Democracy & Government

The Tyranny of Trump

Author and blogger Andrew Sullivan fears the Republican candidate's rise is "an extinction-level event" for democracy.

The Tyranny of Trump

Donald Trump speaks during a rally May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/Getty Images)

A provocative, lengthy essay about Donald Trump in New York magazine by writer, former New Republic editor and blogger Andrew Sullivan has sparked discussion and debate around the country.

His treatise, the cover story of New York’s May 2 issue, is headlined “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” and in it he launches from a discussion of Plato’s Republic and the pros and cons of what Sullivan calls “late-stage democracy” into how the groundwork for the Trump phenomenon has been laid by the government and mainstream media’s failure to recognize and address the growing rage of Americans out of jobs, opportunities and hope:

After the suffering of recession or unemployment, and despite hard work with stagnant or dwindling pay, the future stretches ahead with relief just out of reach. When those who helped create the last recession face no consequences but renewed fabulous wealth, the anger reaches a crescendo.

The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet. No one asked them in the 1990s if this was the future they wanted. And the impact has been more brutal than many economists predicted. No wonder suicide and mortality rates among the white working poor are spiking dramatically.

Enter Donald Trump and his strong-man philosophy: “To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism,” Sullivan writes.

Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion…

… [W]hat’s notable about Trump’s supporters is precisely what one would expect from members of a mass movement: their intense loyalty. Trump is their man, however inarticulate they are when explaining why. He’s tough, he’s real, and they’ve got his back, especially when he is attacked by all the people they have come to despise: liberal Democrats and traditional Republicans. At rallies, whenever a protester is hauled out, you can almost sense the rising rage of the collective identity venting itself against a lone dissenter and finding a catharsis of sorts in the brute force a mob can inflict on an individual. Trump tells the crowd he’d like to punch a protester in the face or have him carried out on a stretcher. No modern politician who has come this close to the presidency has championed violence in this way. It would be disqualifying if our hyper­democracy hadn’t already abolished disqualifications.

Sullivan warns, “…those Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that….

To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism.

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

At the independent news website MinnPost, Eric Black described Sullivan’s essay as “a long, nay epic, but brilliant exegesis of Trumpism… Sullivan mocks Trump’s actual policy ideas, at least as to their merit, but not for their power to capture the pain and hopes of his target audience.” And Tom Toles at The Washington Post wrote that that the piece is “an unexpected end-times reprise of Plato’s critique of how democracy can falter into tyranny. It has the good timing of putting a new conceptual frame on the Trump phenomenon. It also shows once again that the ancient Greeks knew everything and our job is just to keep forgetting and rediscovering what they said.”

But there has been pushback from progressives critical of Sullivan’s characterization of Bernie Sanders as a “demagogue of the left” and his belief that “the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultra-rich has been mostly a dud.” At AlterNet, Jim Sleeper fired back, “Not even half-right on both counts… I’ll write and work and vote for Hillary Clinton against Trump this fall, but not because I’ve been told that corporate money in elections and the marketization of everything aren’t dissolving our citizenship and democracy, and not because I’ve been told that Sanders is a demagogue like Trump for saying so.”

And at Salon, Alex Trimble Young writes, “The war between left and right, Democrat and Republican, is in [Sullivan’s] view far less important than the war between the educated, reasoned, and disinterested elite and the impassioned, ignorant, and self-interested masses.”

You can read Andrew Sullivan’s “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny” in its entirety here.

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.