The American election of 2016 is a bit like 9/11: a moment when it becomes suddenly clear what the #1 threat to American freedom will be for the foreseeable future. Then, it was radical Islamist terrorists. Today, it’s Trumpism. After 9/11, there was much discussion of the “root causes” of Islamist terrorism. Today, it’s urgent business to discern the root causes of Trumpism.
Immigration is an obvious candidate explanation. That anti-immigrant hostility is to the rise of Trump what anti-Semitism was to the rise of Hitler is obvious enough, but in both cases, the timing seems underdetermined. Why now? Or in Hitler’s case, why then? Anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant hostility had been around long before Hitler and Trump, always ugly, but they hadn’t previously triggered movements strong enough to overturn the political regime. And nothing in 1933, or 2016, seems to explain why these hatreds got suddenly worse.
Thus, in Germany, one might have expected that anti-Semitism would be declining, several decades after the legal emancipation of the Jews and when Christianity, a past spur to anti-Semitism, was losing influence to liberalism, socialism, Darwinism, and other modern currents of thought. Instead, the smoldering embers of anti-Semitism suddenly burst into flame. Likewise, in 2016, undocumented immigration has been on the wane for sometime, assimilation is proceeding apace, and the economy is picking up, to the point where we’re near full employment. Crime is near historic lows, and immigrants commit less crime per capita than natives. Why an immigrant-hating presidential candidate now? One must look to other root causes to understand the opportunities that Hitler and Trump exploited.
First, new media. The rise of totalitarianism in the early 20th century was fueled by radio, which destabilized public discourse, and gave leaders like Hitler and Stalin direct access to the masses, fueling unprecedented cults of personality. Radio didn’t produce totalitarianism in the Anglosphere, but it did produce dangerous demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. Franklin D. Roosevelt, though no totalitarian, had his radio “fireside chats” that made him the center of a personality cult of sorts, and he was one of America’s most collectivist presidents. Contemporary new media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, have transformed public discourse, sometimes carrying it to new heights of thoughtfulness and lucidity, as exemplified by Bryan Caplan’s posts at EconLog, but sometimes descending to new depths of vitriol and propaganda, as exemplified by Donald Trump’s tweets. Anne Applebaum delivered one of the shrewdest judgments on Trump when she called him the spokesman for Internet trolls. The mainstream media and the party establishments have long functioned as elite gatekeepers in American politics, ensuring a certain minimum of civilized and democratic standards in our public discourse and politics, and muzzling the id of the masses. In 2015-2016, the media inadvertently helped Trump by giving him so much coverage, but they did so in ways that would in the past have guaranteed his swift political collapse, highlighting his outrageous statements and his obvious unfitness for office. But Twitter gave Trump direct access to his followers, and the Internet has allowed an angry underground to emerge, propagating its own myths and solidarities, so Trump couldn’t be deflated in the traditional way, and his ability to defy the traditional elite gatekeepers then added to his mystique. One of the shocking things about Nazism was that it arose in one of the world’s most educated, cultured, and industrialized countries, but that’s less surprising when you consider that its rise depended on new media, of which the most developed nations were the earliest adopters. Much of the postcolonial world experienced fascist-style regimes in the decades that followed. Let the rest of the world be warned, then, that new media has opened up new possibilities for vicious demagogy. Your Donald Trumps are probably on their way, if they haven’t appeared already. Let lovers of liberty be prepared to fight them.
The Iraq war is another root cause of Trump’s rise, since Trump used opposition to the Iraq war to upend the Republican establishment. This claim is orthogonal to support or opposition for the Iraq war. Critics of the Iraq war might blame the Bush administration for deceiving the country into waging an unjust and pointless war, thus shattering popular faith in the Republican party establishment and to a lesser extent the national government generally. My take is different. I think the Iraq war’s critics are to blame for systematically and deliberately failing to do justice to the Bush administration’s motives and the real merits of toppling a totalitarian regime, for undermining people’s attachment to liberty in general by devaluing Iraqi liberty, and for fostering a muddle-headed cynicism in the people, in their determination to delegitimize a high-minded and hopeful foreign policy venture that did a lot of good. Either way, the Iraq war of 2003 created a deep reservoir of cynicism and resentment in the American people, which Trump exploits. The Iraq war is to the rise of Trump something like what the Treaty of Versailles was to the rise of Hitler.
And of course, Trump’s supporters come largely from the white underclass described so potently in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, its jobs and earnings opportunities dwindling in the face of skill-biased technological change, its family structures ravaged by the Sexual Revolution, its morals and customs unraveling under the baneful influence of moral relativism. I think it’s here that the most important causal factor is at work, but this is also where my argument gets most speculative, most difficult to articulate and verify. But I’ll make a brief attempt.
