Democracy & Government

It’s Not Only a Constitutional Crisis, It’s a Civic Implosion

Trump's naked contempt for civic culture is what's really threatening our republic. To save it, we need to rescue our civic wellsprings.

It's Not Only a Constitutional Crisis, It's a Civic Implosion

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania walk the inaugural parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, on Jan. 20, 2017 following his inauguration. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty xImages)

Donald Trump won the presidency of the American republic for the same reason that he’ll lose it before the end of his first term, assuming that the rest of us can keep the republic itself. That reason has been poorly understood by political consultants, “psychological operations” masterminds, data-point jockeys, seigneurial donors and us media savants, most of whom Trump’s rise left breathless and useless in deciphering what has befallen us. 

He won by outdoing the innocent child in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” who blurted out, “But the Emperor has nothing on!” Trump himself bragged that he was as naked as all other would-be emperors and their strategists and critics, grand or petty, liberal or conservative. Moreover, he bragged that because he was as naked as they and as masterful as they were at buying off elected officials to do whatever they told them, he alone could fix the disaster by telling the truth about it and weaving great garments of liberty and justice for all.

A strong civic culture relies on both cult and cultivation to grow habits of forbearance, mutual respect and reason that keep its citizens level-headed amid provocations and come-ons from would-be fixers and avengers.

Instead, of course, Trump and many of his rivals are entrenching bankrupt premises, practices and protocols that many of the rest of us, too, rely on, even as they hollow out our republican institutions and habits of heart.

A strong civic culture relies on both cult and cultivation to grow habits of forbearance, mutual respect and reason that keep its citizens level-headed amid provocations and come-ons from would-be fixers and avengers. Its cultic part taps into communal and personal wellsprings to generate myths and narratives, even more potent than Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, that teach courage in adversity and dedication to community to youths at their most impressionable, formative moments.

The “cultivation” part generates what anthropologists call “rites of passage” to adulthood — tests of prowess and communal dedication that are scary and decisive enough to mold youths’ rising, unfocused strengths with guidance from watchful elders who cultivate those rites and ratify youths’ emergence as committed members of an intergenerational community.

When kids can’t find truly credible myths and rites, they can’t help but let us know it. Some try to concoct their own, tattooing or cutting themselves. Others seek self-definition through moralistic posturing, trying on garments of ethno-racial solidarity, sectarian purity or imperious political correctness.

Still others flock to leaders who promise to help them meet their daunting challenges. When young Americans shouting “Yes we can!” swarmed Barack Obama in 2008 and others cheered Bernie Sanders in 2016, the glow of delight on their faces was anthropological, not electoral.

But so was the electric charge on the faces of young Americans shouting “Build the wall!” and “Lock her up!” at rallies where Trump promised to restore their stolen cultural greatness by channeling a million silent stabs of humiliation and hurt against scapegoats who hadn’t been nearly as destructive of civic culture as Trump himself had been ever since taking over his father’s crooked real-estate business at 25.

America’s republican civic culture is imploding because it has abandoned or contracted out the design and delivery of its mythic narratives and rites of passage — not always officially, but by default — to anonymous whorls of investors that follow algorithmically driven, civically mindless marketing to peddle “violence without context and sex without attachment,” ever-more relentlessly and intrusively to the young, as Sen. Bill Bradley noted in 1995.

These and other market rampages are provoking not just “politically correct” outrage but the whirlwind of massacres in schools, police shootings of unarmed young men, mass incarceration of millions, epidemic opioid addiction, gladiatorial sports and entertainments, tech-driven tsunamis of empty information, chilling surveillance and the pills and other palliatives that leave many too weak to respond except in authoritarian or politically correct eruptions whose rites of passage are twisted and debilitating.

In 2016 Trump stirred this vortex by doubling down on denouncing frightened, censorious college kids and their apologists. That only deepened both his targets’ and their critics’ defensive self-righteousness as co-dependent casualties and carriers of our civic disaster. 

No society can govern itself unless it can replenish its civic wellsprings and fabric. Ours are being drained, polluted and strip-mined by our own complicity in a regime of casino-like financing, predatory lending and intrusive consumer marketing that has elevated to its presidency a financier of casinos and a predatory self-marketer whose only country is himself and whose fellow Americans aren’t sovereign citizens but props on his stage. What the First Amendment rightly protects along these lines, a civil society rightly modulates, lest a cacophonous free-for-all become a brutal free-for-none. That’s the kind of politics we really need to correct, beginning with getting rid of the man who, unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s child, hasn’t just blurted out the naked truth but revels in it.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University and a former columnist at the New York Daily News. Sleeper is also the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York.