An inconsistent triad: Trump, Sanders, Clinton, and the radical mismatch in the theater of politics

by Katalin Balog

La RegleI. Trump

In the last 30 years, I have witnessed, criss-crossing the Atlantic, first, my native Hungary's transition from communism to democracy and capitalism, and, for the past 6, its about-face: the sudden dismantling of the institutional system of liberal democracy, as well as the rapid spread of crony capitalism, the establishment of a “mafia state“. In 2014, its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, proudly called Hungary an “illiberal state“. The institutions of liberal democracy proved to be too fragile, the careful checks and balances too foreign to take root in Hungary, in a climate of growing corruption, mass unemployment, and rising inequality. So my state of mind has been, more than anything else, a shock of recognition at Donald Trump's precipitous rise and the rapid transformation of the culture of political discourse in the Republican party and beyond. This is how democracy has been lost in Hungary; it started with a profound transformation of political discourse. Trump's debasement of the public sphere, the normalizing of taboo-breaking racist, sexist, xenophobic speech, the defiant, hateful rejection of “political correctness” has strong echoes in the post-socialist political-cultural scene in Hungary. I have already been there.

Whatever you think of American foreign policy, or the Democratic establishment, or the breaking up of the big banks, and even if you think capitalism itself is unacceptable, you better realize that something fundamental is at stake that you ought to take a stand on: you ought not pretend that this is politics as usual.

While it is unlikely that fascism will come to America any time soon (though see this), there could be an irreversible erosion of the freedoms and the institutional framework for peaceful democratic transition most Americans take so much for granted that they have forgotten how special and precious they are. Or, perhaps it is just that it doesn't seriously occur to people that they can be lost. Like when the prospect of illness draws the veil of ignorance off of mortality but soon self-deception kicks back in, Americans seem to believe that it can't happen here. Growing up in Eastern Europe, I don't forget; and I find plenty of reason to be very scared for liberal democracy, in America as well as Europe.

What prepared the ground for the autocratic turn in Hungary was not the propagation of a coherent and persuasive right wing ideology; but rather the gradual breaking down of the norms and forms of civilized discourse. It was the loud and swaggering disrespect for human rights, democratic institutions, and reasoned debate, a continuous vulgar abuse of political opponents, coupled with the carefully staged theatrics of the strong leader busy babbling about “saving the nation” from the enervating “liberal-Bolshevik influence”, thereby making Hungary great again. Strongmen invariably prey on feelings of fear, resentment and anger. They rise in times of trouble and economic difficulty when a sufficient number of people become susceptible to an authoritarian message, promising to protect and elevate them them by smashing opponents, and silencing dissent, and above all, in defiance of the human condition, to keep winning all the time. And once they come into power, they do not hesitate to run roughshod over every institution that stands in their way, gleefully ignoring the shock and disbelief of the political opposition and whatever remains of a democratically disposed public.

Trump's ascendency is merely the spectacular culmination of a long brewing anti-democratic trend in American politics. But he would be the first who would almost certainly have no compunction using the immense powers of the presidency at his command to compromise the rule of law, the separation of powers, a pluralistic media and even a freely functioning civil society. If you think American democracy is defunct, wait until Trump is through with it. And he wouldn't have to violently overthrow the American system. As Putin's Russia, Erdoğan's Turkey and Orbán's Hungary demonstrates, it is possible to keep the trappings of democracy without its reality.

II. Three models of politics: Clinton, Sanders, and Trump

When one looks at the three personages that have been dominating this election, one is struck by a strange disconnect not only in their views, but also in the way they understand the process they participate in. This disconnect is not an accidental feature of the situation. From a sufficient amount of distance, and with a heavy dose of hyperbole, we might say that Clinton, Sanders and Trump represent the whole menu of Europe's recent political history: liberal democracy, communism, and fascism; we have the full works.

Of course, Sanders is no communist. And he is much closer in outlook to Clinton than to Trump. While Trump views the election simply as a popularity contest, and tries to get elected by force of personality and attitude, Sanders and Clinton both sees it in terms of ideas; and their ideas are not all that different either. But there are interesting contrasts elsewhere: Sanders is not an ordinary Democrat. The way he presents his program reflects not only a difference in personal style, but also a difference in his understanding of the political process.

III. Clinton and Sanders: liberal democracy and the socialist revolution

Clinton can be best understood via the archetype of the Enlightenment liberal, anchored in – often boring and unglamorous, but rational – policy debate with legitimate opponents whose different perspectives need to be respected and accommodated; the essence of liberal democracy, first put into practice by the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has more than a little of the socialist revolutionary about him. And while the American Revolution was all about safeguarding the political process, socialist revolutions strive to implement, against significant push-back, a particular ideal of social and economic organization.

There is no denying that Sanders has done a monumental service to the Democratic party by re-articulating its traditional social-democratic agenda dating back to FDR and Johnson's Great Society; his campaign brought back to life the left wing of the Democratic party, and gave wide exposure to his message on the destructive role of money in politics and the moral outrage of growing inequality in America. If elected, it's safe to say that he would not have led a revolution, much less a communist revolution. He would have been forced to and most likely willing to be a traditional politician. It's not impossible that he would have been a good president; that he would have been able to do at least some of what he promised in his campaign.