It used to be truism that the health of republican government depended on the virtues of the citizenry, and especially the familial virtues. The Roman Republic was founded when Lucretia, the archetypal good housewife, having refused the seductions of a Tarquin price and then been raped by him anyway, confessed to her husband and immediately committed suicide, triggering a revolution that overthrew the wicked foreign king. Romans of the classical era, and generations of classically-educated modern Europeans, took it for granted that the happy home was the health of the state, and that the Roman republic flourished while Roman virtue lasted and decayed when luxury and lax morals ate away its virtue from within. This historical truism is no less wise for having been forgotten of late. Too many Americans weren’t raised right, and don’t know first-hand, let alone take for granted, the wholesome happiness of a good family, so they can’t feel proper horror at a man so inimical to it as Donald Trump. Here again contemporary America resembles Weimar Germany, which like America in recent years, was a sexually decadent place. The 1920s were the heyday of Sigmund Freud’s influence. The Sturmabteilung was thick with homosexuality. Adolf Hitler was the son of a sexual profligate, conceived out of wedlock, and seems to have had an affair with his niece Geli Raubal before he came to power. It’s hard to imagine people like Hitler and Trump coming to power in a culture where strong family values prevailed. They’d fail the respectability test and be immediately disqualified. Ultimately, is it the gnawing misery born in broken families that makes nations eager to sell their souls to demagogues? Do people who have never known familial happiness yearn for leaders who will tell them that their problems are someone else’s fault, and go after that someone in crude, angry ways, without being restrained by old-fashioned notions of law and due process and civility and all that? Are people who have never known the real, wholesome happiness of a good family, and who are left yearning for they know not what, fatally tempted to throw the dice on crackpot authoritarians who peddle vague utopian visions?
I’ve waded into deep psychological waters here, and I’ll leave the question unanswered, as too difficult for me at the moment. But a related and more pedestrian point is that Obergefell probably helped Trump’s rise by putting a nail in the coffin of constitutionalism– if the Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court, following the latest fashions, says it does, then why should Trump or his supporters respect it?– and by marking a definitive triumph of moral relativism. If political power could be used to overturn traditional morality for the benefit of gays, the alt-right felt, why not for the benefit of racists as well?
If Iraq, new media, and the Sexual Revolution explain the rise of Trump, is immigration irrelevant? Not quite. What I think Trump and Hitler, along with countless other successful fomenters of ethnic hatred and violence that have stained the last century of human history, show, is that it’s pretty easy to stir up ordinary people– not all of them, but enough to fuel a powerful political movement– to hatred of a minority that was already disliked, just by talking a lot about them, and saying publicly the things that people had long taken a guilty pleasure in saying privately, but that good manners and decorum had mostly kept out of the public sphere. Ambient hatreds are the perennial low-hanging fruit of democratic politics, always available for a cynical politician with the right kind of media reach to stir up and ride to power. They provide a cheap kind of skin-deep solidarity that people discombobulated by technological and social change often find comforting. Long before Hitler’s Final Solution, a lazy-minded and casual anti-Semitism was widespread among European nationalists and intellectuals. Similarly, too many generally decent American politicians have said “we have to control our borders, but…” Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, to be sure, are less evil than Donald Trump, but by not saying clearly and resolutely that the law of the land is wrong, they were his accomplices. For existing laws, if not themselves challenged, denounced, and delegitimized, provide a baneful legitimacy to anti-immigrant hatred. One can demand a vast program of ethnic cleansing, millions of people seized and uprooted from their homes and sent away to lands they’ve scarcely seen, and say more or less truly that one only wants to see the law enforced.
“When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent,” Pastor Niemoller famously lamented. “I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent. I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out. I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent. I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.” Yes. Human rights are the proper basis for solidarity, and only when we all react to the violation of anyone’s human rights as if the offenses were against ourselves, can we expect, or do we deserve, for our own human rights to be respected. First they came for the immigrants. Year after year, hundreds of thousands have been deported, and many more lived in fear. Many otherwise decent, God-fearing Americans remained silent, because they were not immigrants. Now Donald Trump, carried to national prominence as an anti-immigration leader, along with his pet media, threaten all our liberties. Right now, they are going after Clinton, conducting the election as a kind of show trial, concocting phony scandals and threatening her with jail. If they win, who’s next? Bill Clinton? Ted Cruz? Ben Sasse? Democrats generally? Open borders advocates like myself? To Trump, anyone who opposes him at all is an idiot, a loser, a criminal. Expect the show trials to continue.
