One reason why we’re so absorbed by what’s happening in Washington DC


The real decadence here is societal. Had recent events in the US — the mob insurrection, the country’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — occurred elsewhere, we’d likely be talking about the country as a failed state. What kind of society, what kind of culture, makes it possible for the world’s greatest power to break down like this?

Not for a moment am I saying that Trump can be let off the hook. But it’s all too convenient to explain everything as Trump’s doing. He has been as much a symptom as a cause of American democratic failure. In a democracy, you get the leaders you deserve. Or put another way, in a democracy, governments can resemble the collective soul writ large.

In this case, the Trump administration has embodied a particular American cultural current. Trumpian narcissism, far from merely reflecting the idiosyncrasies of Donald, has projected a certain strand of American culture. Trump’s political personality was cultivated not only through The Apprentice and Twitter, but through the carnivalesque circus of professional wrestling. To his supporters, he represents the pinnacle of their cultural aspirations: a television celebrity, enjoying all the trappings of wealth and unencumbered by decorum.

As a figure, Trump is individualistic self-absorption par excellence. He exemplifies what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”.

Yet his appeal spreads well beyond the US. Trump is arguably as much a product of the culture of global capitalism as he is of America, though the two are naturally difficult to disentangle. Apart from the obvious sway that the US has on global affairs, this is one reason why we’re so absorbed by what’s happening in Washington DC. It may be American politics, but it feels intimately familiar.

Like it or not, the culture from which Trumpism sprang is also one we share. It’s not just that within our politics and media we have our own figures who ape MAGA, who are intent on spreading hatred and disinformation. It’s that we understand all too well the enabling conditions of Trumpian excess: the celebration of mindless individualism, the indulgence of frivolity and narcissism, the melding of entertainment and politics.

Illustration: Simon Bosch

Illustration: Simon BoschCredit:SMH

If the problem is decadence, it may not be an exclusively American malaise. A moral complacency, a tendency for instant gratification, an inability to achieve systemic progress, a loss of common purpose: these are arguably all present in Australian public life. Granted, there are obvious differences between Australia and the US. Our largely commendable national response to COVID-19 points to some structural resilience. But we, too, show signs of social decay amidst abundance and strength.

We see it in our stalled response to climate change. We see it in the lack of political accountability for lies, misconduct and maladministration. We see it in the constant calls for a return to Hawke-Keating style reforms, a sign of imaginative exhaustion. And we see it in the repetitive rituals of performative outrage that punctuate our culture wars.

Then again, it may just be that the lessons of Trump are more elementary and timeless. Trump’s threat to democracy was forewarned long ago.

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In The Republic, Plato cautioned against the inherent weaknesses of democracy. Democracy removed all barriers to equality, but in doing so exposes the polity to the passions of the mob. Democratic regimes are prone to slipping into tyranny, as the people are liable to seduction by demagogues who manipulate their anger: “Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery.”

Plato was, of course, no democrat. But his warning — one the American Founding Fathers took seriously when they framed the US Constitution — is still worth heeding. It’s one good reason why democracies are most stable when they are limited. Why representative, liberal democracy is better than unqualified, direct democracy. There is, you might say, a paradox that is critical to the success of modern democracy. While the democratic impulse abolishes all distinctions and inequalities, it still requires the support of elites. Elites matter because democracy needs its guardians, and sometimes the people fail.

Right now, those elites in the US have an opportunity to set things right again. Trump should be impeached or removed from office, and prosecuted for his incitement of insurrection. Just as Trump’s success in the US emboldened aspiring tyrants and fascists elsewhere, his defeat and punishment may just be what democracy around the world needs right now.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and professor at the University of Sydney.

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