No politician speaks for 'the people.' And certainly not Donald Trump.
Donald Trump has never exceeded 50 percent in a reputable national poll. He only rarely comes in above 45 percent. If he somehow manages to prevail in the general election, it will be because Hillary Clinton's numbers have collapsed, pushing her to even lower levels of popular support and leaving Trump with a plurality of the votes.
Somehow, this hasn't kept Trump's intellectual apologists from claiming that Trump's campaign is championing and channeling the will of "the people."
In a response to anti-Trump critics, the pseudonymous Publius Decius Mus proclaims that Trump "is asserting the right of the sovereign people to make their government do what they want it to do." Decius likewise states that Trump "is trying to do something fundamentally constitutional... He wants to assert the right of the sovereign American people to control their government, which is the core constitutional principle." (Decius elaborates on the point in yet another essay, this one directed specifically at me for my own previous criticisms of his position.)
Pro-Trump international relations scholar Angelo Codevilla goes further (in an essay ominously titled "After the Republic"), asserting that once "the ruling class" chose "raw power over law and persuasion, the American people reasonably concluded that raw power is the only way to counter it, and looked for candidates who would do that," with Trump ending up as the people's ultimate choice.
To some extent, all democratic politicians claim the mantle of the people, contending constantly that "the American people agree with me about x, y, and z." But the Trump apologists go one big step beyond that, to claim that Trump's supporters express and channel the will or desires of "the sovereign people" as a whole — and this despite the undeniable fact that Trump does not even command the support of 50 percent of the country, that Clinton nearly always comes in ahead of Trump in opinion polls, and that the previous two elections delivered majority victories to Democrat Barack Obama, who now enjoys approval ratings of roughly 55 percent.
How can it be that Trump speaks for "the sovereign people" when more than half of the country withholds its support from him and instead supports his political opponents?
As Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Müller argues in his indispensible new book What Is Populism? (which I had a hand in publishing), this contradiction runs through the heart of populist politics. Müller writes: "Populists claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people."
Trump himself expressed precisely this paradoxical vision of the people at a campaign rally in May, announcing to the roaring crowd that "the only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don't mean anything."
The founding father of this populist form of politics is not James Madison or Abraham Lincoln but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century political philosopher who suggested that politics gains legitimacy, and genuine freedom becomes possible, when a lawgiver taps into and channels "the general will" of the people.
Rousseau was quite explicit that the general will cannot be determined by majority vote or any other quantitative measure, like an opinion poll (however accurate), because the individuals who collectively constitute the people can be wrong about the character and content of the general will. It is therefore up to the lawgiver himself to make that determination on behalf of the people as a whole — to identify the general will, give it expression, and embody it in his words and in his deeds.
In this respect, the lawgiver represents the people more perfectly — more authentically, more absolutely — than any mere legislative representative ever could. If some portion of the people fails to recognize and affirm the general will for what it is, that is a sign that those individuals have failed to overcome their partial and self-interested points of view to embrace the good of all. In doing so, they demonstrate that they no longer properly belong to the people and (in the ultimate paradox) may need to be "forced to be free."
Whether or not they're fully aware of it, this is the populist logic that Trump and his intellectual apologists are following in their talk about Trump giving voice to "the sovereign people."
To which the classically liberal response is to point out that there is no general will, only a common good, the content of which is always provisional, always subject to debate, revision, and dissent. No person or group or party, no lawgiver, is capable of achieving the objectivity — the view from nowhere — that would make it possible to grasp the common good with indisputable certainty and completeness. All we have are competing claims among clashing parties and interests, each of which defines the common good somewhat differently, and no one of which can ever be said to have articulated it completely or expressed it so fully that others can be legitimately excluded from the next round of civic disputation.
Election results — as well as public opinion polls — help to tame the desire to identify one's own position, or the position of one's preferred candidate, with the general will of the people. That's because election and poll results remind us that large numbers of our fellow citizens preferred an outcome other than the one that prevailed. Nearly every "mandate" proclaimed by a victorious politician is, at most, an expression of the will of somewhat more than half (and sometimes less than half) of the people who participated in the election. As for those who wanted another person, another party, another set of policies, they must resign themselves to their defeat and hope that the winner will govern with humility, aware that his or her power rests on a foundation more partial and more partisan than rhetoric about "the sovereign people" sometimes made it seem.
To deny this — to identify one's own construal of the common good with the common good as such — is a recipe for the political illiberalism of authoritarian rule or civil war.
The argument over the common good never ends. Which is why the presumption on the part of some political actors (and their cheerleaders) that it can be definitively settled by a tribune who alone speaks for "the sovereign people" needs to be strenuously resisted.