I’m voting for Hillary Clinton this year, which is something I never expected to do. I’ve always been a Republican. I’m pro-life, I was an ardent supporter of George W. Bush in 2004 and of John McCain in 2008, I’ve written a book against gay marriage, and I admire Mike Pence’s effort to protect religious freedom in Indiana. But that my conscience as a Christian and as a loyal American citizen prohibit me from voting for Trump was always as clear as day. Trump’s platform hardly matters. Donald Trump is a vicious sexual predator, whose business experience is a rampage of self-aggrandizement focused in sleazy, sinful industries like gambling, and fraught with fraud, failure, and bankruptcy, and such a man simply must never be given the kind of power that a US president has. To the extent that Trump has an ideology, what he essentially offers is an escape from freedom. His major stances– anti free trade, anti immigration, anti free speech, etc.– are consistently authoritarian. He’s an open admirer of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. His rhetorical style is distinctive among American politicians in that he doesn’t even pay lip service to liberty. The presidential oath, in such a man’s mouth, would be a travesty, and to vote for this would make me an accomplice in that travesty. The only question was whether to cast an effective vote against Trump, by voting for Clinton, or to abstain or vote for a third party. But after all the American republic has done for me, I think I owe it more than an abstention.
Trump’s signature campaign promise, to build a wall along the southern border (reasonable so far, even if I oppose it) and make Mexico pay for the wall (absolutely outrageous!) is chiefly interesting for the appalling light that it sheds on Trump’s own character, and on those of his core supporters. The idea of forcing a poor country like Mexico to pay for a wall meant to deprive their own citizens of economic opportunity, for the benefit of the far richer United States, is so stupid, mean, bullying, unchivalrous, and contrary to all norms of international law, that it beggars belief. It’s horrifying to think that there are Americans to whom such a thuggish, crazy proposal appeals. Trump’s appeal, indeed, is difficult for the educated to understand, but it seems to consist in a rebellion against what he calls “political correctness,” which in this case seems to mean civility, morality, the rule of law, and the dictates of conscience. I can’t shake the impression that the core Trump supporters are just sick and tired of being good. They are, as Hillary Clinton said, “a basket of deplorables”—in their political opinions, at least.
That qualification is important. I actually don’t think most of Trump’s core supporters are bad people, for the most part, only bad citizens. Most people’s political opinions, after all, are a very small part of their personalities. When we look back on former times, on slaveholding times, on colonialist times, on racist times, on times when national hatreds were universal and mandatory, when heretics were burned, or when wars of conquest were undertaken as casually as financial speculations are undertaken today, it’s easy to slip into the assumption that people of the past were monsters. But it’s possible for a person’s conscience to be numb to the wickedness of certain attitudes, beliefs, or social practices, even while he or she is quite high-minded and ethical in most of his or her personal dealings. If 99% of one’s social contacts are with white Christians, and one treats them beautifully, how much does it matter if one hates blacks and Jews? It does matter, certainty, but I would suggest that its weight in the scale of vices and virtues is rather small. The problem, ably diagnosed in Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, is that democracy artificially amplifies the impact of people’s political opinions, which are often foolish and irresponsible because life doesn’t teach ordinary men virtue in political opinions as it teaches them virtue in private affairs. One learns a good deal of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice in the struggle to make a living, which, in a rough, everyday fashion, rewards virtue and punishes vice, starving the lazy and spendthrift and isolating the dishonest and intemperate, while those who are just, prudent, brave, and self-controlled usually see their assets and their circles of friends expand over time. But life doesn’t teach people virtue in political opinions, because one’s political opinions don’t really affect the daily business of one’s own life, so people’s political opinions are much more ignorant and biased than their opinions about things they have proper incentives to think about hard and fairly. In most societies, ordinary people’s political opinions don’t matter all that much, because they don’t control public affairs. In democracies, they do.
Americans have, historically, been unusually virtuous in their political opinions: unusually inclined to favor free speech even when they were offended; unusually ready to favor free markets and modest taxes and transfers even when they were poor; unusually deferential to the national constitution and the common-law tradition; unusually willing to accept the frequent frustrations of widespread popular preferences by the constraints that due process of law imposes on what the government can do; unusually insistent on high moral standards in their political leaders; unusually willing to accept adverse election results when defeated, and when victorious, chivalrously to ensure that vanquished candidates and their supporters retain life, liberty, and property, and the political rights they need to contest the next election. The widespread failure of real democracy to take root elsewhere in the world bore witness to a lack, on the part of many or most foreigners, of the kind of civic virtue and political enlightenment that has characterized America.
