otherwise), whatever the Constitution or individual “Free States” decreed. But in the North, beyond an increasingly violent propagation of an alternative religious view (that slaves were Christian brethren of the White Man, however incapacitated by inferior intellect), political, social, and economic leaders came to recognize that “the Negro” (as they were then generously termed) represented a potentially enormous market of “Free Labor,” which was actually Abraham Lincoln’s primary argument against slavery in the debates leading up to his election.
The Reconstruction, hampered from the beginning by the Southern-sympathizer Andrew Johnson, should have been far more drastic than it was. The Southern states should have been treated as conquered territories. Their borders should have been re-drawn, military governments set up, and re-education programs such as those seen in the “De-Nazification” of Germany after 1945 should have been deployed. Of course that wasn’t going to happen. Lincoln communicated his own hopes for reconstruction in the Gettysburg Address: the Confederacy would be recognized as a failed experiment with the same democratic goals as the North; one that could only be realized through a return to the union. Grant indicated much the same in his release of Lee’s Army at Appomattox. The opportunity for radical change in the South was never even recognized, the victorious Federal government choosing instead temporary sanctions and maintenance of the peace through what were essentially police actions. Eleven years of intransigent resistance, occasional guerilla warfare, backroom and backwoods political shenanigans, voter suppression and racial terrorism and murder ultimately led to the 1877 Compromise, effectively the establishment of two Americas: one developing the linear history of the Constitutional state as it had unfolded through the war, the other preserving, maintaining and propagating Confederate values and ideology, including both its entrenched racism and its recalcitrant, feudalistic form of fundamentalist Christianity.
At this point, the anticipated retorts are obvious: “Northerners can be equally racist”; “these are political and social issues, why drag religion into it?” The fact, however, is that conservative Protestantism is integral to the “Southern way of life,” and always has been, and until the 1960’s it was racist to the core. This has been somewhat repaired over the past few decades, but Southern conservative Protestantism, which ferociously proselytizes, remains politically active today at the national level, and it is the source of many of the troubles we face today. For American, fundamentalist Protestantism, technology may have its uses, but science counts for nothing. This, of course, implies that certain forms of reasoning are either worthless or downright suspect, but of what? Of leading people away from the Word, which must be believed regardless of evidence or argument. If it is there in the Bible, none may say otherwise without lapsing into evil. Of course, science can be made useful if it can be made to support belief in the Bible; but this is really “by-the-way.” The technology developed scientifically may be useful, but its logical underpinnings – the actual science that produces it – is not. It’s great that medicines that can relieve pain or indigestion, or even impotence, are discovered, but the physiological and biochemical science that grounds such discoveries? Nah, it’s all the will of God.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist Protestant Christian to be fixed in this mindset, which we might call “belief-centered willful ignorance.” I focus on fundamentalist Protestantism for two reasons: first it had a major cultural impact in the South before and after the Civil War (and partly motivated that conflict), and has driven large sectors of the political Right nationally in consequence; and second, because it is a system of expressed ideology, and thus can reveal some of how such a mindset directs thinking even among those entirely non-religious. The mindset is clear: “If I believe in something strongly enough, nothing in the world can contradict it. If there is any evidence to the contrary, that can be either explained away or ignored. If there is any argument contrary to it, my belief itself is a negation of that argument.”
