Political systems come and go, but the political animal remains. No matter what historical era or region of the world you look at, you’ll find the same blind urges and anxieties lying just beneath the surface of public affairs. The election of President Donald Trump may have been something new in American history, but its underlying causes are as old as history itself.
Our ancestors may seem unfathomably strange in a lot of ways, but we inherited their frailties and desires—the same frailties and desires that molded their politics continue to shape ours. While the earliest civilizations did have state institutions to mediate those desires, state power only existed in its crudest, most naked form. The state itself was in its infancy.
That’s why ancient history is one of the best vantage points from which to view the subterranean forces moving beneath the state. And those same subterranean forces are what gave us Trump.
The invention of propaganda
If anyone invented politics, it was probably the Ancient Egyptians. Nearly three millennia before the birth of Christ, they created what University of Cambridge Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson has called “the world’s first nation-state.” Before the marriage of Upper and Lower Egypt circa 2950 BCE, communities had mostly been tied together by shared clan affiliations or regional proximity. The unified Egyptian state was the first political formation in the ancient world larger than one family or one small patch of land.
But a new type of social organization required a new kind of power to hold it together. And so the early pharaohs invented state propaganda.
History’s first known propaganda — “the first historical document in the world” according to Egyptologist Bob Brier — was the Narmer Palette, a siltstone tablet crafted some five thousand years ago. This advertisement for pharaohnic power depicts Narmer, the first ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt, holding a mace aloft and preparing to smite a vanquished enemy. The god Horus looms above Narmer’s victim.
This is Egyptian state power justified and affirmed in a single image. With the blessing of heaven, the pharaoh is shown to visit death upon Egypt’s enemies. That same blessing makes him divine, lifting him above death. And so the distinction between Egypt and the Other is shown to be the difference between immortality and imminent mortality.
That death-centric message suffused Ancient Egyptian politics throughout its 3,000 year lifespan. Even the pyramids at Giza — the greatest extant monuments to pharaonic might and history’s first great public construction projects — are tombs. These tombs were meant to symbolize the immortality of their tenants, but they also represented more than that. If the pharaohs possessed everlasting life, and the pharaohs were identified with the Egyptian state, that meant Egypt itself was was deathless. Anyone called an Egyptian, anyone who added to the strength and prosperity of Egypt in some small way, owned a piece of eternity.
This piece of eternity is known as “symbolic immortality” in terror management theory, a school of psychology that examines how fear of oblivion conditions human behavior. Terror management theorists believe anxiety over death is the driving force behind politics, art, literature, religion, science, and the rest of what we call civilization. In order to manage the terrible yet inescapable knowledge of our own impermanence, we seek out projects that offer us some promise of immortality, either literal or symbolic.
Egyptian state propaganda offers an unusually blunt promise of immortality, symbolic and sometimes literal, to its adherents. But virtually every other political regime has made the same promise in one form or another. Leaders throughout history have identified their regimes, explicitly or implicitly, with the will of the heavens. And even avowedly secular states have offered symbolic immortality in exchange for submission. Soviet Russia — ostensibly the model of a hyper-modernist and hyper-rationalist political project — established itself on the guarantee that its citizens would help further historical development and usher in the final climax of history.
America’s current regime offers a similar guarantee, with its own acronym: MAGA.
Donald Trump is a pharaoh of sorts.
His pyramids are the towers, resorts, and casinos that bear his name in capital gold letters. These are monuments to his fame and riches, which are key attributes of symbolic immortality. Having imbued himself with a secular, capitalist knockoff of the pharaoh’s divine spark, he ran a presidential campaign premised on extending it to his followers.
Trump’s ideology is more inchoate but no less potent than that of the pharaohs, drawing on a peculiarly American mélange of white populism,prosperity gospel, and the ethos of reality entertainment. The central promise of his campaign was that supporters would be part of a national effort to restore America’s tarnished glory — to Make America Great Again.
