I will try to not repeat what has already been established about the candidacy of Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Henry M. Paulson Jr. a former U.S. treasury secretary and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, speaking as an American more than as a Republican, lists the challenges and evaluates Trump’s skills and concludes, “Simply put, a Trump presidency is unthinkable.”
Some of us still hope that the 2016 election will not be remembered in history as a scandal—evidence that democracy has failed.
Ten years from now, whom will the historians hold responsible for the failure of this generation of politicians to nurture men and women with vision to recognize the wounds in our society and offer the wisdom to heal them?
Perhaps both the Brexit referendum separating England from its European neighbors and the Trump “revolt” stem from the same no-longer clamped down emotion: populist anger. Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan proposes in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 24, subscriber only) that democracy should be replaced with epistocracy, in which voters, who are for the most part “ignorant, misinformed, and irrational,” would be required to pass a test on basic political knowledge. The parties normally nominate establishment candidates, but when the parties break down “the worst of We the People get what we want.”
In the same issue of the Chronicle, Katherine Cramer, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, after talking with voters since 2007, has concluded that the overwhelming feeling among the public has been resentment, particularly toward cities and people who live there. This is because small towns are not getting their fair share of power; public funds were not distributed fairly and they do not get their fair share of respect. This may be the key to understanding Trump, who has exploited this feeling by pointing to those “offending” people—immigrants, Muslims and out-of-touch elites—rather than address the complex problems, like urbanization, globalization and changing demographics, which challenge our future well-being.
But the Chronicle editors have jumped the gun on the top historians of 2026 by offering a detailed syllabus for a 12-week course, TRUMP 101. They spell out the theme, subject and assignments for each week. In Week 1, Plato, Thucydides and Aristotle say that the demagogue is endemic to democracy and the people who elect him are to blame. Week 2 studies a German Nazi law professor who contends that authoritarian rulers are necessary to defend the people from their enemies. In Week 3, American Fascism, students read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which demonstrates how discontents find a focus in one individual. Week 6, The Angry American, includes Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage, the story of George Wallace, a rabid segregationist who became the hero of the American working class in 1968, and Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) on the public’s resistance to complexity in American culture. Other topics include The Businessman as Hero, White Flight, and Whither Conservatism, which explains what happened to the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
Pretty grim. I suggest there is still a way out. There is a theory that Trump, when he started campaigning, never foresaw that he would go this far. It was a stunt, a reality TV show suddenly became an uncontrollable reality. How to escape? He must look in the mirror and remember the classic story of Narcissus, who reached out in love to the image of himself in the water, fell in and drowned.
In 2026, the historians will evaluate the campaign, the election and the presidency over the next 4 to 8 years. Historians will focus on how our next elected president has dealt with a variety of issues, including the following: the spread of nuclear weapons, the disintegration of the Middle East, the reorganization of Europe, the resurgence of Russia, urban unrest, the growing gap between the rich and poor and the rising tide of immigration. There is no evidence that Donald Trump is equipped to show leadership in these and other issues.
Trump should refute the writers who have made narcissism the center of his personality and step down. A committee of Republican leaders should study the list of Republican governors and select the candidate on the basis of three qualities: integrity, intelligence and compassion. And the Republican Party will replace its image of spoilers with one of public servants. They might also win the election.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is America’s literary editor.