As democracy is perfected, the office [of President] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. – H. L. Mencken
In comment on Robert Gressis’ The New Abnormal, I remarked:
The Germans who supported Hitler were not monsters. Even though they were anti-Semitic, they were only casually so, in the sense that anti-Semitism had worked itself into the fabric of German society. Their primary concerns were economic, and a continuing bitterness over the German defeat in World War I. There was a general sense of instability and displacement – not quite a sense that they had lost some sort of German identity during the war, but the anxiety that the war had somehow revealed that there really hadn’t been any such identity to begin with. (And they weren’t wrong; “Germany” was really the invention of intellectuals at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.) Hitler encouraged and strengthened their identity as German. He gave them something to believe, a cause that would undo all defeats of the past. He assured them that their economic problems were due to foreign impositions, which when undone would release a mighty nation into a new prosperity, with jobs and wealth for all. He stoked their fears while promising to deliver them from whatever threatened them, which he made a point of identifying precisely with certain ethnicities and certain politics. And emphasizing that note, he essentially promised that a newly united, Nazified Germany would at last rise above all politics. A single leader of a single party with a single vision would lead them into a future of collective contentment within a strong community, with no threats, no challenges, no possible further changes or crises. Of course, this would require world war and wholescale slaughter, but he didn’t lie about that, it’s there in Mein Kampf. He simply convinced them to work together, to make the effort, to trust Party leadership, to trust Adolf Hitler. And when he and the Party asked them to do terrible things, that was just part of the effort needed to secure that future. They weren’t monsters; but monstrous acts were what the future seemed to require of them. There isn’t real difference between these Germans and the Americans who form the cult of Trump. There is not a question in my mind that such Americans would willingly partake in massacres, willingly stand guard at concentration camps and even death camps if the situation ever opened the door to these. Some would have doubts, troubled consciences; but others would engage in this gleefully. Most would simply ‘go along to get along;’ others do it, why not they?”
It is necessary to emphasize that this was not written in a moment of panic. It is not intended as hyperbolic fear-mongering nor as expression of contempt. I think the evidence is quite clear that the Trump Cult – which may include as much as 40% of America’s population, but certainly not much less than 30% – is composed of those committed to belief-centered willful ignorance. They can only be appealed to by those who affirm their beliefs. Argument and evidence are useless with them. They are, strictly speaking, uneducable. And they vote. Worse still, they have guns; lots of guns. Their only sources of information are conspiracy sites on the Internet, Fox News, and right-wing talk-radio to which they listen endlessly, day and night. Everything they see and hear assures them that Donald Trump is a genius avatar of their beliefs, persecuted by conspiracies foreign and domestic (and possibly satanic or interstellar as well).
And they vote; and they carry guns.
Americans have lavished enormous powers on the presidency. They have also sought to bind those powers by law. Yet the Founders of the republic understood that law alone could never eliminate the risks inherent in the power of the presidency. They worried ceaselessly about the prospect of a truly bad man in the office—a Caesar or a Cromwell, as Alexander Hamilton fretted in ‘Federalist No. 21.’ They built restraints: a complicated system for choosing the president, a Congress to constrain him, impeachment to remove him. Their solutions worked for two and a half centuries. In our time, the system failed. 
Railing about the Trump Cult and having to face the fact that – since uneducable and willfully ignorant – there is nothing to be done with them is problem enough. Calming them with appropriate entertainments, allowing them ample space to practice their beliefs without impairing the rights of others, providing them just enough relatively harmless choices that would meet their approval while furthering projects truly for the greater good, should keep their arrogance and potential for violence in check. Since the Reagan era, however, they have gradually increased their influence on the Republican Party and are now poised to dominate politics and reconstruct the mainstream to reflect their values and beliefs. They want a strong leader to accomplish this, and Donald Trump, right now, is it, something that has revealed an even more unpleasant truth of American politics.
The American Constitution is hopelessly out of date. While Amendments, legislation, and judicial decisions have tweaked the Constitution, removing some of its more egregious elements (such as its pro-slavery wording), while constructing new rights out of the old language of the text (such as the right to privacy), and thus moving America in the general direction of social progress and greater equity and opportunity for larger and larger numbers of citizens, this long history has created loop-holes for transgression at the highest levels of government, while allowing parties at the state level to engage in all kinds of chicanery. Often this has been engaged as undeniable corruption; but almost as often, the Constitution and its application to the States easily allows this legally.
The first major problem is the Electoral College. It was born of two well-meaning motives. The first was to establish an agency that would act as final check on Presidential elections, making sure, after due deliberation, that the President-Elect was truly qualified for office. This function of the College is simply superfluous, and, as far as I know, has never been enacted in any election. The second motivation was to make sure that a President could not win the office by winning only in the most highly populated states, but needed to appeal across regions of differing populations, enjoying differing values. The Civil War demonstrates one way this Electoral College function could simply fail: i.e., when a sizable minority committed to violent defense of their cause simply refuses to agree to the Electoral College result.
