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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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 24, 2019 at 07:26:01 am

There is more than a little sleight of hand at work here. " 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"... this seems to pass for the author as tyranny of "one or a few". Of one? Hardly. Of a few? In a representative government should you end a war the minute public opinion wavers, or start one the minute the polls favor it? Is it tyranny if a duly elected Congress passes a bill the majority do not approve of, whether Obamacare or the Trump tax cut? This is to devalue the meaning of "tyranny" in a way Orwell knew well.

As for religion and democracy, T is very clear: the alliance of throne and altar is, in the long run, disastrous for the altar. Religions should NOT allow themselves to become identified with a single political party. And really, Trump encouraging America to look beyond, material, sensual pleasures?

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Alan Kahan
on September 24, 2019 at 09:51:46 am

Wow! This piece only confirms what has been said of Tocqueville--rather than understand him, people only find what they already believe. One will not find Tocqueville here. This is propaganda.

If you want to find out what Tocqueville would think of Trump, then I suggest that one read the second volume of Democracy in America. I think it is clear there.

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Ted Vaggalis
on September 24, 2019 at 10:48:08 am

I don't know what Tocqueville would think of Trump, but it is patently obvious what he would think of BHO, HRC, the Squad, nearly every one of the current Democratic presidential contenders and the media enablers and promoters of extreme leftism (together with all self-described "activists"), from what is probably the most well-known passage of said second volume:

I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?

This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed men to bear them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; in certain moments of great passions and great dangers, the sovereign power becomes suddenly violent and arbitrary. Habitually it is moderate, benevolent, regular and humane; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Trump is aesthetically offensive and might even make a bad decision or two out of pique or stupidity, but he is patently far less dangerous than those who would throw him out. Tocqueville would surely agree with that.

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QET
on September 24, 2019 at 14:39:08 pm

A thoughtful, learned, and wise essay. Thanks for writing it.

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Max Hocutt
on September 24, 2019 at 15:29:10 pm

Absotively!

The only correspondence between the segment of the citizenry that Mr Vaggalis extols and Tocqueville is the fact that the "elites" are undeniably responsible for, at first , the apathy and vitiation of the citizenry and secondly, the current "reaction" to the misadventures of that same elite.

In short, the tyranny of the elite, or as the Good Count argued almost two centuries ago, "the few" who by engendering apathy in the citizenry are thus able to eventuate an almost complete monopoly on political power AND DISCOURSE.

Balderdash to any and all claims that Tocqueville would support our privileged elites.

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gabe
on September 25, 2019 at 09:05:42 am

Beautifully written. However I believe that the Original Native, the American Indian would have a far different view of democracy, human rights, religion and other social matters.

The American Aborigine is the only American population today who are still trying to master their fate, participate in the destiny and course of the nation, and do so based solely upon true democratic, republican and constitutional principles.

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Lamar Perryman
on September 25, 2019 at 09:31:21 am

“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.”

One need not look any further than what has happened to The Catholic Church, to be able to witness what can happen when “political apathy”, is allowed to take root and bear rotten fruit as “political apathy” which is akin to “lukewarmness”, eventually will lead to despotism, as those in the majority no longer value our Judeo-Christian Founding principles, including a multitude who profess to be Catholic.

https://www.lepantoin.org/fear-silence-and-inaction-eroding-catholic-civil-rights/

Analysis by Pro-life and Pro-Family organizations, as well as the U. S. Catholic Bishops, have warned that the Equality Act would:
* Require Faith based hospitals, doctors and nurses to participate in and/or to perform or assist with abortions or lose their medical licenses;
* Require tax funding of all abortions without restrictions;
* Mandate that any entity that provides health care for pregnancy and childbirth be required to provide abortion as a “related medical condition;”
* Force women to share private, intimate spaces with men who “identify” as female including in bathrooms, lockers, schools, hospitals, prisons, gyms, military barracks and homeless shelters;
* Disallow Catholic and private school single sex sports teams from competing against public school sports teams which will no longer be permitted to have “discriminatory” single sex teams;
* Decertify Catholic and Christian schools from satisfying state compulsory attendance laws if they refuse to adopt LGBTQ policies, treating religious schools as “hate groups” comparable to the Ku Klux Klan;
* Forbid groups like the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Charities or Christian non-profits from receiving Community Block grants from local governments for housing for the disabled or seniors unless they accommodate the LGBTQ agenda including hiring those who identify as homosexual or transgender;
* Prohibit Catholic schools and parishes from obtaining construction loans from federally chartered banks or savings institutions unless the schools and churches implement the LGBTQ agenda including hiring active homosexual and transgender teachers in same sex “marriages;”
* Remove children from the legal custody of their parents if they try to prevent their minor children from taking cancer-causing, puberty-blocking drugs or cross-sex hormones recommended by school counselors or provided by social welfare agencies;
* End women-only or men-only shelters serving drug addicts, the battered, and the homeless.
* Decertify foster care and adoption agencies which do not place children with homosexual partners;
* Require small businesses owned by Catholics to promote and affirm LGBTQ sexual behavior or face fines and/or loss of their business licenses;
* Remove the tax-exempt status of Catholic churches and agencies if they fail to “celebrate” same-sex weddings. The Equality Act would classify churches as “public accommodations” (like hotels and restaurants), prohibited from denying services on account of sexual orientation, in the same manner services cannot now be denied on account of race.

“Oh what a tangled web is weaved”, by those who desire to deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided (Blessed) Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, because they desire to “Render onto Caesar” or themselves, what belongs to God.

Rendering onto Caesar, what belongs to God, will always end in tyranny. “When God is denied”, human dignity disappears”, whether that denial of God comes from the tyranny of Caesar, or from “the tyranny of the masses”.

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Nancy
on September 25, 2019 at 09:56:57 am

No doubt, whenever we have denied our Founding Judeo-Christian principles, we have experienced suffering both individually, and as a Nation. This does not change the fact that a multitude of human persons desire to participate in the destiny and course of the Nation, and only a Nation grounded in Judeo-Christian principles, has the potential to answer the question, “Who am I, why am I here, and where am I going”, in The Light Of Life-affirming, and Life-sustaining Perfect Love.

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2007/tocquevilles-catholic-america

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Nancy
on September 26, 2019 at 17:56:06 pm

Trump is routinely crass and sometimes vulgar, but he is very far from a demagogue. Trump's campaign was one of the most substantive, policy-driven in history. (Indeed, university studies have shown his advertising to be far more substantive and policy-oriented than Hillary's.) He's no worse than any other politician in the false promises department, and he's far better than the vast majority in terms of trying to deliver on his promises (even if often thwarted, especially by inadequate cooperation from his own party.)

Too often, "demagogue" is simply a label that elites, or those who ally with them, apply to their opponents.

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Bill
on September 26, 2019 at 21:38:23 pm

One tell about Tocqueville--his condemnation of Americans for their boisterous, and in his view, vulgar displays of patriotism, scattered throughout the book. Trump is like that, and thus incurs the wrath of snobs and other elitists. In fact, he places a huge burden on common political life for individual happiness and well-being. He reminds one of an ancient patriot rather than a modern individualist. Well done, Carson.

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ken masugi

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