The single most ominous thing that Donald Trump said in all three presidential debates was a misguided attempt at a quip: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” Moderator Chris Wallace, of course, had posed what would normally be the ultimate softball question for any presidential candidate: Would he accept the results of the election? And even after all his rhetoric about the “rigged” election, even with his increasingly urgent warnings about voter fraud, Trump’s answer came as a jolt. Because it happened in a debate, not during one of his rabble-rousing rallies, it felt like an official declaration that the GOP presidential nominee was prepared to incite a legitimacy crisis rather than accept that he’s lost to a woman.
As always with Trump, the temptation is to interpret this apostasy through the lens of individual psychology. The diagnosis is easy enough: By discounting the election results beforehand, Trump was preemptively assuming the role of a sore loser, exhibiting an irresponsible peevishness all too characteristic of his runaway narcissism and his sexism—and bringing the yahoos of the Republican base along with him.
Yet such a personalized account of Trump’s behavior has the effect of letting his political party and his supporters off the hook. Not just for supporting him, but for sharing his grim view of American democracy.
Public-opinion polling shows that Trump’s low opinion of American elections has practically become Republican Party orthodoxy. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Friday, Republicans have an “unprecedented” level of “concern and mistrust in the system.” Roughly 70 percent of Republican voters believe that if Hillary Clinton wins the election, it’ll be due to fraud. In both this poll and an NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, only half of Republicans say they’d accept a Clinton victory. (In the latter poll, by contrast, 82 percent of Democrats said they would accept a Trump victory.)
This suspicious Republican electorate is joined by growing ranks of conservative politicians, pundits, and intellectuals. They’re all increasingly willing to say that the existing American political system is hopelessly flawed and needs to be rolled back to the days before blacks and women could vote. On the most obvious level, this can be seen in moves by Republican governors all over America to make voting more difficult, through stringent voting ID laws, new hurdles to registration, and the curtailment of early-voting options. Equally significant has been the gutting of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act by conservative Supreme Court justices in the 2013 Shelby Country v. Holder ruling.
But these overt forms of voting suppression are merely the most visible manifestations of a larger questioning of democracy on the political right. Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric—and the eagerness of so many good, white patriotic Americans to cheer it and believe it—is a symptom of the larger trend on the political right toward doubting the legitimacy of the American system. The question we need to be asking isn’t, “Why is Trump being such a jerk?” It’s, “Why is the American Right giving up on democracy?”
The anti-democratic trend transcends the usual divisions on the right. It’s been spreading in recent decades among conservative intellectuals, libertarian legal thinkers, religious conservatives, secular libertarians, and religious conservatives. You hear it from Trump fans and #NeverTrumpers alike.
Suspicion of the democratic system is so pervasive on the right because it’s driven by the fear that white Christian America is facing demographic doom. The evidence is right there in the election results: Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and if current polling trends hold, the GOP will be batting one for seven when the results come in on November 8. Thanks to gerrymandering, Republicans may hold on to a U.S. House majority for a while, and they’ll remain competitive in state capitols in the near future. But a whites-only party can’t win national elections. And over time, the GOP’s congressional and state fortresses will crumble if the party doesn’t change dramatically. Or if the democratic system doesn’t change dramatically.
As conservative writer Byron York noted in the Washington Examiner in May, there’s been an upsurge on the right of calls for “a test for voting, limited-participation elections, condemnations of democracy in general.” The anti-democratic measures have been taken up with especial fervor by anti-Trump writers like David Harsanyi, Jonah Goldberg, and Keven D. Williamson, all frequent contributors to The National Review.
Harsanyi, senior editor at The Federalist and author of the book The People Have Spoken (And They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy, is one of the most forthright voices. In a May 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post, he called for “weeding out millions of irresponsible voters who can’t be bothered to learn the rudimentary workings of the Constitution, or their preferred candidate’s proposals or even their history.” That way, he said, “we may be able to mitigate the recklessness of the electorate.” In effect, Harsanyi is calling for a return to old-style literacy tests once used to uphold Jim Crow disenfranchisement. But he assures readers that his proposed test wouldn’t have that kind of discriminatory effect, since it “would ensure that all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations and people of every socioeconomic background are similarly inhibited from voting when ignorant.”
While Harsanyi has been adamantly anti-Trump, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has been one of Trump’s biggest supporters, speaking on behalf of the real estate mogul at the Republican National Convention and donating $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign. Still, there’s one area where Harsanyi and Thiel can agree: Neither is a fan of mass-enfranchisement. The libertarian Thiel worries that a wide franchise puts power in the hands of groups who don’t value the free market—namely, welfare beneficiaries and women.