But there’s another way the Electoral College structure can fail: Namely, when an entrenched minority with political power and savvy learns to manipulate the election process in such a way that the Electoral College only reflects the will of that minority. Which is what the Republican Party has been working toward for the past thirty or more years and which they seem to have accomplished almost completely with the “election” of Donald Trump. Had it been any other Republican in 2016, it’s probable that most of us leaning liberal or Democratic would simply have sucked it up, as we ultimately did in 2000. But George W. Bush, for all his faults, really did believe that he had been elected President of all Americans, regardless of whether they voted for him or not, and that really has been the case for all Presidents since Washington. Until Donald Trump. Trump has made it quite clear that he is President of those who have voted for him – those who “love” him (his word) – and all others be damned.
The Constitutional government of the United States was never intended to be a minority government. It was supposed to be a government of the will of the majority of the people, but with the rights of minorities protected; with various levers of government and oversight (including for instance the tripartite branches of government, and the two differently structured houses of Congress), assuring that changes in the will of the majority would lead to changes in law only gradually over time, following substantial discussion and through various elections. But a minority-rule government led by an authoritarian can move very swiftly, since it is no longer concerned with changing hearts and minds. Such a government would be tolerable if it truly acted for the common good, but “the common good” has almost always been interpreted by such governments as affirming the beliefs of that minority.
Obviously, the Electoral College affects only one position in the government directly, the presidency. Far more difficult to recognize is that the very form of federalism embodied in the Constitution is now dangerously outmoded, because it has been crippled by a long history of abuse and legalized corruption. The Founders developed that particular form of federalism in the context of thirteen states, which had developed organically – that is, without much thought or planning – out of the colonies settled by Great Britain, largely along differing religious lines. This is why they wanted no religion to dominate the national government. And it was hoped that the various states would learn to live together peaceably under the Constitution, as they hadn’t under the Articles of Confederation, with a strong national government, but one that did not interfere in state affairs. Expanding territorial dominion, expanding numbers of states, social and economic interests beyond the mere localism and religious concerns of the original thirteen states apparently did not occur to them until the Constitution was signed and in effect. By then it was too late.
Only approaching the Constitution as a “living document” (i.e., open to re-interpretation according to changing circumstances over time) has kept it viable as a blueprint for government. But there are embedded flaws in this form of federalism that can’t be resolved through re-interpretation. Most important of this, for our present purpose, is the delegation of election laws and their enforcement primarily to the states. For decades now, some have been complaining of the most obvious abuse of this: gerrymandering. Occasionally such complaints take legal form and even wind up in the Supreme Court. But there’s no doubt that whichever party engages in the practice, it is a violation of the will of the majority in the state gerrymandered. It assures over-representation of the party engaged in the practice, regardless of the actual popular vote.
But the coming election reveals that there are more dangerous problems with control of elections in the individual states. We are again reminded that a state legislature can make it extremely difficult to vote, by limiting access to voting apparatus, or using legal technicalities to disenfranchise whole populations. We are also made aware of state laws, long dormant, but Constitutionally allowed, that make it possible for state legislatures to discard the electoral ballots as untrustworthy, and thus choose their own electors. (We are aware of this because Republicans dominating the state legislature in Pennsylvania have apparently been discussing this with the Trump campaign.) Without such flaws in our particular system of federalism, a minority-rule government would have been much more difficult for the Republicans to achieve.
The future doesn’t look good at all. Trump, losing, may spend the next couple of years holding rallies and encouraging violence, until indictments force him to flee the country. Alas, this dark future is actually the best-case scenario. The worst is Trump remaining in the White House with a Republican-controlled senate, unchecked in his devastation of American institutions and American relations abroad.
And even given a possible (but unlikely) rewrite of the Constitution, I honestly don’t know what we can do with that third of the electorate that listens to Hannity and Limbaugh; that denies science, refuses evidence, laughs at argument, and cannot be persuaded. It was long the hope of inheritors of the Enlightenment that education could at last reach such people and train them to be civic-minded rational agents of their own self-interest; i.e. an “informed electorate.” But such hope is vain. Individually, one deals with them easily enough; but collectively they are an eruption waiting to happen. The past four years have been miserable; but history records far worse, and far worse is still possible.