“The most popular man in a democracy is not the most democratic man,” journalist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken once wrote, “but the most despotic man. The common folk delight in the exactions of such a man. They like him to boss them. Their natural gait is his goose-step.” I had tweeted that quote early in the day on Nov. 8, 2016. The election, as I then saw it, would be a spectacular refutation of Mencken’s elitism. The country would elect Hillary Clinton, the polar opposite of the despotic populist running against her. The election would not only shatter the glass ceiling, but also prove, once and for all, that Mencken was no truth-seeking prophet, but merely someone who hated the average person.
But H.L. Mencken was right. The country did not elect Hillary Clinton to its highest office, but the charlatan and multi-millionaire Donald J. Trump. We didn’t reject the thesis of a long-dead cynic, but we proved it to be entirely valid. We didn’t reject a narcissistic populist, but made him leader of the free world.
In a way, there’s something deeply human about being so tragically stupid as to potentially bring about our own demise. Many countries have done it before; many are probably doing it right now. Willed and wanted self-destruction is the entire plot of one of my favorite literary works, “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton. Tonight’s election may have been historic, but this kind of behavior is hardly new.
So, how did we get here? Why did America elect a man as narcissistic, insane, and orange-faced as The Donald to be its leader? Was he merely part of a trend throughout Europe, in which far-right politicians rebel against the liberal order, seizing power while simultaneously claiming to be pro-freedom? Is he bigotry’s massive comeback against social progress?
Perhaps the most cohesive theory I’ve seen, one written well before the American people actually voted, came from Andrew Sullivan and his thoughts on Plato’s “Republic.” Using excerpts from Plato’s dialogue, Sullivan argues that late-stage democracies (those in which people enjoy maximal freedom and equality, in which elites are despised, and everyone is free to do and be what they please) have the highest odds of succumbing to a tyrant. As democratization increases and freedoms multiply, so, too, do internal conflicts and divides between people within said democracy. Everybody is free, but that also means everyone is free to dramatically disagree with each other over every issue; authorities are no longer respected but viewed as obstacles to achieving true equality; and amidst all this chaos, all a tyrant lying in wait has to do to seize power is attack the rich and the elites, and promise “…to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence.” He promises to relieve people of their chaos of their life, and solve all of their problems. In other words, promise to make America great again.
Of course, the writers of the Constitution knew this inherent threat to any democracy, hence the need for intensive checks and balances and guards against direct democracy (a form of government in which the public votes on every issue, rather than for elected officials). They created a democratic republic, but what worries Sullivan is that the barriers, which kept our government more Republican than Democratic, have mostly disappeared. The increased democratization and inclusion of our government is a good thing for public discourse, Sullivan acknowledges, but has created the large vulnerability that Plato had warned us about.
On some level, it’s not entirely surprising a democracy could collapse because of the machinations of a demagogue. Democracy and demagogue both share the same Greek root: “demos” meaning, “the common people.” Plato wasn’t the only one who warned about the dangers of democratic experiments; the word itself contained a subtle forewarning. Governments of the people will inevitably elect leaders of the people, so democracies will elect demagogues. In Sullivan’s worldview, our republic had fallen to a democracy, and democracy has just taken its tragic and inevitable course to tyranny.
This is, naturally, an incredibly bleak view of human nature. Given that Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, I’m not sure I entirely believe it. Yes, many people can be swayed toward a demagogue, but people are also capable of being calm and sane. The real problem, I suspect, was that Clinton simply wasn’t an exciting enough candidate. This was a high stakes election, one in which populist rhetoric, both from President-Elect Trump and Secretary Clinton’s democratic adversary Bernie Sanders, consistently prevailed.
Furthermore, dissatisfaction with the current political system clearly helped motivate people to vote against the establishment candidate. I think it’s fair to infer that plenty of people voted for Trump simply because he was the best choice for someone who was sick of the political system, who wanted to watch it and all its corruption burn to the ground. Others wanted fewer taxes. Others were loyal Republicans. Many were deplorable: racists, sexists, Islamophobes.
The fact that Clinton won the popular vote shows that at least most people chose to vote against demagoguery; the fact that Trump won shows a flaw in our system, a flaw that could have stopped people like him by putting a cap on direct democracy. Rather than stop him, it enabled his victory.
Well, here we are. At the very least, we should be glad we got to see a nice parting speech from President Barack Obama. He said, with his usual eloquence, “…before the votes were tallied, I shot a video that some of you may have seen in which I said to the American people, regardless of which side you were on in this election, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, the sun would come up in the morning.” His prediction, that there would be a day after the election, thankfully came true. There will be yet another tomorrow, and another tomorrow, and another tomorrow to come.
But it seems all our tomorrows aren’t that bright. The future America has chosen is certainly a bleak one. For now, it’s best to do what everyone always does in the face of tragedy: Grieve for what has been lost, find any possible humor in the midst of the absurdity, find any source of happiness through the pain. Tell your family you love them. Spend time with your friends. Watch your favorite late-night comedy host’s take on this lunacy. Trying to be happy amidst all the fear, chaos and pathos is probably the best option anyone in this country has.