Trump, Tocqueville, and American Democracy

President Trump’s most strident critics present him as a kind of alien threat to our democracy: a fascist, a potential dictator, perhaps foisted on the country by the aid of a foreign, undemocratic government. Professor Harvey Mansfield, who is much wiser and more learned than the ordinary Trump critic, observes that the opposite is much closer to the truth. Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work Democracy in America, Mansfield observes that Trump is much more accurately understood as a product of our democracy than as a foreign imposition on it.

Many people have condemned Trump as a demagogue. But, as Mansfield reminds us, the demagogue—the rabble rousing politician who stirs up the people’s anger against the wealthy and the powerful—is the characteristic evil of democracy. According to Tocqueville, democratic peoples—because they love equality, already enjoy substantial equality, and are usually in the process of achieving even greater equality—tend to be irritated by any inequalities they find in their society. Thus, as Mansfield reminds us, it was easy for Trump to tap into the resentments that ordinary Americans feel against elites who wield such massive influence and enjoy such great prestige. Trump is vulgar, but democracy is also vulgar. If you want refinement of manners, you should move to an aristocracy. Finally, Trump is impatient for quick results and is therefore insufficiently attentive to established norms of procedure. Once again, however, Tocqueville teaches us—or had already taught us almost two hundred years ago—that such tendencies are characteristic of democracies, which produce citizens who are pragmatic and results-oriented.

All of this is true as far as it goes. Nevertheless, Mansfield obscures as much as he illuminates, because he overlooks the ways in which Trump also offers a corrective to some of the democratic ills that Tocqueville diagnosed. Trump in some ways represents democracy’s unsightly and dangerous tendencies, but in other ways he represents just what it needs.

According to Mansfield, Tocqueville teaches that the main danger to democracy is tyranny of the majority. That’s not quite right. Tocqueville certainly warned of tyranny of the majority, but he also held that democracy was at least as likely to succumb to the despotic rule of one or a few, enabled by the political apathy of the majority. Tyranny of the majority arises when the majority is politically active and uses its power to abuse a minority. Democratic despotism arises when the people, too preoccupied by their petty private concerns, neglect politics and so let themselves be ruled by an unworthy government that ends up forcing things on the people that they do not actually want. “When the great mass of citizens does not want to bother about anything but private business,” Tocqueville warned, “even the smallest party need not give up hope of becoming master of public affairs,” and then one can be “left in astonishment at the small number of weak and unworthy hands into which a great people can fall.”

In recent years, America has suffered not from tyranny of the majority but from democratic despotism. When is the last time America had a tyrannical majority? One would have to go back to the days of slavery and segregation, and even these evils were more the work of tyrannical majorities within certain states than of tyrannical national majorities. Today, it would be difficult to say that the aims of either major political party are actually tyrannical. Indeed, Tocqueville himself thought that there was little danger of tyranny of the majority in American national politics because of the prudent institutional arrangements, such as separation of powers and federalism, that the founders had devised precisely in order to prevent tyranny of the majority.

By contrast, America does seem to have suffered from the despotism to which political apathy can give rise. For too long, many voters, neglecting serious attention to national politics, carelessly entrusted the nation’s affairs to rulers determined to pursue policies that were of questionable wisdom and that lacked public support. The result: imprudent trade arrangements that shipped jobs overseas, illegal immigration allowed to proceed unchecked, wars continued long after the public had ceased to approve of them, and a health care law passed in the face of palpable public opposition. Trump’s voters decided they had had enough of this. One could argue with their understanding of the nation’s problems and with the solution they were willing to try, but their behavior hardly manifests the spirit of majority tyranny.

