“With Donald Trump as the GOP front-runner,” Andrew Sullivan wrote on Facebook on April 1, “it seems to me a civic duty to get engaged with this election.” Fifteen months after the seemingly inexhaustible commentator announced one of his periodic retreats from blogging—“to decompress and get healthy for a while”—he declared he was getting back into the opinion-having business, this time to do “long-form journalism,” for New York magazine.
This week, Sullivan delivered the first work of his new, more thoughtful era, under the headline package “Democracies end / when they are too democratic. / And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” Or, in the URL, “america-tyranny-donald-trump.html.”
It runs more than 7,500 words, of which “Plato’s Republic” and “first read it in graduate school” are among the first, and “Trump is an extinction-level event” are among the last. In between, Sullivan explains that the rise of Donald Trump is a phenomenon of “late-stage democracy”: The old sources of meaning and authority have collapsed under the weight of “maximal freedom and equality,” allowing one member of the corrupt ruling elite to cynically rouse the masses against the very system that has empowered those masses.
Discussing Donald Trump’s success as a matter of political philosophy and human nature is simultaneously canny and shameless, in Sullivan’s signature intellectual style. If we think of 21st-century America as the timeless polis, its problems foreseen by Plato, we don’t have to think of it as a product of late 20th century America, whose problems might have been foreseen, if not fostered, by Andrew Sullivan.
In our Platonic late-stage democracy, Sullivan writes, the masses have good reason to hate the elite. The elite class has presided over an assault on the dignity of the common folk. It has “disdain” for the white working class, Sullivan writes—a working class whose members “now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome.”
Outside the realm of symbol and abstraction, it’s an open question whether Trump is driven by working-class support at all. His supporters so far remain richer than those of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.
But Sullivan is invested in the idea of Trump’s supporters, a story that can be told about them. This political insurgency, he writes, should be understood as a result of “what Trump has masterfully signaled as ‘political correctness’ run amok...the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.”
By some lucky coincidence, as Sullivan’s account has it, the unprecedented American political crisis of Trumpism is the fault of the people Andrew Sullivan has been criticizing for decades. Trumpism is the work of the left—“the newly energized left,” the “Black Lives Matter left,” “the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown.”
The naive reader might wonder if it’s also possible, or even more plausible, to locate the origins of Trump’s right-wing populism in right-wing politics. Consider Sullivan’s brief historical and sociological recap of how the working class fell into crisis and despair:
The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization—the church, the union hall, the VFW—have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet. No one asked them in the 1990s if this was the future they wanted. And the impact has been more brutal than many economists predicted. No wonder suicide and mortality rates among the white working poor are spiking dramatically.
Andrew Sullivan, in 2016, is troubled by the loss of solidarity and meaning that the working class once found in the union hall. Here is Andrew Sullivan in 2013, describing the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the politician who defined his own worldview:
[T]he massively powerful trade union movement worked every day to ensure that mediocrity was protected, individual achievement erased, and that all decisions were made collectively, i.e. with their veto....
[F]ew doubt she altered her country permanently, re-establishing the core basics of a free society and a free economy that Britain had intellectually bequeathed to the world and yet somehow lost in its own class-ridden, envy-choked socialist detour to immiseration.
I was a teenage Thatcherite, an uber-politics nerd who loved her for her utter lack of apology for who she was. I sensed in her, as others did, a final rebuke to the collectivist, egalitarian oppression of the individual produced by socialism and the stultifying privileges and caste identities of the class system.
And when it came to the brutal forces of globalization, the elites in the 1990s weren’t just failing to ask the American worker’s opinion. They were supplying their own opinions—for instance, on the cover of the October 11, 1993, edition of the New Republic, edited by Andrew Sullivan, where an editorial warned that a vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement would mark “an America looking inward rather than outward, governed by fear rather than reason.”
The centrist enthusiasm for NAFTA, and the New Republic’s editorial in particular, provoked Pat Buchanan—whose nativist 1992 candidacy was the prototype for Trump’s campaign—to respond in the Washington Post:
Our corporate elite is desperate for the investment guarantees Carlos Salinas has agreed to provide, so they can move factories and jobs south, with security, and to hell with the devastation caused to the communities left behind. “Merchants have no country,” wrote Jefferson, “the very ground they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.”
When Sullivan speaks broadly about how Trumpism arose from the fact that “many of us elites” were disastrously indifferent to the fate of the working class, what he means is “I, Andrew Sullivan, specifically.”
This doesn’t mean that Sullivan paid no mind to the proles at all. His politics may have disparaged their economic concerns, but it was finely attuned to their cultural resentments, or to what he imagined their cultural resentments to be. His magazine stood ready to warn white people that reverse racism was blocking them from opportunity, that lazy moochers were stealing welfare money from taxpayers, and that political correctness was stifling important truths, such as the possibility that black people might be genetically inferior to white people.
This was the outlook of a magazine ostensibly supporting the Democrats but terrorized by the popularity of Ronald Reagan, gripped by fear that the social changes of the ’60s and ’70s had pushed the silent majority too far. Sullivan rode that current to a position of fame and influence, a self-identified conservative doing business with self-identified liberal contrarians. It’s not entirely convincing for the editor of the leading hippie-punching journal to be shocked when people start punching hippies in real life.
Sullivan’s reading of the history goes the other way. “T]he great culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s have ended in a rout,” Sullivan writes now.
But who has routed whom? On gay marriage and marijuana legalization, the two social issues closest to Sullivan’s heart, the liberal side has triumphed or seems to be getting there. Abortion, meanwhile, is less and less available; affirmative action is ever more tightly constrained; benefits for the poor are so fully stigmatized that politicians feel free to attack food stamps. The appropriations budget of the National Endowment for the Arts is, adjusted for inflation, about half of what it was at its early ’90s peak. The same morning that Sullivan’s essay on excessive democracy hit the newsstands, the New York Times had yet another front-page story about the ever-expanding Republican effort to make voting more difficult.
The culture wars are defined by which battles their leaders choose to fight. Sullivan, stepping up to do his long-form civic duty, warns that if the Democrats are going to stop Donald Trump, the supporters of “the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders,” must soften their attacks on Hillary Clinton, while Clinton must steer away from “identity politics” and “address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class.”
One problem with “long-form” writing is that it has a lot of words in it, and it’s hard to keep track of all of them. If Andrew Sullivan truly considers Bernie Sanders a “demagogue,” then why did he spend so much time and effort warning about the singular menace of Donald Trump? Meanwhile the word “white,” in that passage, seems to have stuck itself right in between “anxieties of the” and “working class.” What is it doing there? Maybe Andrew Sullivan could pause for another 15 or 16 months and try to figure it out.