“Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in “The Old Regime and the Revolution.” Instead, “Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter.”
Tocqueville had detected a seeming paradox in the lead-up to revolution: When times were truly tough, revolution was out of reach, but as things got better, the likelihood of revolution actually increased. “Never had the feudal system seemed so hateful to the French as at the moment of its proximate destruction,” he wrote. Once it became clear people did not have to accept what was in front of them, their expectations changed. When they thought their choice wouldn’t make a difference, they were quiescent, but when they thought it would, they exploded.
In the prelude to the French Revolution, that country had seldom been more prosperous and more likely to continue its growth. Yet it was not during the time of the despot King Louis XIV but of the comparably liberal Louis XVI that the guillotine appeared, blood ran in the streets, and the old order was overthrown. What had to be tolerated when the future was certain became intolerable the moment it could be changed. Or as Tocqueville put it, “Twenty years before, nothing was hoped from the future; in 1780 nothing was feared.”
The Winter of Our Discontent
Since the 1970s, there has been a growing sense in American life that something isn’t right. While the nation is not suffering from overwhelming oppression, there is widespread disillusionment. Institutions that anchored communities are viewed with skepticism, leaders who were once broadly admired are suspected of being hypocrites or worse, and trust in the common man is seen as a sign of naiveté.
In the political system, fewer than one in five Americans say they can trust the federal government, the majority of Americans think they are on the losing side of political issues, and confidence in Congress is in the single digits. This same malaise is reflected across many institutions, too, with confidence in business, the media, and organized religion all beneath their historic averages.
Paradoxically, on many measures, it has never been a better time to be an American. The air is cleaner, there is more equality, and the country is more prosperous than it ever has been. Moreover, despite the dismal economic recovery and fear and uncertainty abroad, the average American has more material goods than ever before, is better educated, and is essentially not at risk from the historic sources of widespread human misery like war, famine, disease, and despotism.
Yet in spite of all this, Americans are clearly in a funk. More than 75 percent of Americans do not believe their children will have a better life than they do, an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the future. Such views are reflected and amplified across popular culture with the most prestigious television shows—“The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men”—taking a profoundly negative view of humanity and the most watched—“The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones”—depicting brutal and desperate simulacrums of worlds similar to our own.
In the movies, things are just as bad. Blockbuster films like the Bourne series and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” have as their heroes agents of the state who discover the awful truth that they were sent to kill and die not to protect the innocent, but to sow conflict for the benefit of shadowy cabals in finance and government. In an echo of the conspiracy theories about September 11, 2001, the stories start with their heroes looking abroad for enemies, but finding them at home instead.
Trump: The Man for the Moment
It is in this environment that Donald Trump has triumphed. Venal, unprincipled, and unashamed of his own corruption, Trump defied every mainstream prediction about the course of the 2016 election and easily put away what was seen as the strongest class of Republican presidential candidates in a generation. In an awesome act of defenestration, he roundly defeated a dozen candidates normally regarded as tough contenders and flouted the governing ideology they all generally followed.
Throughout the Republican race, Trump’s opponents tried coopting him, mocking him, criticizing his deviations from orthodoxy, and condemning his words and actions. Yet none of it worked. Today, his approval ratings and odds to be president are higher than they were when he first started. Like the ancien regime of Tocqueville’s time, Hillary Clinton appears to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from Trump’s opponents.
She criticizes him for being a bully, slams his purported beliefs, and questions his business acumen. While there is still a lot of campaign ahead, Trump has already tied with or pulled ahead of her in some national polls. While the odds remain strongly in her favor, she is too wooden a politician to be counted upon to carry the day with any certainty. Fundamentals are one thing, but being in touch with the spirit of the age is what really counts.
If he is not embodying that spirit, Trump is certainly channeling the anger many Americans are feeling about their country. At a time of widespread disillusionment with the status quo, he scrambles ideological categories. While running a campaign that is nominally conservative and on the Republican platform, in substance he is to the left of his Democratic opponent on trade, Wall Street, and foreign policy. In a race that began with many people dreading it would be won by one of the two families that held the presidency for 20 of the past 28 years, there was hardly a better candidate to serve as a foil, frustrate the outcome, and disrupt the two-party system.
At Least He Says What He Thinks
While at first glance it seems almost beyond belief that people concerned about the integrity of their institutions would turn to someone to whom everything is negotiable and no values are held dear, there is actually a logic to it because Trump’s flexibility is the one thing he is honest about. It doesn’t matter that he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the other party (and to his opponent!) or that he has been on both sides of almost every issue.
What matters instead is that he acts as a traitor to his class—a class of media, financial, and political elites the majority of the country regards as serving their own interests rather than the public’s. In one of his best lines from his stump speech, he owns his defection from that class: “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.”
It is hard to overstate how appealing that message is to people who feel they’ve been ignored by those in power. For Republicans upset about the White House’s dissembling over the Iran deal or Obamacare, Trump demonstrates his own willingness to say or do anything to advance their interests. For Democrats angered about a candidate who professes to be against Wall Street while lining her pockets with its contributions, he signals through his wealth and brazenness that he won’t be beholden to it. For independents who don’t find a home in either party, he crosses party lines by offering himself in their place and promising he will do what it takes to win.
It is too soon to tell if the United States is experiencing a truly revolutionary moment or if it is only the Republican Party. Indeed, it will take many years to determine if the story of the 2016 election is the coopting of a political party by a charismatic charlatan or something much more significant. Explanations involving globalization, the failures of the past two presidents, the Republican establishment and infotainment complex, or any number of factors all surely have truth in them. But what does seem clear is that the disillusionment that has been building for over a generation has expressed itself in the most unexpected way possible. Where it takes us now is something only history will be able to tell.