Readers Respond on Dignity Wraiths and Democracy #2

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From TPM Reader ES

I totally agree with your last post’s insights. Trump’s theater of subservience is here to affirm and habituate people to the politics of authoritarianism.

I’d add two things: maybe you’ve read it back in the day, but one of the founding texts on the topic is La Boëtie’s “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.” It’s from like 1570. He avoided it being published while he was alive because case in point. It’s short and marvelous and very tranchant. In it he notes that tyrants can only survive with the consent of those they rule over. As such they often try to coopt the elites into their courtiers, both to prevent challenges and to give the spectacle of adhesion to the populace. This was written under absolute monarchy. It’s still current. 

The point of Trump’s dignity-wraithing seems to follow that script to a tee. That’s why he stages these meetings with pols but also with business leaders and pastors and stuff. His obsession with public acclamation is at once and ego trip and a strategic instrument.

The second thing I’d add is that we in fact live in a society that is full of what could be termed sectorial hierarchies. Tocqueville noted that about the US (and more broadly, what he called “the passion of equality”.) since the hierarchy is no longer natural and god-given or inherited by blood, then everybody competes and whoever is at the top of their field can always be replaced. Democratic societies, governed by luck or by merit, are by necessarily uncertain. One day you’re on top of the world, the next day you’re a has been. 

Trump is very much agitated by that. He’s had several rises and falls — in real estate, in business, in show business, in politics. In that sense, he’s a sort of clownish, magnified version of Tocqueville’s homo democraticus. He’s never sure of his position in the world relative to others. He is devoured by his own insecurity — in the way Tocqueville framed it (not without some nostalgia) aristocrats did not demand respect nor fealty, they received them and were obligated by them. The need to keep score in that way, who’s below me, who’s above me, is a modern thing. 

I draw from that a modicum of optimism: unbeknownst to him, Trump also personifies the rather pedestrian foibles and impulses of all modern democratic societies. He clumsily apes the kings and potentates of yesteryear, which is what all petty bourgeois do. And in doing so, he kind of acts out the very values and the political culture he so obviously loathes. 

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