John Keane | Donald Trump is an existential threat to American democracy
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Donald Trump is an existential threat to American democracy

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Donald Trump the demagogue has lit a political fire and measured public reason alone won’t put it out. We’re about to find out how resilient American democracy is, writes John Keane.

During the past few days, all American democrats have been handed a bouquet of viperous questions: When does public incitement to violence by a candidate for high office legitimately require their removal from the race? If this removal were to take place, would their supporters rightly feel so cheated that more violence resulted?

If the elimination of the same candidate for high office happened illegitimately, for instance by means of assassination – a disturbing but not an unrealistic possibility in a country riddled with guns and a history of political violence – would this produce equally polarising effects that kill off the give-and-take ethic of elections, perhaps even pushing the whole country down the path of un-governability, towards law-and-order rule?

The Life and Death of Democracy, my attempt to write a global history of the spirit, language and institutions of democracy, documents many past occasions when functioning Greek-style assembly democracies and modern representative democracies cut their own throats or quietly took their own lives in an act of ‘democide’.

Since 1945, the United States has been a robust exemplar of a third historical type of democracy, one that I call monitory democracy: a new form of democracy in which those who exercise power are everywhere subject not just to periodic ‘free and fair’ elections but also to tight public scrutiny and sanction by a myriad of independent watchdog institutions designed to tame and remove the corrupting effects of arbitrary power.

In recent years, especially since the banking crisis of 2008, democracy in this sense has been in rapid decline in the United States. Corrupted by war, racism, surveillance, disaffection and big money, its version of monitory democracy has grown decadent. Little wonder that in recent months, its citizens and the wider world have caught a glimpse of what democide through violence means – of the possibility that the United States will be the first major monitory democracy to taste its own foolish demise.

What’s clear is that the problem of violence has long been in the making; it is not a product of the roar and rage rallies of recent days.

For America, the self-destruction of democracy using violence mixed with democratic means such as elections is now an imaginable possibility. If you don’t believe me, get a feel for the current dynamics by watching the video clip below. Ponder Donald J Trump’s alibis. And examine carefully the detailed reports of what’s coming down on the ground.

What’s clear is that the problem of violence has long been in the making; it is not a product of the roar and rage rallies of recent days. Robert Kagan is correct: Trump is no fluke, or freak. He’s the Republican Party’s monstrous creation, a demagogue brought to life by the party, and fed by party dynamics of recent years.

Some time ago, taking advantage of the transformation of the Republicans into a party of the white, rich and right-wing, Donald J Trump cleverly hit upon a deadly formula that manifestly works: a media-savvy, ‘bad boy’ populism that stirs up nationalist hatreds among millions of disaffected people who fear and feel in their guts that the American empire is going to the dogs.

So successful is the strategy that his opponents now fear and feel in their own guts that Trump’s politics are herding the American democracy down a highway to hell. They have a point.

In recent pages of The Conversation, it has been suggested by a philosopher that ‘showman’ Donald J Trump is not the Republican candidate democrats should worry about. In philosophical terms, this is a category mistake. Measured in terms of the history of democracy, the suggestion is worryingly naïve.

For what the world is now witnessing is a front-running presidential candidate who practises the vocabulary of friend-versus-enemy violence. He calls on supporters to raise their right hands in solidarity, praises strong-armed police tactics, surrounds himself with his own bully boys and federal Secret Service agents. The feverish crowds chant ‘USA! USA! USA!’ Hungry for revenge, and for dignity, they feast upon his crude rhetoric and macho body language. Dissenters are shouted down, pepper sprayed, arm wrestled, sucker-punched, their lives threatened by decent ordinary folks enchanted by the big mouth spitting words of fire.

Trump the demagogue has lit a political fire and Hillary Clinton is surely right to accuse him of committing ‘political arson’. She’s also right in pointing out that his incitement of violence is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’. But how she plans to deal with it is entirely unclear.

Measured public reason alone won’t work, especially when uttered by tainted lips. That leaves thinking democrats everywhere to ask the pointed questions: How resilient is this American democracy when it comes to taming the devils of demagogic power? Can tight media scrutiny, biting satire, legal action, intelligent policing and votes be combined to bring the demagogue back to Earth, with a bump? Or has the point been reached where the demagoguery can’t be brought democratically to an end?

If so, who knows where the rabble-rousing will end? In dysfunctional or repressive government rooted in an American society polarised into political camps that despise each other? In Trump’s campaign ending the same way George Wallace’s presidential run did in 1972, in a hail of bullets? Or perhaps in a much more serious political outcome: the democide of the most powerful democracy on the face of our planet?

Originally published on ABC The Drum, 14 March 2016