The election of Trump—and the populist upsurge he helped encourage—has confirmed that politics is no longer the art of the possible, but the improbable. If Trump can win the highest office in the land, then why can’t the rest of us run for something, too? Why shouldn’t a 33-year old Egyptian-American named Abdul run for Michigan governor? Why shouldn’t a 28-year old, who was only a bartender a year ago, defeat a Democratic establishment stalwart? And why shouldn’t that person say, without shame or apology, that she’s a socialist?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary-election victory, coming on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, has thrust “socialism” into the center of the American political conversation. Ideas once dismissed as radical are now gaining a hearing. Fights are raging within the Democratic Party, and on the political left. And that reinvigorated debate—and the other political conflicts Trump has inflamed—may be one of Trump’s more unlikely and ultimately positive contributions to American democracy.
Few people would say that conflict is a thing to be embraced. The usual assumption is that conflict and polarization undermine democracy. We hear paeans to civility, unity, and coming together as a nation. But conflict, or at least the threat of it, can be a powerful motivator.
If a government has no fear that the poor might one day revolt, then it will have few incentives to check the excesses of the rich. If elected leaders have no fear that they might lose the minority vote, they will have little reason to take racism as seriously as they should. If established parties have no fear that populist parties might take their place, they will have little reason to rethink their basic approach to politics. Without pressure from populist challengers, centrist parties will avoid addressing sensitive issues, instead postponing them until crisis hits. And crisis almost certainly does.
This confusion around the desirability of conflict makes it difficult to assess how well or poorly the world’s most established democracies are faring, now that nearly every one of them has been significantly affected (with Portugal being a notable exception). As some would have it, America, along with large chunks of Europe, is on the verge of dictatorship from which it may never recover.
If you view the very election of Trump—to say nothing of what he’s actually done in office—as an “extinction-level event,” then alarmism is precisely what’s called for: the more, the better. But I, for one, do not believe that Trump is anything more than damaging and destructive—as bad as that is. Two or six years from now, America will emerge with considerable damage, but intact. And by then, the experience of having lived under Trump will produce other consequences, some of them positive. In fact, it’s already producing them.
Trumpism—or some variation of the populist-nationalism that has proved so compelling from Italy and Poland to Israel and India—will survive Trump. The ideas of this visceral but vague populism—obsessed with demographic change and trafficking in proposals that only 4 years ago would have been beyond the pale—are almost entirely unconcerned with the norms of what was, up until 2016, a somewhat narrow mainstream consensus.
Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, popularized a bleak aphorism that encompassed the surrealism and absurdity of living in Putin’s Russia. In the United States, though, that everything might be possible, when it wasn’t before, means that the range of acceptable opinions is being broadened, whether that means democratic socialism, unabashed Catholic integralism, post-liberalism, or even something as silly as the notion that billionaires are well-suited to run for office.
As Ben Judah wrote recently, a door has been opened: “Because by embracing everything about Donald Trump, [the Right] has embraced the idea that something is terribly wrong with America, and that the country needs big, beautiful solutions for terrible, awful problems. When the Right becomes populist, embraces deficits, dunks on free trade, and rails against elites, it suddenly becomes a lot tougher for it to ridicule a populist Left that is credibly offering more.”
Where Trump told voters that he (and only he) would “make America great again,” Hillary Clinton countered by saying “America was already great.” America is already great, but the problem with making that the theme of a national campaign is that it promises only minor variations of the status quo. Clinton—and so many of the center-left and center-right candidates hoping to forestall populist challengers—offered voters stability in a time of instability. Experiencing Trump on a daily basis tends to help one appreciate the prospect of once again being bored by politics. But stability, particularly in the long run, is an overrated political good that can actually forestall the kinds of deep changes that every society needs from time to time.
Another way of viewing it, and probably the easier way, is to see Trump as an accident of history and not something to ponder too deeply. Since the results could have easily been otherwise—had, say, James Comey not issued his letter in those final, critical days—there is no particular reason to shift our view of politics or democracy. To view Trump’s election as an extinction-level event is to argue, in effect, that the solution to Trump is self-evident: his removal from office. Politics can then return to at least some degree of normalcy. If Trump, however, is a product of a political order that is fundamentally broken, then the need for radical, unusual, or at least out-of-the-mainstream proposals becomes just as necessary if and when Trump loses—or even if he hadn’t won in the first place.
Civility and consensus are only possible in homogeneous societies with a strong, shared national identity, something that the United States and most European countries can no longer claim. In diverse societies, where citizens no long agree on the common good, conflict and polarization are unavoidable. Like conflict, the word radical is usually used pejoratively, signifying chaos and disorder. But like conflict, radicalism isn’t necessarily bad, particularly if it allows a larger number of citizens to feel they have a stake in their own society. It also leaves open the possibility that ideas that were once considered unacceptable can be accepted. Some unacceptable ideas are unacceptable for a reason. Some, though, are not.
Today, ideas that were once considered radical and even politically suicidal, like same-sex marriage, are now so culturally pervasive that it’s hard to remember that they were once only held by a small minority. (As recently as 2009, President Barack Obama, despite his seeming private openness to gay marriage, was unwilling to endorse it publicly). It’s precisely through radical voices that the bounds of what’s politically and socially possible expands. At one point in American history, for example, the abolition of slavery was seen as outside the bounds of what was possible or acceptable. Through Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy, the idea of single-payer universal health care became normalized, shifting the entire debate around health-care provision onto what many Americans would consider a more moral foundation. (Of course, many other Americans see it as an unacceptable intrusion on the part of the state.)
To find a silver lining to this disruption of political complacency is not to excuse Trump. The families torn apart at the border; those who have lost their healthcare; the communities that will be polluted by environmental disaster; or the millions of people abroad who have suffered from Trump’s unashamedly pro-dictator foreign policy would have been better off had he never run for office. But even without Trump, disruption and conflict were coming; he was merely the catalyst. This—whatever this is exactly—is a universal phenomenon, emerging in dozens of incredibly different national contexts, across varying cultures, regions, religions, and levels of economic development. It may be hard to define, but what we are seeing is nothing less (or perhaps nothing more) than a rebirth of politics, with all the conflict that that entails.
The point about radical ideas is that some of them may be good, but there’s no way to know, definitively, whether they are, until they’re debated openly and freely. And, today, that’s precisely what’s happening. That’s a good thing, and we may have Trump to (partly) thank for that.