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Trump in a larger context

Watching Donald Trump at a political rally has become the equivalent of watching a television rerun, again and again. Very little is interesting or new, though the synergism that is evident between Trump and his supporters is consistently unsettling.

I’ve concluded that if it’s possible to understand the Trump phenomenon — this unexpected political juggernaut — it’s necessary to understand those in the audience. Saying they are angry and frustrated or suffering from a pervasive malaise barely scratches the surface of his popularity. And “telling it like it is” seems completely inadequate to explain his domino wins.

So, what is really going on? And why does it all seem so surreal and jarringly counterintuitive?

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, recently attempted to sort out Trump’s surging campaign (note last week’s five-state sweep), and I think he succeeded in putting it in a larger and more comprehensible context.

His thesis is that liberal democracy, which showed such global promise when the Berlin Wall came down, is in retreat. There was a time when scholars wrote optimistically that the fragmentation of the Soviet Union signaled the triumph of the West, of liberal democracy, which Cohen defines as the ability of individuals to shape their own destinies through the exercise of their will. Millions of people, he writes, who were “enslaved within the Soviet imperium had been freed. And everyone knew which system was best.”

But here Cohen inserts a caveat: “The hold of reason in human affairs is always tenuous and actually a brief interlude.” Far more lasting, he opines, have been the eras of “infallible sovereignty, absolute power derived from God, domination and serfdom and subjection to what Isaiah Berlin called the ‘forces of anti-rational mystical bigotry.’ ”

Cohen points out that the anti-rational forces are everywhere today — in Donald Trump’s America, in the gnarled and distorted reasoning of ISIS, in the surge of the far right in Europe, in Russia where the Czar-like Putin is embraced, and in the harrowing existence of North Korea and its vast political gulag.

Liberal democracy has failed to capture the imaginations of millions globally. It does not inspire martyrdom, despite being our best defense against tyranny. Cohen writes that liberal democracy requires us to consider and tolerate differences — in our lives, in our viewpoints, in our rainbow of cultures — which can seem, at first blush, incompatible.

The reality is that we are today not living in a time of tolerance for a spectrum of ideas. Hence the emergence of a Donald Trump. His followers are not interested in debating issues. Instead they yearn to hear his simple declarative sentences, ripe with vague promises that are in fact incompatible with a system that has as its scaffolding three equal branches of government.

In attempting to understand Trump's rise, Cohen looks at the Republican primary voters and quotes  Joseph de Maistre, who wrote darkly, “The desire to immolate oneself, to suffer, to prostrate oneself before authority, indeed before superior power, no matter where it comes from, and the desire to dominate, to exert authority, to pursue power for its own sake” are forces that are “historically at least as strong as desire for peace, prosperity, liberty, justice, happiness, equality.”

Authoritarianism — a la Trump — is on the ascendance, and liberal democracy continues to be diminished. Multiple truths, rational dialogue, a richness of points of view are today discarded by the intolerant and the impatient. People yearn for simple clarity (deport and then build a wall) and complex issues offered free of ambiguity.

Dialogue and compromise — the essence of our form of government — are too slow for this digital, blogging, screed-driven online age. Entertainment-driven politics-lite now seem a better fit.

How much can be reliably extrapolated from what we are observing, I’m not sure. And watching Trump and his followers will continue to be fascinating if not perpetually disconcerting. How it will end, this most strange and unexpected political season, is uncertain. And it is uncertainty that will define this presidential race, perhaps more so than we ever could have anticipated.

Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.