Trump in some ways represents democracy’s unsightly and dangerous tendencies, but in other ways he represents just what it needs.
Donald Trump and the new campus political correctness movement have a lot in common. Both want to create safe spaces where people fear no challenge from the exercise of others’ liberties. In the case of the campus PC movement, their disdain for freedom is obvious. They want to stop others from saying things that may offend them or undermine their world view. But the modern university grows out the enlightenment, which of course gave much offense to aristocrats, priests, and various other purveyors of received wisdom. Illiberal political correctness is thus at war with the classical liberal ideas on which our universities are founded.
Donald Trump also wants to create safe spaces for people who do not want to be challenged by the liberty of others. This self-proclaimed master of the art of the deal is no friend of making markets more open. He opposes free trade agreements that would let our citizens and those of other nations make more mutually beneficial deals. He also promises literally to build a fence around America. To be sure, there is a national security threat to the United States from radical Islamic terrorism. But Trump’s proposals to ban Muslim immigration is at once excessive and ineffective. Why couldn’t jihadis simply pretend to be Middle Eastern Christians? Trump’s proposal is better understood as an attempt to insulate America from religious ideas that many disdain. His illiberal program is at war with America’s freedom.
The safe spaces offered by Trump and the PC movement lure people inside for similar reasons. University students are at vulnerable time in their lives. Most are away from home for the first time and recognize that in a few years they may actually have to support themselves. At elite colleges, many minority students have been admitted with lower standardized tests scores and the mismatch with their peers may also be a source of angst. (As it would have been for me, had I been admitted and gone to Caltech!) At times like these, students do not want to add their troubles by being unsettled by ideas or slights, real or imagined.
Political polls tell us that Trump’s core constituency is also angst-ridden. It consists of lower-middle to middle class voters, mostly male, who have faced the challenge of technology and globalization in their work lives and feminism and other new cultural forces in their home lives. Many have adapted brilliantly, but others have not. And this latter group doesn’t want more competition from abroad or more disconcerting freedom at home. Hence the appeal of a strongman who says he can make America great again by which his supporters understand a restoration of their former way of life, even if their memories are playing a few tricks.
As Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor famously observed, some people do not like freedom and many more find it unsettling. Thus, spaces made safe from liberty will have an enduring, if delusive, allure.