In order to legitimate this agenda, Trump has spoken to his base in language designed to provoke terror. During his inauguration speech, he invoked the threat of “American carnage” in metropolitan areas. He has suggested that Minnesota, due to its large Somali community, is under a foreign invasion. In vaguer terms, he has implied that non-white immigration to Sweden, France, and London has turned much of Western Europe into a dystopian nightmare.
Terror management theory researchers believe that this sort of language prompts unconscious anxiety over mortality. If the mythology of national greatness can provide a sense of meaning and narrative structure to individual lives — if it can give people a sense that they are part of something immortal — then a perceived end to that greatness can feel like a kind of personal extinction. To people who believe that America is intrinsically a white nation or a Christian nation, the end of white, Christian hegemony looks quite a bit like death itself.
Empirical research backs this up. In one recent experiment, terror management theorists “found that thinking about a mosque being built in one’s neighborhood increase DTA [death thought accessibility] as much as thinking about death” according to a book chapter co-authored by psychologists Florette Cohen, Sharlynn Thompson, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. Another study found that “thinking about immigrants moving into their neighborhoods increases DTA [among test subjects] as much as thinking about their own deaths.”
Death thought accessibility, in turn, fueled support for Trump’s presidential campaign. In 2015, early into the Republican presidential primary, Solomon found that prompting college students with reminders of their own mortality tended to make them more supportive of Trump’s candidacy.
Trump seized the White House by utilizing the oldest known recipe for legitimating political power: Cultivate an aura of immortality; remind your subjects of their own mortality by nourishing their fear of an alien Other; promise the extinction of that Other, and an escape from death’s shadow, in return for loyalty.
Or, as the president himself once said: I alone can fix it.
Whereas Narmer imposed order onto a vacuum, Trump’s achievement is that he discovered the vacuum beneath a facade of order.
The current President of the United States won office by appealing directly to an undercurrent of national terror. He would not have been able to do this absent the right conditions. Something needed to be happening under the surface of American civic life to make existential dread so deeply salient, so ripe to be exploited.
Political scientists have grappled with this vacuum by identifying a key point of institutional vulnerability in the American electoral system. According to experts like Julia Azari and Jacob T. Levy, Trump’s ascent can partly be attributed to historically weak party gatekeepers. Put another way, the Republican establishment is no longer strong enough to withstand an extremist takeover of the entire party apparatus. And once an extremist outsider is at the top of the ticket, the American public’s high levels of partisanship all but guarantee he’ll garner support from roughly half of the voting population.
It is true that national parties have lost much of their ability to select their own candidates and enforce discipline among the rank-and-file. But the rot goes far deeper than that. Many of the institutions that traditionally bind parties to their voters have also withered away.
Unions, houses of worship, community organizations, local business groups, and recreation centers once provided a certain amount of structure to the political life of towns and neighborhoods. They provided a crucial link between parties and communities, turning out votes and volunteers while also giving a collective voice to core party constituencies. This is obviously true of explicitly political organizations such as local unions, but even ostensibly non-political neighborhood hubs — such as, say, an art gallery— can serve this purpose in some form or another.
But many of these organizations have been decaying for decades, and American civic life has lost its shape as a result. Union membership has cratered over the past half century, dropping from 35 percent of workers in 1965 to barely 12 percent in recent years. Fewer Americans are regularly attending religious services; the percentage who stopped by more than “seldom” or “never” went from two-thirds to barely more than one half over the past two decades. Local businesses have ceded ground to impersonal chains in many parts of the country. And, as the sociologist Robert Putnam observed in his landmark work Bowling Alone, membership in other community groups has dropped off across the board.
Membership in particular community — any community — is not an inherent virtue, and maybe some of these institutions should be in decline. But in aggregate, the fragmentation of American civic life has demolished the basis for normal democratic politics. Sociologist Josh Pacewicz, writing for the Washington Post, recently suggested it may have played a decisive role in Trump’s 2016 sweep of the Rust Belt.
To be denied meaning is to live in a kind of agony.
In Pacewicz’s telling, based on his study of two cities in Iowa, Rust Belt politics were once defined by the clash between “feuding Democratic unionists and Republican business owners.”
