President Trump's approval rating has sunk to historic lows. No president has hit an average of 38 percent this early in his first term. Those of us who are prone to despair at the disaster of the Trump administration are told to take solace in this fact.
This is dead wrong — a product of analysts insisting on judging the 45th president by the same standards that applied to previous occupants of the White House when no such comparison is warranted.
The politically relevant, and profoundly disturbing, fact is precisely the opposite of the conventional wisdom: After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump's approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.
That is simply stunning — and reveals just how precarious American democracy has become.
We insulate ourselves from this ominous reality by focusing so much of our attention on the genuinely outrageous way the president and his staff shred political norms, foster corruption, and diverge from the rule of law on a daily, if not an hourly, basis. We also rightly highlight how the White House and the president's Cabinet appointees are spreading dysfunction throughout the executive branch.
As important and depressing as these developments are, they actually encourage unearned optimism, convincing critics that the core of the problem is confined to Trump and his associates. This implies that things will return to normal, and the nation will awake from its political nightmare, as soon as the Trump administration comes to an end — either three and a half years from now, or sooner, if the president is removed by some other constitutional means.
I wouldn't bet on it. There are abundant signs that Trump’s victory has heralded a new era in American politics — one in which American political culture has swung free from the constraints and expectations of established liberal-democratic norms and patterns, lurching in the direction of outright demagogic-authoritarian spectacle. The very real possibility is that the United States is ceasing to be a liberal democracy and is evolving into some other form of government. And the change is being accompanied by, and to some extent driven by, a change in the political psychology of the American voter.
Mid-20th-century empirical research into the "authoritarian personality" has been justly criticized for being overly blunt and ahistorical. But the social scientists who contributed to this research made a valid assumption that we too often, and too quickly, reject. They presumed, as did Plato before them, that it's possible to note parallels between the form of government that prevails in a given time and place and the souls or psyches of citizens who live under it. When a form of government changes, the character of the country's citizens changes along with it. And it can work in the opposite direction as well: When the character of a democracy's citizens undergoes certain kinds of transformations, the form of government they elect and empower will likewise evolve — or devolve.
Americans ignore this symbiotic connection between citizen and state because we like to think of ourselves as self-made — and because we take liberal democracy completely for granted. We think of it as a given, as natural as gravity or breathing. But of course it isn't. Human history is awash in non-democratic, non-liberal forms of government. Those liberal democracies that exist today needed to be brought into being, and they persist by cultivating citizens who exhibit distinct civic habits — among them, an openness to empiricism, a balancing of moral certainties with toleration and skepticism, a willingness to either become informed about sometimes complicated issues of policy or defer to representatives who will make decisions about those issues with an eye to the public good.
When these and other liberal-democratic habits shift in an illiberal or anti-democratic direction, a government will become something other than liberal and democratic. Such slippage has been taking place in recent years, with lots of variation in details, in such disparate places as Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, and Poland.
And now it looks like something similar has begun in the United States.
Aside from Donald Trump's Electoral College victory and surprisingly high approval ratings, we can see further evidence of a drifting away from liberal democracy in a recent poll that shows an astonishing 45 percent of Republicans would support "permitting the courts to shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate." This comes just two years after another poll showed that 51 percent of Democrats (along with 37 percent of Republicans) would support outlawing "hate speech."
The problem with both policies is that what constitutes "bias" and "hate speech" is not self-evident. Is a news report on CNN that makes President Trump look foolish an example of "bias"? If the Trump administration were empowered to make that call, it may well decide that the network had crossed a line and act against it — which would of course be an act of blatant authoritarianism.
And what about a Christian opinion columnist with traditional views of sexual morality who writes critically about same-sex marriage? Does that constitute "hate speech"? And if so, what about those same-sex-marriage advocates who furiously denounce this same conservative columnist in the harshest terms? Haven't they engaged in "hate speech" as well? If not, why not? And would those on both sides of the issue recognize the legitimacy of the criteria used to make the determination? The difficulty in doing so is why wisely governed liberal democracies proceed very cautiously in placing any strong limits on what speech is legally permissible.
Then there's the prospect of rock musician and celebrity Kid Rock running for and winning a Senate seat from Michigan — an effort that may well augur a slew of celebrity political campaigns, with everyone from Kanye West to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson contemplating runs for the presidency and other public offices. That would go even further in transforming American politics into a form of sleazy entertainment, a glitzy diversion, like pro wrestling or a full-immersion video game disconnected from policy or even consequences, amounting to little more than a denunciation-fueled performance designed to distract Americans from their own unhappy lives and the reality of who's really profiting behind the scenes.
We don't yet have a name for this kind of politics, which is some curious blend of authoritarianism and technology-facilitated spectacle. But whatever we end up calling it, it may well be our American future.