An evergreen story for local political reporters is the candidate who vows to eliminate his or her own job if elected. This year a restaurant owner in Champaign County, Ill., ran for recorder of deeds while saying the position should be abolished as a way toward “a smaller, tighter, well-funded government.” (He finished third in the Republican primary.) The race for recorder of deeds in McHenry County also included a candidate who wanted to get rid of the position; he said of his two opponents, “I don't think these women could in the private sector get half the jobs I have been fortunate enough to work for.” (He won the G.O.P. nomination but faces a Democrat in November.)
Donald Trump doesn’t want to eliminate the presidency, but the presumptive Republican nominee is the national version of all those gadfly candidates for local office, mostly white and male, who want to run government like a business—to “blow up the boxes” of the bureaucracy, as Arnold Schwarzenegger put it upon becoming governor of California. His support comes because, not despite, having never held public office. “There is a perverse purity to Trump’s great leap,” writes E.J. Dionne Jr.
The contempt for public officials articulated by Mr. Trump and his early supporters can feel like contempt for democracy itself. Writing in The Washington Post, political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse suggest that Mr. Trump is especially popular among “stealth democrats”—or Americans “who feel dismissive about such core features of democratic government as deliberation, compromise and decision-making by elected, accountable officials.” If they are correct, it’s not surprising that he never talks about how he would work with Congress as president, instead saying that Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is “going to have to pay a big price” if they don’t get along. Mr. Trump knows that compromise has a bad rep in an age when everyone expects to get their first choice in everything, from the accessories on a new car to customized drinks at Starbucks.
Political scientist Norm Ornstein wrote last year that Mr. Trump had a good chance of winning the nomination when most pundits (including me) were skeptical. In an interview with Vox, he says that a “visceral reaction” against political leaders has been building since Newt Gingrich hit upon the strategy of “delegitimizing” Congress in order to take it over for the Republicans. “If you delegitimize government,” Mr. Ornstein says, “and make every victory that occurs partisan and ugly, and then refuse to implement the policies to make things work…eventually you’re gonna have a public out there that basically says, ‘Anything would be better than these idiots.’”
The problem is that breaking government, and dismissing small-d democratic principles like compromise, creates a revolving door of failed leaders—as we can see from the constant dissatisfaction among Republican voters with their own congressional leadership. Indeed, Republicans in Congress who dare to work with the Obama administration even on such matters as keeping the U.S. government from going into default have been called “the surrender caucus” by conservatives such as the National Review’s Michael Walsh, who wrote in 2013 that “in the zero-sum game of modern American politics, the only way to win is by winning.”
A death spiral of anger and resentment
Writing for the Monkey Cage blog, three political scientists recently looked at voting patterns in Europe and concluded that populist, anti-government campaigns do not simply provide an outlet for those distrustful toward politics but can perpetuate such attitudes indefinitely. “Those who are dissatisfied with politics tend to vote for populist challengers,” they write. “Being exposed to the antiestablishment message of ‘their’ party or politician leads these voters to become even more dissatisfied, increasing their propensity to vote for populist politicians and parties again.” If that theory is correct, Trump supporters aren’t likely to have much patience with a Hillary Clinton administration—or with Mr. Trump himself, should he win the presidency and fail to deliver on his grandiose promises. Could they gravitate toward someone in 2020 with even more pronounced strongman tendencies?
The possibility of America entering a death spiral of anger and resentment has some declaring our democracy—or any democracy—fatally flawed. Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York Magazine, writes that Mr. Trump represents “late-stage democracy” on its way to tyranny. For the economically conservative Mr. Sullivan, one terrible consequence is that “tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat.” He writes, “As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending.” Mr. Sullivan argues that the inability of the ruling elites to work in concert, to hammer out compromises on matters such as reducing the federal debt (and perhaps settling on an acceptable Republican presidential nominee?), has led to the rise of Mr. Trump and to “the demagogue of the left,” Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Michael Lind writes in The New York Times that the problem isn’t “too much democracy” but a increasingly expensive political system that offers no real representation to voters outside the “donor class” (i.e., Mr. Sullivan’s valued elites). The Trump phenomenon, he writes, represents the frustration of voters and small-sum political contributors: “When people keep putting money into a vending machine that does nothing, or gives them the opposite of what they ordered, some of them will kick the vending machine or turn it over.”
Perhaps it is the people’s right to kick machines over, even the voting machines that make democracy possible. But it does not necessarily follow that any outcome of a democratic process is, by definition, democratic. Vox’s Julia Azari writes that “elections can sometimes produce what political scientists call illiberal outcomes.” That is, they “don’t meet the requirements of substantive democracy: They oppress minorities, violate religious freedom, advocate violent ends, or neglect civil liberties.” In the United States, one safeguard against what we might call “undemocratic democracy” is a strong judicial branch—which is why some are so unnerved by Mr. Trump’s personal attacks on a federal judge overseeing lawsuits against him, as well as his statement that his likely Democratic opponent “has to go to jail,” even though there are no pending lawsuits against her. Add Mr. Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States and his threats against journalists, and it’s almost as if he’s running as a textbook case in a political science class rather than as an actual human being.
It can be amusing to to read about a candidate for recorder of deeds, or maybe water commissioner, who doesn’t want to be held accountable by the voters. He or she may even be right, in his or her narrow and particular case, that too much democracy makes it hard to get the job done. When a candidate for the presidency makes noises about knocking down the safeguards against tyranny, small-d democrats understandably get nervous.