No one doubts that the Trump presidency is something new and different. Yet the reason for its novelty is not altogether clear. Trump has not advanced any truly radical policies. He has not fundamentally challenged the constitutional order. Whether he has prompted a durable and significant electoral realignment remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, few will deny that his tumultuous administration feels different. In an attempt to explain this sensation, some have appealed to the notorious Trump temperament: crass, shameless, extravagant; ruthless, combative, mercurial. Certainly, his public demeanor is unlike that of any president in living memory.
As an individual, Trump is surely a curiosity at once delightful, bemusing, and repellent—a hype man and mass media fulminator.
Yet it seems inadequate to attribute the peculiar mood of this presidency to the personal style of the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania, which is really as old as America itself, familiar to anyone who has imbibed reality television or attended a midwestern rodeo or scanned a New York City tabloid. Trump simply embodies singularly a spirit that has proliferated under many guises, even in the White House itself: think Nixon the Middle American conspiracist; Reagan the Tinseltown smoothtalker; Clinton the grifting sex maniac; Dubya the fratboy cowpoke.
Instead, Trump marks the definitive emergence of a new, or relatively new, political style. This phrase, political style, evokes Richard Hofstadter’s thought only incidentally, inasmuch as it denotes “political psychology” broadly speaking: the way in which we conceptualize, articulate, and approach the political process. Political style, as it is here employed, emphasizes primarily the manner in which the political process is realized and enacted.
There are, in this sense, two political styles: the participatory and the dramatic.
The participatory style of politics is republican and egalitarian: every citizen is expected to engage in deliberation about the common good and advance the public interest through substantive engagement in the political process. Although this style obviously permits bitter rancor, and is hardly immune to fatal dysfunction, it prizes the fellow-feeling born of shared commitment to the act of democratic decision-making and the rules that govern the same. The town meeting portrayed in Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom of Speech is the quintessential manifestation of the participatory style: low-stakes dissent within the ritualized framework of small town self-governance. Here we see politics as a demanding but ultimately delimited enterprise that summons the citizen to action within the safety of parliamentary procedure. The participatory style holds forth politics as a communal enterprise, a shared project that requires sacrifice, collaboration, and forbearance in order to move along.
The dramatic style is altogether different: politics is spectacle played out by a professional caste at a remove from the mass of citizens. The ordinary person has no civic vocation to speak of: he casts an occasional ballot, writes the odd letter, maybe waves a sign once or twice. But he is all but irrelevant as a political actor. Politics is not something he does, but something he watches. All the action is handled by professional politicos—elected officials, bureaucrats, party careerists, lobbyists, big money donors, and credentialed interpreters (“journalists”)—who devote most of their energy to rhetorical theatrics. What energy they have left is directed toward palace intrigues, institutional jealousies, and social climbing.
For the average person, it is all entertainment, but entertainment that runs the risk of becoming deadly serious, for absent the lived experience of democracy, the capacity for tolerance, long-term thinking, and deference to hard realities rapidly diminishes. Lacking genuine agency, the citizen tends to become a fan and follower of some messianic tribune. This champion is an object of adoration and fascination, through whom the commoner lives vicariously, pining for the thrill of complete victory. He comes to regard as enemies worthy of destruction citizens of contrary persuasions, to whom he is unable to relate sympathetically, never mind collaborate productively.
The dramatic style is not a total novum. It has always existed in the shadow of the participatory style. But it has now attained prominence. The reason for its triumph is multifaceted. First, the total immersion of the modern American in the media ecosystem. Second, a widespread sense of estrangement from bedrock political institutions, which seem distant and unresponsive, captives of wealthy and powerful interests beyond democratic accountability. Third, the disappearance of mutually recognized goods that could serve as universal touchstones and points of orientation regardless of ideology.
The disappearance of mutually recognized goods is especially problematic. It transforms politics into an existential struggle over the first principles of human life and society, raising the stakes considerably. The major question today is not how to live together, but whether living together is desirable, even possible. Meanwhile, civic alienation encourages cynicism about political agency and inclines average citizens to invest their emotional energy in “political celebrities,” whom they imbue with heroic qualities and venerate with exceeding piety. This idolatrous element is facilitated by the decline in traditional religion: with the heavens emptied and the transcendent dimension foreclosed upon, people naturally seek eschatological satisfaction elsewhere, and politics easily assumes mythological dimensions. This entire dynamic is encouraged by the ambient media environment.
The upshot is that politics becomes performative bloodsport, along the lines of professional wrestling, with citizens playing the role of titillated fans howling from the bleachers. The end of politics is less the cultivation of the common life and more the humiliation of political rivals in cathartic displays of rhetorical violence. Trump signals the ascendance of this style. He is the perfect man for the late republican moment, marked by the popular experience of powerlessness and alienation, which breeds resentment, disenchantment, and desire for systemic disruption. His notorious political idiom—outlandish histrionics, indignant accusations, hyper-personal vitriol, carefully nurtured grievance—is plainly calculated to evoke an operatic atmosphere of chaotic peril that thrills his followers while confounding and terrorizing his opponents.
It is unlikely that the clock can be rewound. Indeed, it seems that the participatory style, as practiced by a liberal society, contains inner contradictions that inevitably lead to its demise. The ability to “opt out” of politics, which is necessary under the liberal paradigm, ultimately undermines a robust civic culture by accelerating the accumulation of power in the hands of motivated actors, which in turn fuels the disenfranchisement and discontent that feeds the rise of the dramatic style.
Trump may be the first president to employ the dramatic style, at least so enthusiastically, but he will not be the last. Although Resistance liberals and “Never Trump” conservatives make ample use of the rhetoric of the participatory style, their gestures strike the honest observer as hollow and vain, motivated by nostalgia, expediency, or naiveté about the withering away of the old republic. As red and blue America grow further apart, and the levers of power become ever more removed from the hands of ordinary men and women, politics may increasingly resemble the flamboyant brutality of the UFC octagon.
In time, the moderating influence of the referee (the Constitution and other para- and quasi-Constitutional organs like the party establishments) may cease to matter altogether. Then the battle of submission will commence in earnest, with transgressively alluring rhetorical violence giving way to the grim reality of the real deal. This dismal fate few republics have avoided. Are we so extraordinary as to escape the wheel of history?
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