Evident defects of experience, judgment and character

Martin Wolf on democrats, demagogues and despots:

There exists no such thing as “the people”; this is an imaginary entity. There are merely citizens whose choices not only may, but surely will, change. While a way must be found to aggregate those views, it will always be defective. Ultimately, democracy, or a democratic republic, provides a way for people with different views and even cultures to live side by side in reasonable harmony.

Yet institutions matter, too, because they set the rules of the game. Institutions may also fail. The US electoral college has failed doubly. Its selection of Mr Trump neither accords with the votes cast in the election nor reflects judgment of the candidate’s merits, as desired by Alexander Hamilton. This founding father argued that the college would both guard against “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” and ensure “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. The charges of Russian hacking and Mr Trump’s evident defects of experience, judgment and character show that the college has not proved the bulwark Mr Hamilton hoped for. It is up to other institutions — notably, Congress, courts and media — and the citizens at large now to do so.

It’s the “in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” part that keeps surprising me afresh every morning. It surprised me when Reagan was elected and when Bush was – and the surprise now is so profound that it just never goes away. How was this possible?

Demagogues are the Achilles heel of democracy. There is even is a standard demagogic playbook. Demagogues, whether of left or right, present themselves as representatives of the common people against elites and unworthy outsiders; make a visceral connection with followers as charismatic leaders; manipulate that connection for their own advancement, frequently by lying egregiously; and threaten established rules of conduct and constraining institutions as enemies of the popular will that they embody. Mr Trump is almost a textbook demagogue.

Well, he grew up with the example of Hitler to study and absorb.

Might this be the path some of the most important western democracies are now on — above all the US, standard bearer of democracy in the 20th century? The answer is yes. It could happen even there. The core institutions of democracy do not protect themselves. They are protected by people who understand and cherish the values they embody.

And here, right now, those people are outnumbered by the other kind. I have no optimistic remarks to offer.

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