THE POWER OF darkness is hostile to democracy. Steve Bannon knows that. “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” Don’t get it wrong. Populism works with dark words to inflame ethnic animosities, boost antidemocratic instincts, and push authoritarian governance. The American form of populism is Trumpism. And Trump thrives on dark words.
To pledge, “I will totally accept” the election result “if I win,” is to say, Trump will totally reject the voters’ verdict if he loses. This is what dark words do: they don’t mean what they proclaim, often the sheer opposite of it. Trump’s theatrical promise contained his refusal to honor the basic rule of a democratic election, that is, a candidate’s willingness to accept the will of the majority of the electorate. Delivered in a jocular way, the quip, “if I win,” was greeted with laughter and applause. Transmitted like a joke, Trump’s conditional acceptance of the 2016 election was ready-made to spread in the social media swamp of Trump’s base. His supporters already knew from their leader’s frequent Twitterstorms what to think of the electoral process: Rigged, RIGGED, Rigged, rigged, rigged, rigged, rigged, rigged, allowed Crooked Hillary to get away with ‘murder’, rigged, Rigged, Very very unfair!, rigged, totally rigged and corrupt!, totally rigged & corrupt!
Trump’s insulting tweets1 included the threat to jail his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. He said in the second presidential debate: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”2 His supporters got the message. “Lock her up!” they shouted with glee in his rallies thereafter.
The idea of imprisoning a candidate for president, let alone the first female nominee of a major US political party, connected the American populist with his peers in Europe, Russia, Asia, and Latin-America. Yet kinship with contemporary and historical forerunners of Trump and Trumpism was of no concern to the camp of Trump supporters. Name-calling other politicians – Crooked Hillary; Little Marco Rubio; Lyin’ Ted Cruz; Low energy Jeb Bush – was not their problem, because Trump spoke to them like a “real man” and unlike a politician. Trump’s foul language was thoroughly enjoyed, but also excused as a refreshing repudiation of political correctness.
Open disregard for the rules of democracy, combined with the vocal criminalization of political rivals as well as transparent contempt for various ethnic and religious minorities, formed a verbal flood of public negativity. The effluence of Trump’s language contaminated the American political discourse, while his irreverent performance intoxicated his base and flummoxed the media. Trump’s avalanche of dark words overwhelmed the linguistic floodgates that had kept the populist-racist fringe at bay and general enmity low.
Rorty’s nightmare – the “renewal of sadism” – was accomplished by Trump and Trumpism. All the efforts at more inclusive public speech countless teachers and educators had propagated for decades from kindergarten to university, were swept aside by wild shouts of “Crocked Hillary” and “Lock Her Up!” Incendiary speech, which was previously deemed unacceptable, was reintroduced with rhetorical volleys against political competitors, immigrants, and NATO allies as well as in favor of nuclear weapons and waterboarding.
Trump’s constant verbal transgressions were intentional and effective. His language carried ideas that raised the “Overton Window” (Figure 1) into “More Freedom” for illiberal and undemocratic actions, such as the ban on Muslims entering the US. Leaving the restrictions of mainstream politics behind, Trump invited Richard Spencer and his white supremacists to Nazi-salute the President-elect and shout next to the White House: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”3 Sliding the Overton window up, Trump and Trumpism allowed the racist Alt Right (Spencer’s term for the American Far Right) to come out of the shadows, go beyond “Sensible” and “Acceptable” into “Radical” and “Unthinkable” and flood hitherto empty spaces with rivers of hateful speech and politics.
Dark words alone, however, did not get Trump and Trumpism into the White House. Their fateful ascent was supported by deep and unsettling changes in technology, free speech, capitalism, demography, party politics, geopolitics, political culture, and philosophy. Winds of change4 had long been blowing in these fields. But when they rushed together in 2016, they became a perfect storm and transported an amateur politician – bombastic billionaire, casino, hotel and golf course mogul, beauty pageant owner-operator, World Wrestling Hall of Fame celebrity, and reality TV star – into the Oval Office. In short, dark words and strong winds of change won Trump the White House. That storm, which delivered Trump and empowered the Trumpian force field, is still blowing hard and deadly.
THE DARK POWER of Trump and Trumpism differs from “dark energy” and “dark matter,” yet happens to have similar effects.5 It holds something together that should be difficult to integrate, namely plutocrats and paupers, that is, the uncanny Republican Party coalition of wealthy and poor Americans; and it pulls something asunder that should never be forced to disintegrate: liberal American democracy. Given that the scientific understanding of our physical universe is as tentative as it appears to be, I should be allowed to speak of “dark power” and “dark forces” in relation to Trump and Trumpism.
One wonders why virtually none of the professional talking heads saw Trump and Trumpism coming. Equally astounding was the other political upheaval of 2016, the Brexit vote in the UK. Short of a few exceptions, most pollsters, pundits, diplomats, journalists, and political science professors had loudly proclaimed Brexit would fail and Hillary Clinton would win. How come that the majority of professional political observers, especially the analysts who studied the state-polling for the electoral college of the US, missed 95 percent (metaphorically speaking) of what was going on in the “normal” political universe? Winds of change were gathering strength; dark words attacked the established order of things – how could the American body politic not sense this clear and present danger?
