Trump, supremacism and political extremism

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. Latviešu: Abrahams Linkolns, sešpadsmitais ASV prezidents. Српски / Srpski: Абрахам Линколн, шеснаести председник Сједињених Америчких Држава. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”– Abraham Lincoln

Donald Trump has made America confront its darkest fears. His success has awakened ideas and beliefs that have long been suppressed as unsavory, unpleasant and un-American. He has encouraged supremacist beliefs that run counter to the country’s founding in equality. Equality is what gives America its greatest strength and freedom. Without freedom, there is no equality and without equality there is no freedom. Yet, Trump has encouraged those forces and ideas, long discredited, that seek to re-awaken and re-assert the older ideas of supremacism and with it-inequality.

To achieve this goal, he has relied on the political extremism that has been growing since 1996 as the political landscape has become polarized.[1] With his immoderate rhetoric his success represents the final logic of a political culture where political immoderation is masked as effectiveness, fairness, and delivery. He has gone beyond what the parties and each successive administration have claimed to deliver for the people; prosperity, jobs, education, safety and hope. Instead, he has focused on their fears; poverty, unemployment, ignorance, fear, and despair. Through these he has convinced his supporters that equality has been an illusion and he alone can restore them to a superior status so that no one looks down on them again or takes them for granted. His success has been eased by political parties and previous administrations that have, under the shadow of war, undermined the political consensus based on political moderation. They have feasted on the extremist talk shows, the politics of personal destruction as if it is a casual sport, and sought to pitch hatreds against hatreds. However, this is more than the chickens coming home to roost, the problem is much deeper.

All politics has to manage or deal with political extremism that feeds on other types of extremism. Extremism within politics emerges and grows because it succeeds. It has succeeded in the United States of America to the extent it is able to suppress the republican ethos, which relies a compromise based on a moderate common good achieved through a public domain where people can participate fully with mutual respect. Instead, the public have been habituated to reward political extremism as if it were a spectator sport where they win and the other side loses. Even if their side loses, they feel they have won if they have “hurt” their political opponents. What is new is that the political extremists want to hurt their political enemies *even at the cost of harming or betraying the country*. If we follow this to its logical end, the speaker would destroy America so long as it hurt their enemies. With such a view. a common good no longer exists for the speaker wants nothing in common with the other person or party and they view America as something that is less important than their party’s success. Such views have always existed on the community’s margin. Something is different, though, when it is held by people who identify themselves as conservatives.

In the past, conservatives might have been able to show that what they sought to conserve, political institutions like the constitution or the United States Supreme Court, in the desire to protect public symbols of the moderation which is based on compromise, debate, and mutual respect. With Trump, that moderation has disappeared. Conservatives now court immoderation in language, thought, and deed. They talk of the Flight 93 election as if a Reichstag burns every day and that if their political opponents succeed they will destroy their opponents.[2] Such immoderate thoughts and words suggest that moderation is a weakness; compromise is treason. If you don’t win you must submit. In such a view, the strong do as they will and the weak are forced to do what the strong say. Trump has promised his followers that they are the strong and they can treat those who don’t agree as the weak, who if they will not listen, will be forced to obey the strong. It is not the constitution they follow but their will. These conservatives have accepted extremism’s premise for they believe it is needed to win. They have shed conservativism moderation which gave rise to a republican ethos that energizes a civil religion where shared symbols of equality express the common good. Yet, the problem is more than political tactics, it relates to something that awakens something dangerous and deeply buried, if not continually suppressed, within the American regime.

The conservatives have embraced political extremism because their supporters want someone who will “punch back” not provide a reasoned, moderate, position that holds true to eternal truths about man within the laws of nature and nature’s god. Instead, such moderation is foolish since such talk is what loses elections, and nothing is worse than losing an election, so they are encouraged to throw off their moderate politics. What is often overlooked, though, is that when they talk of being able to “punch back”, they express the same immoderation as progressives they claim to detest and fear. Usually, we see the immoderation and extremism mostly in foreign policy where conservatives excuse it as “realism” or hard-nosed strategy. Moreover, the 2001 decision to unleash the undeclared, unlimited war, has cast a long shadow over the conservative movement in two ways. The first, as mentioned above, is that conservatives have come to embrace extremist language. The second is that in foreign policy conservatives have been caught in the illusory belief that conservatism means to conserve the international status quo against extremism. In the past, America pushed for democracy abroad as it reflected what they believed at home. Today, conservatives (and America) are stuck with the difficult position that they support the American mission of an unlimited war abroad, the Authorisation of Military Force (AUMF), even as they called for limited, moderate, government at home. What is different though, and this is the deeper problem for conservativism (and America), is that the immoderate foreign policy ethos has infected domestic politics. To put in a film analogy, it is as if the sequel to A Few Good Men has been made with Colonel Jessup as the hero.[3] What has been awakened is something long suppressed and feared even as it lurked beneath the surface—supremacism.

What we find within the claim of America first is a claim to supremacism. America is not simply first among equals. America must be first simply. The attitude is one that America must become the bully so that it can win. Anything less than superiority is seen as inferiority, there is no opportunity for equality. With Trump, America will show the world that the strong rule the world. Yet, that is not the ethos of the American founding or even its commitment to the UN Charter. America and the UN were founded in the belief in equality.[4] Yet, to talk of equality is to appear weak or even to accept surrender. We can hear echoes of this refrain in the attacks on the United Nations both as an institution and as an idea. If you talk of compromise, you are surrendering. If you talk of the common good, you are betraying your party. If you cannot persuade your opponent, then you will beat them into submission. We see this with a politician who assaults a reporter because the politician did not like how they behaved. In the past, such behaviour would have been abhorred. Instead, it is celebrated as someone who is “punching back”.

Although others have commented on the recent physical assault and the perceived drift towards authoritarianism; the focus has to be on how our thoughts and language shape our approach to public institutions. It is our public institutions, like the Constitution, that support our belief in equality, which in turn shape our public behaviour. We must be vigilant against those who would provide the seductive call to supremacy just as we guard against those who call us to servitude by the belief that self-government is an illusion. Each generation faces this choice anew and it is our turn to answer the question. Will we live as equals or will we be seduced by those who tempt us to live as masters even as they prepare us to be slaves who have surrendered self-government?

[1] See for example, this research by Pew Research Centre on polarization.

[2] “A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England.”

[3] This idea is not mine. Russell Minick suggested it on Twitter. See .

[4] If you want to look at a succinct statement of the general attitude of the United States and the American people toward the kind of community of nations we should have, you can find that in Articles I and II of the Charter. Dean Rusk Oral History p. 25 Dean Rusk Oral History Collection Rusk LL Dean Rusk interviewed by  Richard Rusk, William Tapley Bennett, and Louis Bruno Sohn circa 1985

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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