he most striking aspect of the rise and reign of Donald Trump has been his unabashed display of vulgarity and the ease (so far) with which he gets away with it. “Vulgar,” a term of condescension, is not often heard in democracies, where it most applies. It certainly applies to The Donald. The brazen insults he strewed along his path to the presidency were more than enough to deserve the plain name of vulgar. His success despite them suggests something even more upsetting than Trump himself: that his vulgar manliness was not a drag but an advantage.
The whole Trump phenomenon, both the man and the people he appeals to, reminds us of the vulgarity in democracy. Or more, of human vulgarity—since disrespect for the high and mighty can have universal appeal.
We now treat democracy as unquestionably the best, sometimes as the only, form of government. That was not the case in the classical political science of the Greeks. They held democracy in far lower esteem. For Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Plutarch, democracy was typified by the figure of the demagogue, the democratic leader. This man was hasty, angry, impulsive, brash, and punitive; he sought the favor of those like himself, the demos, the hoi polloi (the many). He opposed men of quality, nobles, aristocrats, or gentlemen, and accused them of being enemies of the people, the majority for whom he spoke. The “people” was considered in the classical conception to be just a part of the whole, the majority part to be sure, but it was not a term that included everyone: The demos was quantity against quality, the many versus the few, in practice the poor versus the rich.
The American Founders, building on the philosophy of liberalism, expanded the conception of the people so that “popular government” could include everyone. James Madison made a famous distinction (one that used to be taught in high-school civics) between “democracy”—meaning pure democracy dominated by the demos and subject to “majority faction”—and “republic,” which was based on representation and structured with separation of powers and federalism. In our republican system, the demos would be required to govern through electing the few and be kept diverse and scattered to help keep them moderate. The Founders saw to it that their popular republic would provide for government by people like themselves—no longer aristocrats or nobles but still the few, and that the American people would have those Founders for heroes, rather than vicious characters like Robespierre or naive agitators like Tom Paine, who spoke and acted for the demos.
They wanted to spare the new nation from rule by the demagogue, a vulgar man who appealed to vulgar people on the level of a vulgar manliness with the traits of the demagogue. Vulgar is not always bad, though today we avoid using the term out of concern for the self-esteem of the vulgar. (“Plebeian” can occasionally be heard, but never politically.) Hillary Clinton could speak of “deplorables,” but to condemn them as “vulgar” might have excused them from the easy remedy for being deplorable, which was to vote for the Democrats.
Vulgar people can be honest and good-hearted, but they are susceptible to passion and impatience. Madison wanted a government that would “refine and enlarge” opinions of the people, that is, the vulgar. The moderate republic—now called by the name of what it replaced, democracy—would, with the consent of the vulgar, take power from the hands of the vulgar.
The result was a Constitution that makes use of the talents and virtues of the few, especially their ambition. With its complex structure, the Constitution supplies many avenues of ambition in politics, and outside politics, it suffuses the spirit of ambition everywhere in our society. Ambition is the desire to excel, to be outstanding above the normal satisfactions of ordinary people. In our democracy, the popular desire to “get ahead” is normal and imparts a modicum of ambition to all. All of us have learned to live with enlightened innovation rather than custom, and we do not yearn for the settled comfort of aristocracy. But still some want to get ahead by rising to the top or at least by having an “impact.” This sort of ambition is democratic in origin and hostile to the aristocrats. Yet those who possess it still strive to be above the rest of the democrats. Wanting to have an impact on the world puts you in the natural legion of the few.
onald Trump is one of these few, ambitious if nothing else. In fact, there is little else to him. Though the son of a rich man, he has the outrageous coarseness of a vulgar man. He appeals to such men and to women who like manly men. These are his audience, and they are not put off by his departures from decorum. Far from it: They appreciate his lack of good taste, of good manners, of gentlemanliness, of protocol, and of tact. His boldness in going beyond the boundaries of decency they interpret as “telling it like it is”—as if honesty were found mainly in company with indecency, and plain talk were the same as blurting lies.