“The older Rust Belters I interviewed used this community cleavage to make sense of politics,” wrote Pacewicz. “They overwhelmingly identified as working-class Democrats or (less commonly) business-class Republicans. When talking politics, they saw partisanship in their occupations, ways of spending leisure time and even neighborhoods.”
Devastation of both the labor movement and locally owned businesses “hollowed out the community structure that once connected people to politics, leaving residents alienated and resentful,” he wrote. That sense of alienation and resentment is political, but it’s not solely political.
Before its decline, Pacewicz’s “community structure” did more than just frame economic debates. It shaped the culture of a region. It enabled solidarity, friendship, and even love. And it offered the chance to participate in shared endeavors, for both altruistic and self-interested reasons. Its core functions, in other words, were not just political but existential. Community structures give local politics its shape, but they also provide the means by which people discover value and meaning in their own lives.
No wonder their collapse leaves many people feeling “alienated and resentful.” What Pacewicz describes is not merely a weak party system, but a weak society. One in which the mortar that connects citizens to one another — that makes them feel like their neighbors’ lives have dignity and value, and that, through good works, they can assert the dignity and value in their own lives — is crumbling. This, according to terror management theory, is a kind of death.
It should be noted that not all manifestations of “community” are created equal. Some communities are unequivocally toxic. White supremacists, for example, cultivate purpose and social cohesion by exalting their own (illusory) racial superiority, while denying the common humanity of those they consider inferior. When these toxic communities fall apart, they lose the ability to target outsiders or enforce conformity among their members. That should be a cause for celebration.
The danger occurs when more nourishing, pro-social forms of community wither away even as their darker siblings persist.
Loneliness is a vacuum that yearns to be filled. And when established institutions are unable to meet that need, fringe ideologies come to replace them. Thus Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “totalitarian domination as a form of government … bases itself on loneliness, the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”
Arendt went on to connect this loneliness — “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government” — to “uprootedness and superfluousness,” which had itself been exacerbated by “the break-down of political institutions and social institutions in our own time.” (Origins’ first edition was published in 1951.) “To be uprooted means to have no place in the world, recognized and guaranteed by others; to be superfluous means not to belong to the world at all,” she wrote.
To be denied meaning is to live in a kind of agony. Extremist ideologies, with their all-consuming theories of meaning, promise not just to salve that agony but obliterate it. That’s why scholars of radicalization have found that alienation is often a key ingredient in the creation of future ISIS militants. As the British commentator Kenan Malik has written: “It is not … a question of being ‘groomed’ or ‘indoctrinated’ but of losing faith in mainstream moral frameworks and searching for an alternative.” Contrary to the popular Islamophobic myths about immigrant communities, experts say these young radicals tend to be estranged from the culture of their families in addition to the dominant culture of their countries of residence.
“The young kids, instead of getting their knowledge and their morals and their values and their dreams in life filtered through [their parents], are going out horizontally and connecting with one another,” anthropologist Scott Atran told CNN in 2015.
Terror management theorists have found that unconscious fear of death can also drive support for violent militant groups. Furthermore, they’ve observed a deep connection between totalitarianism — Arendt’s main focus — and fear of mortality. The Nazis “seemed to have a pathological affection for death,” Pyszczynski, Solomon, and colleague Jeff Greenberg wrote in their book The Worm at the Core. The Soviet Union, they note, built something like a secular immortality cult around Lenin.
By now, it should be clear why so many extremist ideologies seem to respond both to fear of death and fear of loneliness. To be rootless or superfluous — “not to belong to the world” — is a kind of oblivion, and decades of social and political atomization have been feeding that oblivion. Out of the abyss comes Donald Trump.
When Trump addressed “the forgotten men and women of our country” in his inaugural address, he was not speaking of the politically disenfranchised or the economically oppressed. He was talking about people who, according to a recent study by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research institute, experience “cultural anxiety.” Survey respondents who voted for Trump were disproportionately likely to agree with the statement, “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country” — a confession of rootlessness if there ever was one. Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again” was a promise to resurrect the imagined past in which none of his supporters had been strangers.
