This week, Republicans will endorse the first US presidential nominee since the second world war to reject America’s globalist consensus. It is hard to see beyond that stark fact. Yet it is only the second most troubling feature of Donald Trump’s rise. The bigger one is his impact on the health of American democracy. Even if Mr Trump is defeated in November, it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Budding demagogues will have taken note. You can denigrate most of the people most of the time and still have a shot at the main prize.
Stripped to their essence, US presidential elections are a tug of war between freedom and equity. It is impossible to get a full dose of both. Republicans generally favour liberty over equality and Democrats the reverse. Other people’s dignity is not up for grabs. Mr Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican party has shredded that equation. Comparisons between Mr Trump and Ronald Reagan are particularly misleading. Mr Trump speaks to that part of people that feels cheated, slighted and humiliated. People who attend his rallies emerge angrier than before. “You walked out of a Reagan rally in a spirit of optimism,” says Stuart Stevens, an adviser to Republican nominee Mitt Romney. “You leave a Trump rally ready for a fight.”
It should be no surprise when violence ensues. Mr Trump has given supporters the green light by saying he would like to punch the protesters himself. This week’s Cleveland convention will test Mr Trump’s self-control on a grander level. For the first time since the 1960s, far-right white supremacist groups will be likely to be patrolling the same streets as black civil rights protesters. Taboo sentiments, such as Holocaust denial, are seeping back into the conversation.
It is facile to blame it all on social media. Technology makes it easier for fringe groups to disseminate their prejudices. But it is leaders that validate such demons. Anyone who doubts that should watch how children respond to adult supervision. Then they should read Lord of the Flies.
Comparisons between Mr Trump and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi are far more apt. A leading Italian scholar, Luigi Zingales, recalls an event at which the country’s former prime minister taunted an embarrassed young woman by making repeated schoolboyish puns about orgasms. The shocking part was not Mr Berlusconi’s boorishness but the audience’s wild applause.
“Such approval would have been unimaginable before the rise of Berlusconi,” said Mr Zingales. “There is no way of measuring the degree to which he has debased public life in Italy.” The same applies to the Trump effect. But the quality of Italy’s democracy is largely an Italian affair. Even Britain’s decision to leave the EU is ultimately local. What happens in America shapes the fate of democracy around the world.
Mr Trump’s rise is bad news for our system of government on three fronts. First, he has shown you can rise to the top of the world’s most cherished democracy by scapegoating entire categories of people. Whether that is illegal Hispanic immigrants, women he deems unattractive, Muslims of any kind, or African-Americans who get uppity, Mr Trump has profited from other people’s indignity. Apologists for Mr Trump say he is only channelling popular sentiment. In fact, he is licensing its darkest instincts. Alarmists liken today’s crisis of democracy to the 1930s. A more instructive parallel is what followed. No country reflected more deeply about the meaning of constitutional democracy than post-Nazi Germany. The first line of Germany’s 1949 Basic Law is: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.”
Second, he has made post-factual politics respectable. US detractors — call them the “expert class” — quixotically fact-check Mr Trump’s stream of assertions. No, America’s president does not have the authority to order American companies to repatriate overseas plants. No, Mr Trump did not oppose the 2003 Iraq war. Yes, the US maintains a nuclear triad. No, the US Treasury cannot unilaterally rewrite the terms on its debt obligations. And no, America’s constitution does not permit a religious test for citizenship. To pro-democracy forces in places like China, Mr Trump’s immunity from truth is baffling. Eric Li, a leading Chinese venture capitalist, says Mr Trump’s success has undercut liberal reformists in China. “If the people can be so wrong, how can you give them the vote?” he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs.
Finally, Mr Trump has corroded faith that rules-based societies are self-sustaining. This time it really could be different. The real estate mogul has never encountered a setback where he did not head straight to the nearest court to overturn it. Does anyone believe a defeated Mr Trump would call Hillary Clinton on November 8 to wish her luck? It is easy to forget that democracy is based on adversaries’ respect for the integrity of the system. Mutual trust, not law, is democracy’s strongest glue. Belief in human dignity is what underpins it.
At his nomination in Cleveland this week, Mr Trump will present his opponent as a crook, his critics as losers, his business record as unparalleled, and his invented facts as the gospel. At least 40 per cent of Americans will still vote for him in November. Democracy’s enemies and friends alike may ask: “How many Trumps can the system take?”
Letters in response to this column:
Get alerts on Silvio Berlusconi when a new story is published