Terrible precedent from the first half of the twentieth century warrants alarm. What came to pass in 2016 – June 23 in the UK and November 8 in the US – has enough momentum to continue. Dark words and deadly winds are ripping into the fabric of democratic societies. A battle is raging that cannot be won with nothing but a younger team, smarter algorithms, better slogans, and more campaign contributions. Nazi Germany is a valuable guide. Its dark history could teach the imagination what is possible in the “Unthinkable” realms of Joseph Overton’s window.
Luckily, we are not there yet. There is evidence that extreme populism can be made small again. Austria did not elect far-right Norbert Hofer in December 2016; the Netherlands rejected Geert Wilders – the “Dutch Trump” – in March 2017; and two months later, in May 2017, France elected Emmanuel Macron president, not Marine Le Pen. Macron is pro-European Union, whereas Le Pen wants to break the EU up. However, it would be rash to conclude that the tide of European populism has ebbed and the storm is over.
Compared with the fast turnarounds of the American presidential system, the political clocks tick a bit slower in Europe’s old and new parliaments. The parties of the Far Right have not gone away; in fact, they have largely normalized neo-nationalistic sentiments and anti-immigration discourses, while steadily gaining votes. Sure, the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump could rejuvenate the European project; they could even stimulate Macron and Angela Merkel to lead the EU and other democracies against the machinations of Vladimir Putin and his friends. But what if Brexit does not turn into the expected disaster for the common people in the UK? What will become of the world if Trump lasts two terms? Or racks up trade deals and foreign policy successes like Hitler did in the 1930s? What if Putin’s digital warriors gain further traction in driving the EU apart and messing up Western minds and elections?6 — European populism is alive and will take advantage. It will switch gears from slow to rapid growth and get closer to the seats of governmental power.
After Hitler, in the wake of the Second World War, Germany learned from America to become a better country. An American, aghast by Trump’s election, asked a German afterwards: We saved you, but who is going to save us now? If America wants to remain “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), America may have to relearn democracy from the countries that learned it from America. The nation of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama must overcome Trump and Trumpism before they extinguish John Winthrop’s shining “city upon a hill.”
Make Trumpism Small Again! is the legitimate goal of the majority of the American people.7 America can afford a little bit of Trumpism, but not too much. The country is already well on its way toward a golden asset for billionaires, a savage tool for aggrieved zealots of intolerance, and a cruel place for the bulk of its population. Some facets of the “beacon of democracy” are still blazing. Let’s turn their light onto the dark forces attacking American democracy.
- See The 598 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter for an interactive compilation that lets the reader click and inspect Trump’s tweets. See also Jasmine C. Lee and Kevin Quealy, 28 Jan. 2016 (updated 24 May 2019), The Upshot’s Encyclopedia of Donald Trump’s Twitter Insults.
- Clinton-Trump debate at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, 9 Oct. 2016. See Katie Zezima, Trump: If elected, I’ll appoint a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s emails.
- Daniel Lombroso and Yoni Appelbaum, ‘Hail Trump!’: White Nationalists Salute the President-Elect. The Atlantic, 21 Nov. 2016.
- Harold Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech in 1960 marked the beginning of colonial liberation in global history and world politics, whereas the election of Trump in 2016 announced its termination. When the British Prime Minister told a shocked parliament of South Africa: the wind of change is blowing through this continent, he signaled that decolonization could and would no longer be stopped. The deadly winds of change that I am describing are driving the world away from democratic liberation.
- Dark matter and energy were introduced to account for two cosmological conundrums. One, the galaxies are not exhibiting enough visible matter to hold them together, yet they are holding together and not flying apart. Hence, the gravitational input of an unknown substance was devised, i.e. “dark matter” – an opaque hypothetical material that adds enough theoretical gravity (27 percent) to prevent the galaxies from disintegrating. Two, astronomers should observe a gradual slowdown of the expansion of the universe because the attractive universal force of gravity gets weaker over distance. But the Hubble Space Telescope detected that the whole universe is expanding further outward at an accelerating rate. So, again, an unknown factor was invented to make sense of this mystery – i.e. “dark energy” that pulls at the entire universe with considerable strength (68 percent). The sum of both phenomena yields a universe with a dark matter-energy field of 95 percent. Put differently, all the stuff we know and can see and/or measure in stars, galaxies, and us seems to be just 5 percent of everything.
- Sept. 2020 Nota Bene: Remember, dear reader, this essay was written from January to September 2017 and I am not updating it beyond minor corrections because I don’t think my analysis of the 2016 election is dated. Temporal qualifiers like “currently” or “presently” will be flagged with (2017) to avoid confusion. So, when you come across instances (my questions in this paragraph, for example) where the text shows the time and knowledge difference of three years, you will notice but don’t mind, I hope, and read on.
- The 2016 election has arguably shown that Trump and Trumpism are unpopular. Hillary Clinton got 48.1 percent and Trump 46.0 percent of the popular vote. Clinton won the popular vote with nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, whereas Trump lost the popular vote by a greater margin than any previous presidential candidate. Al Gore, who also won the popular vote, yet not the presidency, is pushing for the retirement of the Electoral College. He is right, but expect heavy pushback from the Republican Party and the dark forces of Trumpism.