Though rich (but just how rich?), Trump is not a philanthropist who wishes to elevate our democracy with magnificent gifts, like Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. He does not support the fine arts or education, apart from founding Trump University, a failed monument to the profit motive. He dresses in a dark suit, wearing an aggressive tie, and does not try to hide his uncommon wealth with presumptuous informality like the techie billionaires. He does this and gets away with it, because he knows that he retains close contact with his supporters: He uses his wealth in vulgar display just as they would. He made his name in Reality TV and lost some of his wealth in the operation of casinos. And speaking of his name, he has branded all his enterprises with the name of Trump, apparently believing that his every activity deserves the highest honor he can bestow.
Along with the tremendous value of Trump’s name, however, goes his insistence that everyone recognize it. His thin skin and amazing touchiness show in his ready reactions to slights, let alone criticism. His egoism makes his psychology an easy read—his bluster opposed and counteracted by his sensitivity. Unlike the truly manly male, who hardly notices and cares little for how he is received by others, Trump demands universal love as the reward for his just denunciations and wise observations. In this he is closer to the sensitive male than to the manly male, and differs from the former only by his optimism that women will like him for his candor.
His outrageous comments on the newscaster Megyn Kelly’s menstrual condition or on his 2016 rival Carly Fiorina’s supposed homeliness, set a record for rash behavior by a public figure in need of votes, perhaps causing, for all he knew or cared, a permanent breach in the bounds of decorum. But it did not appear that he suffered much for it in the women’s vote. With such rashness one would expect an appropriate insensitivity, a devil-may-care approach to public esteem—but not at all, he wants it just the same. His vulgar manliness wants to mask his obvious yearning for indiscriminate love, and of course doesn’t succeed. The fawning demagogue in him prevails over the impression he wants to convey of brash independence.
Yet he won the election, as he keeps reminding us. He’s a winner, and the vulgar love a winner. This fact invites us to infer that he might have a planned policy of swagger as opposed to an uncontrollable impulse. Ordinary people, decent though they may be, are impressed by extraordinary daring. They stand amazed at sensational violations of decency. So, if we are to accept the hypothesis of his Machiavellian shrewdness, we could suppose that Trump has deliberately chosen a strategy of speaking beyond normal bounds, one designed to impress ordinary folk and at the same time to dismay the elite who kept expecting that he would pay, as they would, for having gone too far. This fits with the classical demagogue, who roused the demos against the nobles or gentlemen, and Trump has used the same method against the leaders of both parties. As do all trendy folk, Trump has called these leaders the “Establishment,” taking them as a collectivity and using the name given them by the New Left in the late Sixties.
Edmund Burke in the 18th century spoke of “establishments” in the plural of the British constitution, such as the Church, the lawyers, the universities, the nobility—all unelected authorities supplying stability and guidance to a free society. By contrast, the single Establishment of the New Left, picked up by Trump, is an accusation of malignant stagnation in a free society. The term “elite” has a mixed history, good and bad, of describing the democratic replacement for the aristocratic few. In America now, the “elite” and the “Establishment” refer principally to elected officials, present or past, as well as to institutions, like the media, that have power because they have popular favor. It is strange to denounce them to the people who have chosen them, and particularly as if they were a single conspiracy when our parties seem to be so deeply at odds and said to be “polarized.”
s Trump had it during his election campaign, our parties are together against us, yet so divided against each other as to be unable to act. He seems quite uninterested in the liberal/conservative debate, or indeed in any debate. But he found one point to attack that no other politician had seen: political correctness. Here was a well-known mind-set with practices and policies carried out and defended by Democrats, often criticized, but not by politicians. No Republican had had the cleverness to see and the boldness to exploit the weakness in political correctness. This was the name Trump gave to the general political strategy of Democrats to designate vulnerable groups, “minorities and women,” for special favor in jobs, honors, and benefits. This strategy of inclusiveness was designed to help win elections by the simple addition of vulnerable groups taught to vote by their identity, following the example of black voters.