Writing in the Cato Unleashed blog in 2009, Thiel lamented the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the vote. “The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics,” Thiel wrote. “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”
Thiel’s disdain for democracy has roots in a long tradition among hardcore libertarians who have a tendency to prefer dictatorships that ensure property rights to social democracies that tax the rich and provide welfare to the masses. This is why prominent libertarians like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek supported right-wing dictators, ranging from Mussolini (Mises) to Pinochet (Hayek). The most recent heir to the tradition of Mises and Hayek is the economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and occasional associate of Thiel. Hoppe’s book, Democracy: The God That Failed, argues that monarchy is preferable to modern mass democracy.
Beyond the musings of Thiel and Hoppe, libertarian legal scholars are pushing to use the courts to limit democratic sovereignty over the economy. As Brian Beutler reported in the New Republic last year, conservative legal theory is increasingly being influenced by the work of Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett, a radical libertarian who wants to revive the legal tradition found in cases like Lochner v. New York (1905), which would render much government welfare policy since the late 1930s as unconstitutional.
Lochnerism is a fundamentally anti-democratic legal doctrine rooted in the idea that property rights should override laws made by democratically elected officials. As University of Michigan legal scholar Sam Bagenstos notes, a full embrace of Lochnerism would scuttle Obamacare and much more: “Laws guaranteeing workers the right to join a union without being fired, and the right to earn a minimum wage and receive overtime if working more than 40 hours a week, laws protecting worker safety, and laws protecting workers and customers against discrimination based on race or other protected statuses, just for starters.” Just for starters.
While the libertarian turn against democracy is aimed at preserving free-market capitalism, some leading religious conservatives have a different worry: the loss of Christian cultural hegemony. Back in 1999, First Things, a journal of the religious right, hosted a symposium called “The End of Democracy?” that was a precursor of things to come. Prominent Christians and Jews thrashed out the argument that American courts were so relentlessly secular that the entire political system might have to be overthrown. This was radical stuff. As editor Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
Despite Neuhaus’s demurrals that the symposium was only raising questions and not inciting revolution, it was criticized for doing exactly that. In the words of Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, the symposium gave “aid and comfort ... to the bomb-throwers among us.” Seventeen years later, the ranks of those bomb-throwers has swelled.
Neuhaus framed his speculation on the need for “regime change” in terms of worries about judicial overreach, but there was a more fundamental concern: the disappearance of a god-fearing nation built on Judeo-Christian values. The fact that Bill Clinton, who Neuhaus regarded as an ardent secularist and “probably ... a rapist,” had been twice elected president (and had only grown more popular after impeachment) was raising alarms that America was losing its Christian identity.
Over the last few years, it’s become evident that the First Things symposium was no outlier, but rather an early symptom of the religious right starting to think outside the American political system for solutions. More recently, a virtual Vladimir Putin cult has arisen among religious conservatives longing for a return to cultural purity. Putin’s macho bearing, his hostility to LGBT rights, and his fusion of nationalism with support for the Russian Orthodoxy all make him an attractive figure to right-wing Christians disenchanted with Obama’s socially liberal America.
Franklin Graham, heir to the most influential American evangelist, says Putin should be celebrated for taking “a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda,” even as “America’s own morality has fallen so far on this issue.” Rush Limbaugh cheers Putin for opposing “a full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy.” Religious Right stalward Bryan Fischer, host of the radio program Focal Point, has hailed Putin as a “lion of Christianity.” Sam Rohrer, president of the America Pastors Network, calls the Russian president “the moral leader of the world.”
One of the few positives about Donald Trump’s run for president is that he’s forced us to see aspects of American culture that many instinctively turn away from. His success has made it much harder to fall into post-racial and post-feminist fantasies—to imagine that hardcore racism and sexism are marginal and declining forces. The same is true of anti-democratic sentiment, a growing threat that is frequently minimized if not utterly ignored.
Beyond this election, beyond even the fate of the Republican Party, there is a significant minority of Americans who are giving up on democracy because it doesn’t serve their purpose of upholding a white Christian patriarchy. Trump is merely a symptom of this problem, and even if he fades as a political force after the election, the underlying disease will remain, and indeed will likely spread. The threat to the American system is not an armed revolt after November 8, but the growing number of Americans who are convinced that only “regime change” can save capitalism, Christianity, and America itself.