A version of this article appears in the May edition of Village magazine.
Whatever else it is, Trump’s chaotic post-truth presidency is a gift for psychologists. Under their code of ethics, psychologists are not allowed to make pronouncements about the mental health of public figures. Despite this rule, thousands of psychotherapists in the U.S. have come together in Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism to warn about Trump’s dubious mental health. Psychology professors from top U.S. universities have also broken ranks to voice their clinical opinion that Trump suffers from a dangerous mental disorder.
Trump, of course, is not the only potentially dangerous leader currently proving popular with voters. Across the West confidence in democracy has plummeted and the attraction of authoritarian rulers has soared. One in six Americans, for example, now think it would be a good idea for the army to rule – up from one in sixteen in 1995. As the U.K careens towards destination unknown, courtesy of a hard Brexit, defenders of European democracy have been desperately counting on French voters to reject Marie Le Pen and save the European Union from disintegration.
Widespread cynicism towards experts has famously accompanied this populist authoritarian turn. But if there is one set of experts that we should be listening to it is psychologists. This is because they can offer a better understanding of the chaos that is currently enveloping us, and point the way back to sanity.
Democracy as Defence against Pathology
Democracy is a system of defences designed to protect us from psychologically dangerous leaders, and from one another. To understand this, we need to recognise that democracy is much more than the holding of elections. In fact, as Brexit and Trump are clearly demonstrating, elections without the rest of the safeguards that make up the liberal democratic system are a hazardous basis for governance.
Free and fair elections are just one of seven core pillars of democracy. The others are the rule of law which applies equally to all, a constitution to which rulers must abide, a prohibition on the state from imposing a single ideology (including religious ideology) on citizens, taxation and redistribution to protect citizens from destitution, protection for individual human rights, and sharing of sovereignty to ensure that fundamental rights are upheld. All seven pillars acting together constitute our modern system of liberal democracy.
The ways in which these pillars curtail the power of rulers is presently being demonstrated in the United States in the legal challenges to Trump’s Muslim Ban and to his Executive Orders reversing legislation designed to tackle global warming. In these cases, the courts and the Constitution are serving as a check on unfettered Presidential power. Were Trump to attempt to introduce the Muslim register he promised during his campaign, legal protections for individual rights and the Constitutional prohibition on discriminating against citizens on the basis of religious belief would similarly limit his actions.
Democratic and Undemocratic Populism
Democratic systems do not only protect us against dangerous individuals. They have also been designed to protect against the dangerous form of populism that has resulted in Trumpism and Brexit and that is threatening Europe in the form of Marine Le Pen, Victor Orban, Geert Wilders and others.
According to political scientists, populism occurs when a majority of citizens feel that none of the political parties that are supposed to represent them are in fact doing so. In such a situation, public confidence in politicians of all parties evaporates and a populist movement arises demanding that citizens’ interests be represented once again. This positive form of populism is the very basis of democracy. It is the means by which society can ensure that democratically elected politicians perform the function for which they are elected. The populist movements we see in the U.S. and Europe today have arisen precisely because many elected politicians have failed to represent the interests of large swathes of their electorates. The Financial Crisis of 2008 dealt a body blow to democracy as many governments were seen to bail out financial institutions and allow those at the helm of the financial institutions who created the crisis to walk away with their fortunes intact – only to impose the consequences on citizens through austerity programmes that ruined the lives of many. That populism should be society’s response to such a situation is not only unsurprising, it is essential if functional democracy is to be restored.
Unfortunately, however, instead of positive populist movements demanding the strengthening of democratic control and a more equitable economy and society, a dangerous form of populism has taken hold. This dangerous populism shares positive populism’s roots in citizen disenchantment and anger at politicians who have failed to deliver on democracy’s promises. But it differs from positive populism in one crucial respect. Dangerous populism diagnoses the roots of our current problems not in unjust economic, social and political systems, but as being the fault of enemies – foreigners, Muslims, Mexicans – who must be removed if the good old days are to be restored.
This dangerous populism, of which Trump is the most powerful advocate, is profoundly undemocratic, even if it commands the support of the majority of the population. It is undemocratic because it violates the other fundamental pillars of the liberal democratic system – the rule of law, protection for human rights for all, freedom of the press, and the Constitution.
Dangerous Populism and the Toxic Triangle
It takes more than a single charismatic populist leader, of course, to make up a dangerous populist movement. Dangerous leaders are simply the most visible manifestations of a much wider malaise. Political scientists use the phrase ‘the toxic triangle’ to describe the conflation of elements which allow dangerous populist movements to come to power – namely the alignment of a dangerous leader, a critical mass of susceptible followers, and an environment conducive to their rise.
The toxic triangle shows that removing a toxic leader alone will not solve the problem of dangerous populism. Instead all three sides of the triangle need to be addressed. The most crucial action needed is to address the conducive environment which is allowing toxic leaders to win elections. Today’s political circumstances constitute an almost perfect storm of inequality, insecurity, economic hardship, terrorist threats and democratic decline. Under such circumstances many who would not normally vote for toxic leaders decide to do so. Reducing inequality and enforcing fairness in economics and politics will go a long way to undermining support for the demagogues currently shaping western politics.
Even as conditions improve, however, a substantial number of people will continue to believe that scapegoating and discrimination are acceptable means of ordering society. This group’s influence must be contained through the enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination and hate speech. The laws that apply in civil society in these areas must also be enforced on social media and online.
In the final analysis it is for democrats to save democracy. The politicians we elect must themselves be democrats who believe in and uphold the fundamental pillars of our democratic system. As citizens we too must believe in those principles and accept responsibility for those we elect. Which brings us back to our own individual psychological mind-sets. As Naomi Klein has said, democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity. To preserve democracy we must demand not only that our elected representatives reflect this principle, but that we too vote to make it so – for others as well as ourselves.