Donald Trump’s Victory is a Failure of Liberalism. (I mean, as in what Liberalism originally meant.)
Ever since Donald Trump’s victory last year, progressives have been doing two things: mutually reassuring each other that we’re the sane people and Trump voters are the brainwashed people (who would soon wake up to the real Trump); and devising theories as to why Trump won and how to prevent it from happening again. The latter activity is much more constructive in my opinion: while the former is therapeutic, it distracts us from the reality that we have to face: Trump won because something went wrong, and if we don’t fix it, history will repeat again, probably in worse forms. As to why Trump won: there have been many theories flying around: that people don’t take feminism seriously, that people actually want some protectionism, that Hillary Clinton was seen as too establishment, that many voters are racist and would therefore love to see mass deportations, etc. All these theories are unsatisfying, however. They are superficial explanations of what we are seeing, and like the things people said in 2004 in the aftermath of the Bush victory, are likely to be either wrong or trivial in the whole scheme of things. But Donald Trump’s victory represents something more fundamental.
Donald Trump’s Victory is a Failure of Liberalism.
Progressives are fearful of the Trump administration not simply because he appears to hold conservative beliefs. If America instead had a president who is personally socially conservative but will not implement his agenda, progressives have not much to fear. It is the fact that he has a strong authoritarian style and will use government power to remake America in his image that is the real cause of concern. The entry bans, for example, represent the use of government power in an unprecedented way, at an unprecedented level. Just two years ago, I would have had difficulty imagining that this could happen in America.
America never had a Trump before because it was, to a more or less extent, a liberal nation, with a liberal consensus. There was consensus that government power was limited, individual liberty was supreme, and by extension the arbitrary exercise of government power was unacceptable. But as America (and the rest of the West) had rapidly become less and less liberal in recent years, this consensus faded. Donald Trump won because liberalism failed. If liberalism had not failed, America would never have allowed Trump to win.
In truth, liberalism has been forgetting its roots for many years now.
Especially in America, where conservatives have painted liberalism to be the equivalent of governments spending and taxing a lot of money, as in ‘spend and tax liberally’. Even progressives have bought this lie: I’ve heard plenty of progressives say that liberalism is governments spending money to fix problems. They don’t just want to tax and spend, so they identify as progressives instead. However, liberalism has never meant ‘spend and tax liberally’ at all. Liberalism has always been about liberty, limiting the power of governments to dictate society and individuals. American liberalism does usually come with a strong welfare state, but that is because it is strongly influenced by early-20th century British liberalism, where a welfare state was seen as needed to guarantee the liberty of the poor and disadvantaged. Once conservatives successfully changed the definition of liberalism in America and made it a dirty word, the real liberalism ceased to be part of the common imagination.
The conservatives’ other agenda in the late 20th century, the culture wars, destroyed liberalism even more.
Their stop marriage equality whatever it takes campaign was the best example. Conservatives were seriously considering using the constitution, a document that guaranteed liberty, to prevent marriage equality. If that’s acceptable, anything’s acceptable. It became acceptable to pursue your ‘ideals’ and ‘values’, whatever they might be, without regard to the consensus of liberty, as long as you felt that you are righteous and your opponent is morally wrong.
Up to this point, it had generally been conservatives who were responsible for destroying liberalism. But from here onwards, progressives sadly played an important role in liberalism’s demise too. Once conservatives decided that with ‘God on their side’ they could do anything, progressives too decided similarly. So-called liberal progressives began embracing things like limiting people’s freedom of speech and conscience, in the name of social justice. While traditional liberalism has sought to end racism, sexism and homophobia via civil rights, anti-discrimination laws and rational discourse, social justice warriors have embraced more coercive and social engineering methods, like enforcing a level of political correctness eerily similar to that found in the novel 1984.
The sensible common ground of liberty and mutual respect, freedom of conscience, limitation on government intrusion and rational discourse has been abandoned. The political field has become more and more like a choice between different tribes of authoritarians. Against this backdrop, Donald Trump’s authoritarianism has become nothing unusual, and is simply another choice. If the other versions of authoritarianism have failed, why not give Trump’s version a go? Alternatively, in a world where different kinds of authoritarianism are the only choices, Trump doesn’t look so bad or mad anymore.
In fact, I know for a fact that some people supported Donald Trump because they were tired of authoritarianism.
They wanted more freedom, not less. In fact, among ardent Trump supporters were some former Libertarian supporters. Which would sound counter-intuitive. But the one thing they saw in Trump was that he was anti political correctness. And for them, this overrode the fact that Trump had a lot of authoritarian policies. This growing population felt that freedom of speech was so important that they were willing to give up other freedoms, in fact perhaps what’s remaining of the American liberal consensus.
And maybe they’re not as crazy as they sound: after all, what’s remaining of the liberal consensus is almost nothing anyway, and freedom of speech is the most fundamental of all freedoms of the conscience. Progressives have dismissed this population as mostly privileged white men who cry oppression, but that would be the wrong way to look at it: I can empathize with their point, even as someone who is not a privileged white man. Under the influence of the social justice warrior mindset, American progressives have increasingly embraced restrictions on free speech and freedom of conscience, and even many young people and minority voters have simply had enough. I can’t help but think that, if not for the social justice warrior movement, Hillary might be president today. It is one thing to promote women’s rights, LGBT rights and environmentalism, but it is another, inexcusable, thing to make people feel oppressed in the process. (We also need to remember that making our opponents feel oppressed will only make them even less willing to change.)
if not for the social justice warrior movement, Hillary might be president today
The only way to prevent more of this madness is to start the liberal revival.
Start treating liberty like a serious idea. Social justice is important, but liberty deserves at least an equal focus too. Start having conversations about liberalism and democracy, and what a serious application of these concepts will mean in today’s society. Dispel the myth that liberal equals big spender if it comes up. Start behaving like a committed liberal: stop trying to make society more politically correct by social pressure. Instead, we should talk about the issues underlying racism, sexism and homophobia, and address these via rational discussion and debate.
It’s too late to un-elect Donald Trump now. But it’s not too late to bring liberalism back into our politics.