So what’s the real danger of the passions in politics today? After all, the U.S. has plenty of checks and balances, and a far more inclusive democracy than at its founding.
Think, for a moment, of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—at least at first glance, a startlingly similar figure to Donald Trump. Berlusconi became the country’s richest man by creating Italian television shows that flaunted near-naked bodies, and stories of lust and betrayal.
Even as prime minister, Berlusconi was rather transparently prisoner to these same passions, holding “bunga bunga” parties, and otherwise launching a debauched festival of greed, through a political culture of bribery, corruption, and tax fraud.
The danger with Trump would seem to be that, like Berlusconi, he would be hoist by his own petard, self-destructing precisely through the agent of his rise, and dragging the rest of us with him.
But consider an alternative hypothesis: Trump himself isn’t a creature of the passions; he’s instead strategically employing them as a means to his own ends.
Take greed. He’s been cited many times for what now has become a chestnut: “The point is, you can’t be too greedy.” He’s also come to be known for his braggadocio about his net worth during his 2016 run. But his approach to money is usually much more nuanced and self aware. In The Art of the Deal, he writes, “Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.”
The same could be said of virtually every other element of the Trump show: Trump is playing his base through the passions. That’s why, on every supposed “gaffe,” he just doubles down, befuddling the pundit class, but tapping into his “very passionate” base.
The real danger is not that he will become Berlusconi-esque. It’s that he will further erode the political institutions necessary to getting things done. Every great challenge facing the country will require complex negotiations between different parties with a faith in the process and subject matter knowledge. And every unruly passion he stokes, from lust to outright fury, is another small explosion under America’s already-rickety policymaking foundation.
He might also consider episodes from the last century that show a politics of the passions getting the better of the politician.
In 1950, for instance, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy opportunistically chose to stoke the public’s anger at Communists by using his House subcommittee in a crusade later famously characterized, by Arthur Miller in The Crucible, as a witch hunt. McCarthy’s reign was dangerous, but it lasted only three years, and it was attorney Joseph Welch’s heartfelt cri de Coeur during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954—“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”—that rang the loudest. His fall was even swifter than his rise.
While Trump revels in support, he could do a lot of damage. If Trump wants to be successful within the context of American history and its political culture, he should start by replacing the exploitation of the passions with a layer of statesmanship. That would not only help our politics, it would be in his own best interest. For in the end, Americans can be quite unforgiving to the politicians who prey on their prejudices.