Trump noticed that the policy of inclusiveness, in cases such as affirmative action, was actually including some by excluding others not officially identified as vulnerable—particularly white voters. Without saying so—for in this Trump was cautious and prudent—he began to mobilize a white community to match the long-existing “black community,” thus turning the strategy of identity against itself. It was now Trump voters who were encouraged to think themselves marginalized. One could call this racism only if the “inclusive” policy of the Democrats were also termed racism. Surely, however, Trump was not calling on the finer feelings of the electorate. In a democratic age without nobles to serve as targets, the demagogue has to operate against some of the people in order to claim to act on behalf of those forgotten. Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, has made a study of forgotten whites in Bayou Louisiana that nicely describes Trump voters before they voted for him. They were resentful, like departing airline passengers, of having to stand in line and watch other preferred groups waved ahead of them.
The Establishment, according to Trump, had made us losers; he would make America great again. Democrats had forgotten America in their preoccupation with its separate identities, and their desire to come to the aid of the vulnerable at home induced them to prefer the vulnerable abroad. America was too successful, too much a winner, the Establishment (or at least its Democratic branch) believed. America’s greatness was due to its exploitation of weaker countries, not to its virtue; its greatness was lacking in goodness. Best to apologize, and so lead the world after all in apologizing for human exploitation of nature. Nature needs protection from us (humans), and we must seek means of “sustainability” to enable it to return to functioning on its own for our good.
All this—the politics and philosophy of Barack Obama and his liberals—was fresh meat for Trump. But the hectoring manner in which they were conveyed—the schoolmarm political correctness that admonishes rather than argues—was still more inviting. Whereas the liberal policy of affirmative action was designed to help blacks, the liberal affectation of political correctness came from feminism. The feminism we know, like the New Left dating from the late Sixties, made its way through “raising consciousness,” by correcting the bias of language favoring men so as to put across a gender neutrality that favored neither sex. Of course in practice, and when combined with affirmative action, achieving gender neutrality required a massive societal feminization that was the reverse of neutral.
Political correctness, originally from feminism, now applies to blacks as well, particularly to the way whites are required to address blacks. Blacks are allowed the privileges of vulgar manliness that are denied to the rest of the population. If only black men would preach manliness, refined or not, to the rest of the population! But they are content with their own freedom and, with manly contempt of others, do not seek to justify it more generally.
Thus it was left to Donald Trump alone to attack political correctness and come to the defense of vulgar manliness. He does this not with argument but with outrageous behavior meant to be offensive. As a demagogue, he seeks direct contact with the people. He wants to bypass the media, the parties, and the Constitution that try to control and limit his contact and claim the right, whether formal or informal, to stand between him and the people. As methods of direct contact, Trump used old-fashioned rallies in his campaign rather than informal meetings; he sends tweets to all indiscriminately rather than addressing people through the media; and he features shocking talk and behavior rather than conventional politeness and respect. His desire is to transgress normal boundaries, especially those of political correctness, and thus to capture attention.
His boastfulness seems stupid, and it is, but it makes people think that because he is bold, he is more honest and more truthful than those who hesitate and formulate. His offhand lies are not meant to be accurate but rather to display the lack of restraint that seems to be more truthful than the uptight rectitude of the fact-checker. His vulgar insults betray the absence of wit and the rejection of humor and irony in his flat soul; he is always serious and yet always exaggerates.
In sum, Donald Trump reflects and connects to the vulgar manliness in the American (or any) people. He is demotic rather than democratic, intuitive himself in finding what is instinctive in us. The American Founders made a Constitution for a popular republic that would resist the ills of all previous republics, which had exposed government to the vagaries and impulses of the vulgar. Instead, our republic would “refine and enlarge” the popular will through representative institutions that contain and employ the ambition of the few, and that supply the whole with the “cool and deliberate sense of the community.”
The Founders made a constitutional democracy with, among other things, an electoral college, of which Trump took full advantage, that was meant to keep people like him from ever winning office. Well, every human institution for good can be abused for ill. And not only Trump supporters but all of us must hope that even a demagogue can bring good. Perhaps what is demotic can refresh, rather than degrade, what is democratic. It is one good thing at least to be reminded of the difference between the vulgar and the refined.
Or have I not just said that this difference too is very much in question?