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The Real Case for Donald Trump Is About Justice

In “The Golden Bough,” his masterwork of comparative religion, James Frazer surveyed the customs according to which divinely sanctioned monarchs were relieved — sometimes violently — of their sacred office. As soon as such a ruler showed signs of weakness, suggesting that his godly powers were on the wane, he “must be killed,” Frazer observed, “and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired by the threatened decay.”

Alas, this seamless transfer of power, Frazer wrote, was not always successful or even possible: If the chieftain died of merely natural causes or if an unworthy heir succeeded to his position, the “soul” of the ruler would be “lost to his worshipers” and “their very existence endangered.”

Frazer’s magical dilemma — in which a tribe must decide whether to extirpate its head at the risk of losing its body — seems to me a much better framework for understanding Donald Trump’s future in American politics than the narrowly analytical language of electability and public surveys.

Considered in horse-race terms, Mr. Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, which he announced on Tuesday, seems to have been doomed by the recent midterm elections. The conspicuous failure of many of the candidates he endorsed suggests what recent polling had already hinted: He has lost his mojo. The commentariat has been almost uniform in its insistence that Mr. Trump has already been supplanted by Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who has distinguished himself in the culture wars with his opposition to lockdowns and his antagonism toward the educational establishment, and who managed to win re-election by an astonishingly wide margin.

There is, of course, a possible rebuttal to these arguments, even in our conventional political idiom. For one thing, we are years away from the election, and primary contests are often lost by the initial leaders in polls, as well as by the preferred candidates of party officials.

But this sort of concern seems to me beside the point. The real case for Mr. Trump — the one being made, however inchoately, by his supporters — has almost nothing to do with the handful of coherent positions he managed to articulate during the course of his two presidential campaigns, and even less to do with his actual record in office. For the former president’s loyalists, his claim to the G.O.P. nomination owes little to considerations about electability: It is a matter of justice, bound up in inexorable historical forces.

The logic of Mr. Trump’s appeal has always transcended the familiar frameworks according to which presidential candidates are evaluated. Conventionally we situate would-be commanders in chief somewhere along a continuum, with appeal to cross-party and independent voters on one end and acceptability to partisan voters on the other. Most of the time the nominees of both major parties are found somewhere in the middle.

Even before Mr. Trump secured his party’s nomination in 2016, his campaign was remarkably impervious to such questions as how he would fare with female suburban voters or his views on the provision of medical care. It was instead nakedly imperial. As the faux-rococo aesthetics of Trump Tower suggested, he was a hero from the Age of Revolution, a camp parody of Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte.

His views on public policy were less important than what he represented in the minds of his supporters and detractors alike. What he promised was nothing less than the total destruction of the established political order (from which he boasted of profiting), a remaking of American institutions in his own image on the scale of Bonaparte’s permanent reforms — upending the legal system, administration, banking and tax collection.

There was also something decidedly Bonapartist in the attitude of Mr. Trump’s early partisans, who seized upon his rhetoric about “American carnage” with the same eagerness that supporters of Bonaparte welcomed an end to the chaos of the immediate post-revolutionary era. Mr. Trump’s avowal of socially conservative causes seemed to carry roughly as much conviction as Bonaparte’s rapprochement with the Catholic Church, but in both cases doctrinal purity was not the point. The consolidation of power was.

On this understanding, Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020 was merely a kind of exile, with Mar-a-Lago as his Elba. Spied on by the federal government before the 2016 election, declared “illegitimate” as president by prominent members of the opposition party even before his inauguration, subject to a special counsel investigation (based on a patently absurd theory of Russian “collusion”) and two impeachments, announced as a loser in an election in which he won 11 million more votes than he had in 2016 (despite state-level rule changes that benefited his rival), Mr. Trump found himself assailed by a domestic counterrevolution that he could not overcome. “Stop the steal” was not a precise theory about voter fraud but an existential affirmation of Mr. Trump’s thwarted prerogative. Vive L’Empereur!

What Trumpists have intuited is an essentially illiberal understanding of authority, one based not upon the deliberative processes of electoral majorities but upon a romantic conception of a leader who embodies the essence of a nation. They believe that he should be restored to his office because it belongs to him, regardless of who currently occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His right to rule is not diminished by temporary abeyance because it is derived not from the Electoral College or the written Constitution but from something like history itself. Trump the emperor was the world-soul descending the escalator, the instrument of the Absolute who realized the unconscious aspirations of his age.

This, I think, is why for Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic partisans, his faults are not merely excusable but appear beneath discussion or even notice. Those features most commonly derided by his opponents — his economical relationship with facts, his disregard for procedural norms, his ambivalent attitude toward the separation of powers, his rhetorical fixation on the supposed perfidy of his opponents — confirm that he is the man of destiny whose conduct cannot be evaluated by ordinary standards.

In his “Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Hegel contended that truly revolutionary figures are by necessity heedless of society’s niceties. “A world-historical individual,” he wrote (with Bonaparte very much in mind), “is devoted to the one aim, regardless of all else.” Hegel accepted as a matter of course that such a figure would “treat other great, even sacred interests, inconsiderately” and “trample down many an innocent flower, crush to pieces many an object in its path.”

Precisely how large a share of the Republican primary electorate is made of earnest Old Hegelians is very much an open question. In rural southwest Michigan, I can attest, Trump flags and signs are ubiquitous, just as they were two years ago. Here in the provinces, at any rate, the strength of the emperor’s cause appears undiminished.

Will the support of the local restorationist clubs be enough to persuade those who attend the influential republican salons of the capital to give Mr. Trump his own version of Napoleon’s Hundred Days? Will the cult of the 45th presidency one day establish itself, as Bonapartism did in France, as the default ideology of the politically disengaged working and middle classes? In answer to such fearful queries, polls are unlikely to be of much use.

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