In a sense, Trump was the ideal candidate to make this pitch. Although the community structures undergirding much of America’s society have waned, the nation’s cult of wealth and celebrity is still going strong. And Trump, by the time he entered politics, was lucky enough to already have both.
But the key to his electoral success turned out to be another fundamental attribute of traditional American identity, at least as he depicted it. In Trump’s America, whiteness reigns. His real pitch was not to all Americans who feel alienated from the cultural mainstream, but to a white America eager to remain in what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called “The Dream.”
The Dream, Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me, is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts.” But this Dream is based on “forgetting,” he writes later on. Dreamers “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreams of today, would rather live white than live free.”
A wealth of data confirms that a particular kind of “cultural anxiety” — racial resentment — is strongly correlated with support for Trump. The covenant that the president of the United States has made with his supporters is that he will Make America White Again.
There’s no point in denying that white supremacy is an American tradition. This country was founded in large part by aristocratic white slaveholders. It grew its riches through forced labor and enhanced its territory through bloody land expropriation. Racism is etched into the United States of America like a geologic feature: unsubtle, unavoidable, potentially ineradicable.
But if racists can lay claim to a piece of America’s national heritage, that doesn’t mean it can monopolize the whole thing. Resistance to white supremacy is also an American tradition. Reconstruction, passive resistance for civil rights, Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” Martin Luther King’s “promised land” — these are also part of the national inheritance. Donald Trump’s predecessor in the White House was a black man. If these things could just be ignored, there would be no impetus for a backlash.
Multiracial democracy is an ideal not yet fully realized. But it is real and vital enough that many Americans recognize it as fundamental to their national identity. To them, Trump appears hellbent on demolishing the foundations of American community — not making it great again, as he claims.
And indeed, to the extent that the Trump administration can be said to have a coherent domestic policy agenda, its overriding theme is an all-out assault on civil society, shared goods, and collective solidarity.
For a comprehensive statement of the administration’s true intentions, you can’t do much better than its budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018, ironically titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness.” Line by line, this road map for destruction eradicates what’s left of the critical supports holding up American communal institutions. Its proposed cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, housing benefits, and other subsidies for low-income families would annihilate countless households. The damage it would do to public education is incalculable. And its attack on environmental regulations would contaminate publicly held natural treasures. Trump even proposes to kill off the stewards of Americans’ shared cultural heritage by defunding agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—thereby killing off beloved cultural touchstones like Sesame Street in the process.
On the other hand, Trump’s budget would send billions more to border security — to better facilitate the work his administration has done to rip apart immigrant families. Already, more than one Trump voter has expressed bewilderment after the Trump administration deported a friend, neighbor, or spouse.
That’s to say nothing of the Trump administration’s war against a constitutional republic’s most precious values: rule of law, equal protection under that law, and norms of political behavior. At every opportunity, Trump has violated the inviolable. He’s challenged the legitimacy of the courts, blatantly interfered in a criminal investigation, and used the office of president to further enrich himself. Certain things need to remain holy for a republic to function, and the president has profaned all of them.
In the process Trump has run into considerable opposition, which he has frequently struggled to surmount. That opposition isn’t going away, and Trump has shown few signs of adapting to it. As a result, given the scope of his ambitions and the buffoonish manner in which he has tried to realize them, his presidency will probably come to be viewed as a fiasco by detractors and supporters alike.
But even as a failure, Trump can do plenty of damage. It won’t be so easy to erase his stain from democratic norms and institutions. And by destroying families and further immiserating whole swaths of the country, Trump is contributing to the social dislocation that made his administration possible in the first place. His long promised cure to terror and loneliness is nothing but more terror, more loneliness. And that means he is clearing the way for more dangerous successors.
Trump’s remarkable ascent to the Oval Office was fueled by decades of long-simmering anxiety and resentment. And if he were to resign from the presidency tomorrow, that anxiety and resentment would continue to simmer until yet another authoritarian leader came along to exploit it. The only way to stem white nationalism’s resurgence is by attacking its source directly.
Extremism is not the only possible answer to alienation and fear of death.