In any event, and whatever one thinks about the specific issues that are so hotly debated today, Trump’s approach to politics actually functions as an antidote to the conditions that permit despotism to emerge within a democracy. According to Tocqueville, the danger of democratic despotism arises from democracy’s excessive spirit of individualism. Unlike the inhabitants of an aristocracy, who are bound together by all kinds of unchosen obligations, democratic men mostly have to look out for themselves and are therefore in danger of getting accustomed to looking out only for themselves. This leads them to focusing all their attention on their private pursuits and to neglecting the political life of the nation. Trump, however, uses his massive rallies and enormous Twitter presence to make politics seem both urgent and, dare I say it, fun to millions of Americans, many of whom had previously found it hardly worth bothering about. Moreover, Trump, to the consternation of some of his conventional conservative critics, is not a preacher of individualism. He instead emphasizes citizen solidarity, reminding Americans of their duty to look out for each other’s interests and to take care of their country. Although Trump’s mode of expression is sometimes crass, he is here doing exactly what a responsible Tocquevillian statesman would do.

Tocqueville also taught that the spirit of religion is necessary to a healthy and decent democracy. On his account, religion actually helps to prevent both majority tyranny and democratic despotism. The morality associated with religion reminds the majority, the irresistible power in a democracy, that there are rules of justice that even it must obey. The majority is not God but is rather entrusted with the care of the “nation, under God,” as the Pledge of Allegiance reminds us. And by constantly reminding men of their duties to each other, the spirit of religion draws men out of themselves, turns their attention to the community, and thus works against the extreme individualism that opens the door to despotism. In addition to all this, Tocqueville says, democracy threatens to degrade its own citizens by unleashing an excessive concern with material prosperity. Religion restrains this dangerous tendency by reminding democratic men that they have immortal souls with a lofty destiny—that there is more to life than a bigger house, a newer car, and a more sophisticated phone.

Whatever one might think of Trump’s personal religiosity, he is diligent in encouraging Americans in general to think of themselves as a religious people, and in encouraging traditional Christians in particular to think of themselves as important to the life of the nation. “America,” Trump has said many times, “is a nation of believers.” Trump won the support of Evangelical Christians in 2016 by promising to defend their religious liberty, and he has taken steps to do so. Trump does these things, moreover, in the face of an American left that seems determined to drive traditional religion completely out of America’s political life. Viewed in the light of Tocqueville’s account of democracy’s needs, Trump deserves some credit for taking on this fight.

Finally, Tocqueville worried that democracy would be degraded by a kind of fatalism, by passivity or helplessness in the face of the large questions that nations must confront. Aristocratic peoples, he noted, tend spontaneously to believe in the so-called “great man” theory of history. They believe that key individuals, living out their virtues or vices, determine the fate of nations, because this actually happens right before their eyes. Aristocracies, after all, give power over the community to a tiny handful of people, each of whom is therefore individually very important. 

Democratic peoples tend to believe that history is the result of vast social forces that are beyond the control of any individual. There is no way to stop them from thinking this way because, once again, they are only responding to what actually appears to be happening. In a mass democracy there are no permanently powerful figures who can direct the life of the nation, only a multitude of equal—and equally powerless—individuals. The danger, however, is that a democratic people will take its belief in impersonal social forces so far as to hold that not even the nation itself can control its fate. This, Tocqueville suggests, would amount to a total “prostration” of “men’s souls.”

Today, America’s ruling elite—many members of which, despite their claims of superior intellectual sophistication, know no more than Trump about Tocqueville’s teaching on democracy—actually encourages this democratic fatalism. Globalization, they tell is, is an inexorable force that no one can hope to control. We just have to submit to it. Here and in relation to many other public questions they tell us that we have to get on “the right side of history,” as if history is a master whose will we dare not disobey.

Trump, in contrast, tries to teach that the challenge of globalization can be met if the nation summons the will to do so. America can alter its trade arrangements and control its borders if it wants to. Trump does not tell Americans to get on the right side of history. He rather calls on them to make history, reminding citizens that the fate of the nation is in their hands. Whatever may be the effect of Trump’s frequent incivilities, it is clear that here the tendency of his rhetoric is to ennoble a public spirit that has been deliberately beaten down by incessant claims that the country will have to submit to the dispensations of history as it is understood by allegedly enlightened people. 

Will Trump’s presidency turn out to be good or bad for American democracy? The only sensible answer is the most cautious one: it is too soon to tell. But this much is clear: judged by a Tocquevillian scorecard, he’s not all bad.