Donald Trump’s victory is a major blow to western democracy, delivering as it does the most powerful position on earth to a man who clearly demonstrates personality traits that many psychiatrists and mental health professionals have warned are consistent with narcissistic personality disorder. Trump’s most divisive acts during the election campaign are consistent with someone who suffers from this serious emotional and mental disorder. As the UK Guardian newspaper points out, by electing someone whose behaviour is consistent with this severe disorder, Americans have done a very dangerous thing, and because of what they have done,the world faces dark, uncertain and fearful times.
Trump’s victory is the second body blow to western democracy this year, the other being Brexit. In both cases, popular anger at out of touch elites is pointed to as the primary cause. The reasons for that popular anger are not hard to fathom. Thirty years of neoliberal economic policies have created a financial economy many times the size of the real economy, whose proceeds go primarily to the rich. The recklessness of many in the financial sector led to the 2008 Financial Crisis, which was of such gargantuan scale as to leave politicians little choice but to bail out the largest financial institutions. While those at the helm of these institutions were allowed to walk free, millions of ordinary citizens paid dearly in terms of their jobs, houses, savings and pensions. The widespread and justified public anger at western political systems for this gross injustice is the source of the populist wave that has brought about both Brexit and President-elect Trump. What was a financial crisis in 2008 has morphed into a series of political crises arising from the fact that many have lost faith in the institutions of state.
The rise of populist movements in response to such gross political failure is neither surprising nor, necessarily, alarming. Populations protesting at out of touch political elites are part and parcel of democracy, and are an essential dynamic for moving democracy forward. But populist movements come in two flavours. In the first, citizens rise up against elites and demand change. In the second, citizens again rise up demanding change, but in this dangerous variant of populism, a vulnerable group is targeted as a scapegoat for public anger. It is this paranoid variant of populism that Trump has mobilised in the United States. It was this dangerous variant of populism that Nigel Farage and the Brexit campaign utilised in the UK. While the first form of populism is intrinsic to democracy, the second, relying as it does on racism and xenophobia, is deeply corrosive of democracy. Paranoid populism as practiced by Trump is, as Fareed Zakaria courageously describes it, a cancer on democracy.
And the cancer is spreading. The coming twelve months will witness elections across Europe including in Austria, France, and the Netherlands in which paranoid populism will again feature prominently. The proponents of this dark art will look to the examples of the US and UK for lessons on how to gain power. The primary lesson they will draw is that the surest way to victory is to dispense with the rules that normally govern democratic contests. By using lies and threats of violence, by presenting outsiders as a threat, and by vilifying their opponents, they will quickly erode the democratic culture that provides the framework within which democracy functions. Without that democratic culture, democracy dies.
The contest played out in Brexit and the US Presidential election then has not been the normal democratic contest of ideas and policy alternatives. It has been a contest between preserving a democratic framework for deliberation and choice, or replacing that framework with a narcissistic fog of lies, fury and hatred for use as the basis for public decision making. The choice has not between policy options, but between democracy and democracy’s demise. Democracy needs democrats in order to function. The deeply undemocratic behaviour of Trump and the Brexiteers during their respective campaigns means that their victories should be seen less as victories for democracy than as signs of democracy in crisis.