Politics As Psyche

It doesn't matter if Trump is a tyrant in his heart of hearts.

duncan c / Flickr

I’ve noticed an interesting evolution — perhaps devolution — in the “Trump is a tyrant” line of argument.

Originally, the claim was robust and ambitious: Trump was like the classic fascist rulers of the twentieth century, readying to lead not only a repressive and violent state apparatus, under the unified control of his party, but also a street-based mass movement that channeled a broad and scary consensus of the majority of the nation. It soon became apparent that despite his electoral victory, Trump in fact had very little ability to control popular opinion.

Not only has he had the worst approval ratings of any president at this point in his term, but he’s also been singularly incapable of moving the needle of public opinion toward his positions. As I pointed out in my Guardian article last Tuesday, two of Trump’s signature positions — against immigration and free trade — are today more unpopular, almost by record levels, than they were when Trump was elected. Ironically, for all the talk (from people like Jeet Heer) that Trump’s words are a form of action, the main action that his words, qua words, have produced in the realm of public opinion is a movement away from his positions.

So then the claim became more modest: Trump is an authoritarian. Here the claim is less that Trump has some intuitive ability to manipulate and control public opinion or to ride the wave of a mass movement than that he’s got control over the state and is using his control to smoothly execute his will. The problem with this argument is that Trump has not in fact consolidated his control over the state. In many cases, he hasn’t even tried.

Judged by the standard of previous presidents, in fact, Trump has been remarkably lax about consolidating his power. And not just because of opposition in the judiciary, which, contrary to Heer, shows no signs of being intimidated by his tweets (quite the opposite, in fact), but because of divisions within his party, divisions that he has proven himself singularly incapable of overcoming.

Trump has given up or has been beaten back on multiple fronts of foreign policy, on free trade, on infrastructure spending, on the border wall, and more. He suffered, at the hands of his party, a humiliating defeat on health care, which despite Thursday’s House victory, he still has a long long way to go to reverse. (And it’s not at all clear, given the Senate’s response, that he’ll be able to.) He’s been forced to rely on executive orders, some of which — as the ACLU pointed out with respect to his recent EO on the Johnson Amendment — are as rhetorical as his speeches. They neither execute nor order much of anything.

(Even this article about how Trump has installed commissars throughout the executive branch and its agencies, which some folks offered to me as a counter to my claim about his failure to make appointments to the executive branch, provides little evidence of that approach actually working, and one of the cases it cites is of the executive branch resisting the intrusion of these commissars. The article also claims that Trump’s approach is consistent with what Obama tried to do with the Departments of Justice and Defense.)

So now the claim has become this: Trump may not be ruling as a fascist, Trump may not be ruling as an authoritarian; the real problem is that, in his heart of hearts, he wants to rule as an authoritarian. Trump’s gestalt, says Heer, is “authoritarian in its aspirations.” His intentions are fascist; his motives are repressive; his personality is authoritarian. “The fact that he wants to” undo the Constitution, writes Josh Marshall, “matters a lot.” Whatever the public reality of his rule, we know that the inner aspiration is autocratic. (“Aspiration” is a word that I now see a lot.)

This is the kind of focus on intentions that Hannah Arendt, whose name often gets thrown around as the guiding intelligence of our times, thought was so toxic to any true understanding of politics.

I find this a fascinating and remarkable turn of the argument. If you step back and look at the trajectory of the claim, what you see is that the scope and scale of Trump’s politics has dramatically shrunk. It’s gone from a demagogic mass movement in possession of state power — that is, the entire field of state and society — to a more a limited field of the consolidated state, to, now, not just one man, but something even more removed from the public realm, something more interior: one man’s motives and intentions.

The setting is no longer a polity; it’s a psyche. As if public life itself now transpires — and can be understood by what happens — in one man’s head. And in this regard, I think Trump’s critics mirror what Trump thinks about himself: he is the terrain of politics.

As Montesquieu understood, that is the hallmark of a despotic regime: all of politics is reduced to the space of the tyrant’s head. In such a regime, politics is focused entirely on a “man whose five senses constantly tell him that he is everything and that others are nothing.”

The irony is that the only ones, besides Trump, who seem to believe that this implosion of political space describes or can account for our current moment are his critics.