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Two Books That Diagnosed Trumpism Pre-Trump

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Given all the tainted water that flowed under the 2016 bridge, eroding the banks, sweeping vital nutrients of democracy out to a distant sea, it's impossible to identify individual molecules, or moments, as decisive.  

But some were emblematic. Speaking in January, back in Iowa, of his beloved poll numbers, Donald Trump waxed about the loyalty of his voters. He marveled not at their commitment to cause or country, but that, in his mind, at least, they appeared impervious to conscience or reason. "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters," he said in Sioux City.

It was a short sentence. But it offered a wide-angle view of Trump's psyche. His self-obsession. His amorality. His contempt for voters, democracy, and democratic norms, speech and conduct. And, of course, it amplified his abiding preoccupation: How much can I get away with here?

Due to Trump's spectacular risk curve, hundreds of books will be written about the forces that enabled his presidency. Maybe thousands.

Yet some very useful analyses were rendered in advance. Two in particular provide insight into a key question about Trump's success: Why were tens of millions of Americans willing to risk their society, government and democracy itself on a man whom even prominent Republicans described as a "con artist," a "fraud" and a "pathological liar"?

In "The End of White Christian America," published earlier this year, Robert Jones, the chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute, offered a kind of pre-diagnosis.

The "slow death" of white Christian America, which after more than 400 years of dominance is losing political influence and cultural relevance, "has left many with a haunting sense of dislocation," Jones wrote. To cope, this "formerly powerful majority recasts itself as a beleaguered minority in an attempt to preserve its social values."

In a series of focus groups in 2013 by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, Tea Party adherents and evangelical conservatives -- there is much overlap between them -- spoke of living in a state of siege under President Barack Obama, whose America they portrayed as "an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations and dependency."

In a feat of psychological engineering one year later, almost three quarters of Tea Party adherents agreed with the statement, in a PRRI survey cited by Jones, that discrimination against whites "has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities."

In 2016, those desperate perceptions justified desperate measures. In a PRRI poll taken before this year's election, 72 percent of likely voters who supported Trump said American society and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. According to exit polls, 80 percent of white born-again or evangelical Christians ended up voting for Trump, who has promised to turn back the clock on multiculturalism ("Merry Christmas"), mass non-European immigration ("the wall"), feminism ("Man of the Year"), globalization ("tariffs") and nearly every other force undermining white Christian hegemony.

Before any votes were cast, Jones, a self-described product of white Christian America, warned of the possibility that "white evangelical Protestants will mortgage their future in a fight to resurrect the past."

The terms could be onerous. According to general-election exit polls, almost two-thirds of voters said Trump lacks the temperament for the job, yet 19 percent voted for him anyway.

In a 2013 book that, like "The End of White Christian America," seemed to anticipate Trump, Cambridge University politics professor David Runciman suggested that such voters might be joining cultural resentment and economic despair to something potentially even more hazardous: a casually misplaced confidence.

In "The Confidence Trap," Runciman cited a strong tendency in democratic societies toward confidence, even overconfidence. Why are they not more cautious? Because "the historical record of democracy suggests that nothing is as bad as it seems." In effect, democracies are pretty good at muddling through.

Writing in the wake of the global financial crisis, the latest calamity that had failed to destroy democratic institutions, Runciman said: "This is why we find it so hard to know how seriously to take the current crisis of democracy."

Now, the global crisis of finance has been supplanted by the global crisis of Trump; no one is certain how seriously to take this challenge either.

In an e-mail exchange with me earlier this year, Runciman wrote:

I think the rise of Trump reflects the two sides of contemporary democracy (and not just in the U.S. -- there's a lot of this going on in Europe, too): Anger and complacency.

You might think these are opposite states of mind but they can go together: Angry people are often complacent about how much of their anger the system can stand. Many Trump supporters are furious with the political system and how it has let them down. But at the same time they believe that American democracy just needs a good kick from an outsider to be reinvigorated. If the system is as dysfunctional as they believe, then it would be more reasonable to suppose that a good kick would bring it crashing down.

Anger has gotten all the attention in recent years. Angry Tea Partyers. Angry Christian conservatives. Angry Republicans. More recently, angry Bernie Sanders voters. (In January, we will no doubt witness the emergence of new varieties: angry liberals and even angry moderates.)

However, Trump's election makes a strong argument for Runciman's complacency thesis. The U.S. is geographically removed from the wars that it wages. For 15 years it has been largely secure from terrorism. It is still prosperous, and still retains the democratic means to recalibrate the uneven distribution of that prosperity, if it wants to. It is, or until November was, the top destination of the most talented immigrants and inventors the world over.

To take all those chips, amassed over more than two centuries of democratic struggle, governance and luck, and place the entire lot on the hope that Trump is somehow more than the sum of his pathologies, is an act of either breathtaking contempt of, or staggering overconfidence in, the American project.  

It has been almost a year since Trump brandished his gun fantasy in Iowa. Every student of drama -- and Trump certainly is one -- knows what happens when a gun is displayed in the first act. Sooner or later, it goes off.  

(More reading suggestions from Bloomberg View columnists: Barry Ritholtz's "10 Books to Make Winter Pass Faster" and Noah Smith's "Writing That Shaped Economic Thinking in 2016.")

(Corrects exit poll data in 12th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net