The profound disruption and near destruction of American democracy under the presidency of Donald Trump is something we will probably need a decade or more to fully assess. Electing what many thought was a successful businessman with a deep understanding of investment and negotiation strategies turned out to be a serious misjudgment of his business acumen, true intelligence and moral character.
A majority of Americans watched in disbelief as Trump systematically dismantled US institutions, political alliances, trade agreements, civil rights, and environmental regulations. Looking behind us now as we transition to a new administration, the wreckage is strewn across our nation, from sea to shining sea.
One of the most perplexing things about these past four years – at least to me – has to do with how many in the Republican party seemed to throw themselves at the feet of Donald Trump.
They didn’t just look away when he demeaned women, disrespected minorities, attacked congressional Democrats, bullied other global leaders, and promoted the values of white supremacy. Many Republicans cheered him on, adding their insults to the injuries. They stood by as he conspired to undermine our election and its result.
My intention here is not to accuse Republicans of being Republican – that is, of standing firm on the ideals of Republican political philosophy. Instead, I want to explore the question of why so many Republicans were willing to abandon those very ideals for the sake of something that is in fundamental contradiction to what being Republican has long been about.
For reasons I will try to make clear, Democrats seemed to enjoy immunity from Trump’s viral influence, which is why I will name the Republicans who went over to him “Trumplicans.”
My diagram illustrates four continuums of democratic ideals which have been central in the historical dialogue of Democrats and Republicans. The utility of a continuum as a heuristic device is in the way it allows us to appreciate differences as positional values along a spectrum of virtues mutually shared.
It’s not that Democrats advocate for “equality” (treating everyone the same) and dismiss the importance of “merit” (rewarding individual excellence), or that Republicans champion merit and argue against the importance of equality. For both parties historically, equality and merit have been recognized as strategic priorities of a healthy democracy, but each party ranks them differently.
In similar ways, “charity” (service to others) and “liberty” (individual freedom) form a continuum whereon a variety of positions might be taken – not either/or but more-or-less. “Affiliation” (forming bonds with others) and “Autonomy” (standing on one’s own) are likewise polar ideals that generate a spectrum of ratios in-between. Finally, “cooperation” (working together) and “competition” (seeking to win) are not really mutually exclusive opposites (think of sports), but rather complementary or paradoxical opposites, with their various admixtures making for healthy human interactions.
For my purpose here, which is to understand why so many Republicans gave up their political identity and became (willingly or unwittingly) Trumplicans, I want to focus on the side of each value continuum that Republicans have promoted more actively – although I must stress again that both parties have had a shared commitment (with different priorities) to all eight ideals.
As a priority value of Republican political philosophy, merit emphasizes the special talents, exceptional achievements, and unique contributions of individuals. Such things set these individuals apart from the average, “meriting” the recognition of society in the form of accolades, celebrity, and financial reward. Because they are so closely associated in the reward system of a meritocracy, wealth has frequently been mistaken as a symptom of merit.
Many societies besides our own have fallen to the assumption that wealth is a sign of an individual’s native talent, honest work, moral virtue, and even divine election.
Once the mistake is made and wealth replaces merit, a relentless pursuit of profit over all else quickly takes over. “What’s in it for me?” drives every negotiation, every investment, every relationship, and every choice. The relentless pursuit of profit will make one willing to compromise on long-standing ideals, violate once-sacred values, and attack anyone who gets in the way. Trumplicans believe, with Donald Trump, that profit should have the first seat and the last word, in all of life.
Another historical priority of the Republican party, liberty, elevates individual rights to keep and defend our property, say what’s on our minds, believe in and worship what we want, and live our lives relatively free from restraints, regulations, and the control of government. The Revolution that officially started the American Experiment was a revolt against a monarchy that sought to mandate our religion, tax our wealth, and make us subservient to the Crown.
The banner of Liberty! was our inspiration, and our nation’s leaders committed the work of democracy to its cause and protection.
But in this case, too, the worthy ideal of liberty and its associated vigilance over oppressive regimes or the unwanted control of others in our business can motivate us to actively seek ways to game the system and negotiate an exemption for ourselves. If a liberal democracy depends on legislated mechanisms like taxation and assessment for the revenue it needs to maintain itself, we will still do our best to minimize, defer, suspend, or avoid having to pay our fair share. We reason that, as many are paying into the system, we shouldn’t have to – particularly if the amount being “taken” from us (as an absolute rather than a proportionate value) is so much greater.
Autonomy literally means “self-rule” or “self-control,” and it was not only a key driver in the settlement of the New World, but also figures prominently in human psychological development – playing in creative opposition to the interest of forming bonds and joining groups (affiliation). Without the healthy achievement of autonomy, we cannot gather sufficient ego strength to hold our own in the world. Taking control in our lives – developmentally from our parents, politically from an English monarchy – serves to establish within ourselves a center of conscience, judgment, freewill, and self-determination.
For most of us, this path to healthy autonomy was rather rocky, with self-doubt and insecurity chronically urging us to give up on its pursuit, or else try to take it aggressively and prematurely. The result was vainglory, which can be difficult to distinguish from, and can easily slide into, clinical narcissism and megalomania.
When our center of self is not well-established, we try to compensate by getting attention, stealing the spotlight, and insisting on our superior – “no other president in the history of this country” – genius, talent, achievement, and success.
Finally, a Republican identity favors competition over cooperation, which is understandable when we tie it to the cluster of autonomy, liberty, and merit. In all these ideals the individual – and we can expand the concept to include an individual team, an individual class, an individual race, or an individual nation – is regarded as competing with other individuals (teams, classes, races and nations) for rank, privilege, resources, or whatever happens to be the prize.
A clean win is often not enough to satisfy Donald Trump and his Trumplicans, however. Domination, and if at all possible the humiliation of an opponent, is where the real victory lies. Not just to win a competition, but to overwhelm the competition, to beat them down with embarrassment and shame, so they look up to you from their pathetic state as “The Supreme Champion, best ever anywhere” – that’s what really makes the victory sweet.
But of course, complete domination, while it may soothe the insecurity inside our vainglory, also extinguishes the fuse of competition by destroying our opponent in the process.
With all that said, it’s important to reaffirm the validity and historical importance of the Republican political philosophy. All the priorities it has advocated for are essential to the health and vitality of American democracy – as long as they can stay in constructive dialogue with those of Democrats.
Admittedly it is not easy to respect and defend values that pull in the opposite direction of our own, but this is the secret to constructive dialogue and the genuine community sustained through its intentional practice.