But it is also clear that his symbolism and rhetoric steered his followers toward an earlier style of leftist politics. He construed his job to be the articulation of a vision of a just society, a kind of overarching social democratic Utopia, simple to explain, simple to understand. He didn't seem interested in exploring real world complexity, the delicate balance between competing values; he was not at all riveted by policy detail. He proposed to implement his program not via the nitty-gritty of democratic give-and-take and incrementalism, but via the “political revolution” whose nature has been left a little vague but which he saw himself as leading. The revolution was what was supposed to bridge the yawning gap between his proposals and what seems feasible in today's America. This view of politics and history implies a dismissal of “technocrats”, meaning politicians who work in the system. Society needs to be bent to the Utopia, all at once, so to speak, not via the dithering process of machine politics. Though he never indicated that by revolution he meant anything like overthrowing the regime, he did at least flirt with the idea.

Such an attitude is fitting for youth steeped in age-appropriate contempt for the adult world, but bitter experience has shown revolution to be, almost always, a great evil, bringing forth blood, tears and terror in its wake. Sanders' candidacy evoked an earlier era of the socialist movement but that – as should be clear – is a painful dead end of history. Whether his radicalized followers keep the flame alive or eventually fold into the mainstream political process is to be seen.

IV. Clinton and Trump: liberal democracy and the politics of self-expression

At this point I think I need to be outed: the last few days I have been feeling an entirely irrational exuberance at the thought of a woman president… holy sh**t! I suppose I should be ashamed of this, especially given the low esteem many Americans accord to her. Her well-known “un-trustworthiness” seems to be a problem; except I wonder why this sticks to her like gum given the well-known fact that politicians, well, occasionally do not tell the truth. And that other politicians seem to lie more than she does. “Authenticity”, for the lack of which she is also condemned, is another one of those new requirements for female politicians – hey, George W. Bush, where is your authentic self? Imagine a female Sanders – no, you shouldn't. There is no way a woman, with Sanders' unkempt, angry, awkward persona would have gotten anywhere. But I digress; identity politics, for now, is not my point.

It is true that Clinton can be awkward, and occasionally shows a cringe-inducing discomfort with public appearances. She is the queen of square, trying, in vain, to be folksy. She is all role and professionalism. She is exactly the kind of person my upbringing as a dissolute rebel in Communist Hungary made me mortally suspicious of. Hell, she might even be in the pocket of Goldman Sachs. So why should she be supported? The short answer is, obviously, because of Trump. The longer, and more controversial, answer is because her professional, plodding, reasonable persona is what is needed most in a politician. Politics doesn't need to be artful, convincing, transgressive or even uplifting. It needs to be civilized, argument based and truthful. Though passion and a spontaneity can be a good thing in politics, they are not good by themselves; politics can be high-jacked by the performance of politics.

In the Western tradition, human nature is viewed in terms of opposites. Plato's opposition of reason and appetite, the Christian conflict between spirit and flesh has morphed into some of the most enduring cultural tropes of modernity: Enlightenment versus Romanticism, objective versus subjective. I propose that Clinton and Trump embody the conflict between Enlightenment rationalism and the romantic cult of the individual, by pitting against each other two different models of the political sphere: reason based discourse, and spontaneous, rabble-rousing self-expression.

The system of American democracy ushered in by the Founding Fathers, steeped in Enlightenment thought, is based on the premise that a polity is best shaped by free debate among a reasonable, well-informed citizenry. The Constitution enshrines the checks and balances that allow for the peaceful resolution of disagreement about fundamental moral, social and political matters. The reality of this system falls far short of the founding ideals, yes; but no alternative has been presented that would better serve them. It has the best record fashioning from the “crooked timber of humanity” something that is livable for a large portion of it. You only need to take a long, hard look at the alternatives to develop some appreciation for it. This, I think, holds true despite of the sense of crisis many experience, and the creeping feeling that liberal democracy, through its failure to solve the most pressing problems of our times, has lost its ability to inspire.

This system has been increasingly high-jacked, and now fundamentally threatened by an alternative paradigm of politics: politics as entertainment; as enactment of emotion and attitude. Romanticism, of which this is a late and aberrant off-shoot, originally came about as a reaction to the scientific revolution and Enlightenment philosophy. In its strongest form, Romanticism seeks not only to give the emotional, experiential, and bodily side of human nature its due; it sees Enlightenment rationality itself as dark, repressive and pathological. Dostoyevski, a fervent Russian nationalist and a Romantic, regularly portrayed reason and detachment as “wicked nonsense”, or worse. He saw reason as calculating, superficial and meaningless in isolation from deep experience. Dostoyevski wasn't alone in portraying the Enlightenment as a smug, over-civilized, Western upper-class aberration. It is not hard to see the echoes of this in the resentment of Trump's followers against liberal political correctness.

While Romanticism's preoccupation with experience and subjectivity has contributed to great literature, music and philosophy, there are spheres of life where it is better kept under wraps. There is good reason to think that not only science, but politics as well should be dominated by rational discourse. In life irrationality has its place. In art, outragousness can edify. When a punk band flirts with fascist symbolism it short-circuits reason with a form of transgressive self-expression that can be, depending on the context, repulsive, fascinating or instructive. But when politicians replace argument with provocation and emotional display, they encourage the view that politics should be engaged in accordance with the passions it awakens, the tribal feelings of belonging it makes possible, and the quality of the performance of the leader at the center of it. In the hands of an irresponsible leader, such as Trump, attitude and “authenticity” becomes a clear and present danger to the Republic.

Hillary's lack of charisma shouldn't be a problem – because her brand of politics is not charisma based. She is not competing in the same arena as Trump; they are in separate worlds. It wouldn't hurt if she was a little more of a “natural”, but that's not where it's at. She could get some help from the media by, for example, the introduction of instant fact-checking during presidential debates. But the election will be mostly a referendum on these two very different paradigms of the political.