If liberal democracy is going to survive, it needs to create the conditions for its own flourishing. One of the great failures of post-war liberalism has been its inability (or unwillingness) to safeguard the very civic faith, national institutions, and community bonds that made liberalism possible. These things provide a rich vein of meaning and solidarity that should serve as a check against despotism’s allure. For allowing them to atrophy, the United States has had this presidency visited upon it.
That’s why resistance to Trump is not enough. To eliminate the conditions that would lead to another Trump — or worse — the United States needs to undergo a process of democratic renewal. The countrywide network of formal institutions, informal communal bonds, and overlapping belief systems that hold a republic together is in dire need of repair. Patching it back together will require both widespread social movement activism and sweeping public policy changes at every level of government.
The point of all this activity, as trite as it may sound, would be to make people feel less lonely — to make them feel connected to their neighbors, to public institutions, and to something like an integrated national community. Activists and policymakers alike must apply themselves directly to the problem of alienation and meaninglessness.
The path forward is clearer for activists than policymakers, because social movements have always leaned on and strengthened pre-existing civil institutions as a matter of necessity. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which drew so much of its power from the church, is a case in point. Similarly, organized labor succeeds when it can turn an accidental community of sorts — people who happen to share a workplace — into a haven for mutual support. The best organizers have always been those who locate the potential for solidarity and do their best to nourish it into maturity. They’ve always been concerned not just with the material well-being of their subjects, but with their dignity: their need to feel like their lives hold intrinsic value.
On the other hand, concepts like loneliness, dignity, meaning, and community seem like an awkward fit for the world of public policy. There’s certainly no objective measure for the most dignified minimum wage, or the average rate of alienation in a metropolitan area. Policymakers tend to concern themselves with measurable problems, or proposals that will generate measurable results; fighting loneliness and terror means wading into muddier waters.
But if the challenges of democratic decline are harder to quantify, the tools for reversing it are already at hand. Education is chief among them. Schools are not just an instrument for providing children with knowledge and skills, but the place where they learn how to become citizens and social creatures. That means public education is a critical tool for molding good citizens and making them feel connected to both the nation and the people around them.
If the United States is to truly understand itself as a national community, the unfinished work of de-segregation must finally be completed.
One obvious way to do this is by putting greater emphasis on civics lessons and democratic values in school curricula. Robust instruction in history and the arts are also key, in large part because they give young minds a sense of their shared inheritance —as residents of both the United States and the planet. Learning about these subjects can help students discover empathy for people both like and unlike themselves; it can also help them situate their lives in a greater narrative about what it means to be American, to be human.
Crucially, school is also where young people are most likely to encounter peers from different racial, economic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. And that feeds into one of the greatest challenges of democratization: If the United States is to truly understand itself as a national community, the unfinished work of de-segregation must finally be completed. Classrooms, neighborhoods, and workplaces that have remain closed need to be pried open. Policies that compel integration always meet intense backlash, but the alternative — capitulation to a dwindling, increasingly vicious and desperate white ruling caste — is far worse.
Policymakers can also take steps to support and foster local civic organizations. They can promote full employment and — keeping in mind that the workplace is most adults’ primary site for engagement with a community outside the family — endeavor to foster dignity in the workplace. They can help to resuscitate organized labor, which binds workers to one another, and to a greater social purpose. One day, lawmakers might even start to think seriously about a civilian national service program, which would require that all Americans spend at least a year or so engaged in full-time public service.
This is not a modest policy agenda. But it’s not a radical break with the past, either. The same country that produced the Great Redemption and the Red Scare also gave birth to the civil rights movement, the New Deal and the Great Society. Based on the available evidence, a tale of inadequate yet cumulative strides toward freedom is no less plausible than a narrative about white supremacy’s boundless resilience. Neither of these stories is “true,” at least in the empirical sense; finding truth in either of them is a conscious decision.
Without forgetting the atrocities of the past or the outrages of the present, it is still possible to give a different foundation to national identity. Doing so could help American democracy not just survive, but flourish. With enough reinforcement, the institutions and norms being attacked by Trump could emerge from this era stronger than ever.
The alternative is letting a wound to American democracy fester — and potentially turn fatal.