In the horrifying election of 2016, the American civic virtue that long upheld democracy has undergone a spectacular collapse. Trump’s core supporters are not worthy of democracy, in the rather precise sense that if everyone thought and acted as they do, tolerating and even applauding so much vice, thuggishness, ignorance, deceit, promises to violate human rights, and self-serving fantasy on the part of a political candidate, democracy wouldn’t long survive. Americans tend to feel we have some sort of mysterious divine right to be better governed than most of mankind, but we don’t. Democracy’s success here, imperfect as it had always been, has depended on the practice of virtue by politicians and ultimately by voters. If we vote for politicians destitute of virtue, like Trump, we’ll lose democracy, and deserve to lose it.Donald Trump is the ultimate un-American.
If Donald Trump is elected, American institutions will be put to the greatest test they have faced since the McCarthy era, if not since the Civil War. It’s possible that soldiers will disobey Trump’s orders to commit war crimes, courts will face down his intimidation and invalidate his illegal acts, Congress will block the laws he tried to pass and defund agencies that he turns to nefarious purposes, and in due course, when appropriate grounds have accumulated, will impeach him. A rising Trumpist dictatorship might be nipped in the bud by the American constitution’s checks and balances. Even in that case, damage would be done, but in some respects, the republic might be strengthened by its institutions having to flex their muscles against an evil elected executive. But it would be rash to count on this. One key American political institution, the Republican Party, which one might have hoped would simply refuse to accept a hostile takeover by a man whose personal character and political beliefs are inimical to its historic ideals, and would have gone on strike when a plurality of primary voters made an unacceptable choice, has already prostituted itself to Trump, throwing away a hard-won fund of trust that many Republican officeholders had won through decades of public service. The cowardice of leaders like Paul Ryan and John McCain, who clearly know that Trump is utterly unfit to be president, but who put partisanship before patriotism, is appalling. If Trump were elected, many other American institutions would probably follow suit, forsaking their principles in fear of Trump’s legal or extra-legal vengeance. To elect Trump would be to run a national version of the Milgram experiment. Alas, history shows how easily humans are corrupted by madmen in authority.
And even if Trump loses this year, his constituency has discovered their power. We can expect more Donald Trumps to come.
One of the ironies of Donald Trump is that, by losing, and bringing many other Republicans down with him, he seems likely to bring about an immigration amnesty. With luck, nativism will be burdened for years by the stench of Trump, allowing immigration liberalizers to make steady, pedestrian progress by letting more legal immigrants in, while respecting undocumented immigrants’ basic human rights and regularizing their legalization. But a deeper irony is that while Trump’s platform is allegedly “nationalist,” he has shattered whatever remained of American national solidarity. Many of the majority of Americans who despise Trump must, like me, be asking themselves what we have in common with people who can find such a disgusting man appealing, or who can desire that such a vile desperado be US president. The whole point of being an American was that Americans were too virtuous to vote for people like Donald Trump. That was why we could trust in democracy, why we could look back on our past with pride, why we could look on our future with hope, why we could claim leadership of the free world with an easy assumption that all mankind benefited from our doing so. That was the key to American greatness, the reason why America was a force for good in the world. I don’t want to be a rootless cosmopolitan or a stateless person, even if, as open borders advocates desire, the world became a much safer place for stateless persons than it is today. I was raised a patriotic American and want to stay that way, but I always understood America to be founded on certain values of which Trump is the antithesis, so I can’t help but regard Trump’s hard-core supporters as a kind of foreigners. I can get along with them well enough as neighbors. It’s just really scary to be part of a polity in which they have votes. That’s the problem. Is any solution possible?
It’s not feasible, of course, to gerrymander Trump supporters into their own polity (which would be a rather miserable place). It might be possible to substantially eviscerate the polity that Americans in my sense of the word, not mere juridical citizens but freedom-loving Americans who would never vote for Trump, are condemned to share with Trump supporters. We could look for ways to alienate power to local governments like states and citizens, to voluntary organizations like labor unions and churches, to international organizations like the UN, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, and to private corporations and free markets. Wouldn’t it be nice if the US president could gradually dwindle to a figurehead, a little like the king of England?
But the most promising way for real Americans to protect ourselves from the Trump voters is to elect a new people. We now know, from the rise of Donald Trump, that millions, if not tens of millions, of native-born Americans can’t be trusted to vote for liberty. There can be little doubt that tens, if not hundreds of millions, of foreign-born people are far worthier of being entrusted with votes in a free republic. And if we let them in, and enfranchise (at least some of) them, the Trump voters will be safely outnumbered. At this point, that seems like the best chance to preserve America’s republican liberties so that the next generation of Americans will be able to enjoy them.
As usual with Open Borders posts, the opinions expressed here are my own and not the collective opinions of the Open Borders team.