April 23, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
After Trump’s Election, a Smarter Republic
The people are reassessing the abstract theory of Trump in light of the pragmatic experience of him.
I have often wondered what Walter Lippmann would have thought of Donald Trump.
Actually, I don’t have to guess.
A giant among 20th-century intellectuals and makers of foreign policy, Lippmann would have seen the current president as the result of fundamental problems that jeopardize democracy from within. The people rule in a democratic republic, he wrote in 1922’s Public Opinion, but the people can be manipulated to believe anything, even things that are contrary to everything a democratic republic stands for.
His remedy was a highly informed managerial elite that would defend democracy by manufacturing consent of the governed for their own sake. He later wrote:
“the public must be put in its place … so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”
I confess I felt pangs of recognition after Trump’s election. The choice between good and bad was so obvious, only a republic gone mad would pick him. In retrospect, we had gone completely bonkers. For a moment lasting weeks and months, I felt that the American people needed protection from themselves.
Part of me still agrees with Lippmann. A patriotic, humble and moral elite is critical to a healthy democracy. But I’m much less skeptical of the people than I was in the weeks and months after the election. I am seeing evidence of an electorate that’s learning from its catastrophic mistake, a people reassessing the abstract theory of Trump in light of the pragmatic experience of him.
Consider that Trumpism is struggling for space in polite society even as its namesake sits in the Oval Office. Plucky teens forced corporations to shun the National Rifle Association. Mainstream publications crowded out right-wing fringe voices. Popular entertainers apologized for even mentioning Trump. Political dynasties don’t want anything to do with him. Even white supremacists find themselves exhausted by the scrutiny they have come under since their hero’s rise to power.
Trump’s base is rethinking. The white working class is getting hammered by tariffs on imported metals. Republican landowners prepare to fight against the president’s “big beautiful wall.” Farmers in the GOP heartland blanched at Trump’s fight with China, which threatens to send crop prices soaring. Republicans in blue states seek revenge for a tax overhaul that’s going to deprive them of millions.
His base isn’t rethinking only because of money. Conservatives are reconsidering anti-immigrant policies now that they see what they do to people. The New Yorker published a piece detailing a community’s reaction after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local cops raided a Tennessee meat-processing plant.
The raid, wrote Jonathan Blitzer, “was catastrophic news. Families’ worst fear had come true: husbands, fathers, wives, mothers—gone.” In Blitzer’s reporting, you can see Trump voters reassessing their views in real time. A source told him:
“It’s the things that affect us the most that we vote on. And immigration didn’t really affect me before. But then this raid happened.”
“I felt I understood the legal side of (immigration). But this is the first time I really started looking at the human side. Families are being divided.”
The head of a local Baptist church said:
“You cannot be a true Christian if you ignore your neighbor in need. The people in the middle have had their hearts soften because of the raid.”
“We all get a little bit smarter as the issue gets more personal.”
Liberals are tempted to say, “I told you so,” and there’s something to be said of that considering how much damage ICE and the US Customs and Border Protection continue to do. (The Times over the weekend reported that 700 children have been separated from their parents in an apparent bid to deter immigrants.)
But it’s important to recognize that much about policy is theoretical until it’s not. The bewildered herd can find its way out of bewilderment if given enough time.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.