Andrew Sullivan’s essay on America’s 2016 debacle goes viral

Sullivan, from Big Think

[Andrew Sullivan explains. Photo from Big Think.]

Donald Trump’s political success has provoked in recent months some fine commentary, much of it from moderates and progressives. I’ve especially enjoyed the New York Times’s crew. Even Thomas Friedman, whom I’ve boycotted since his disgusting promotion of the Iraq war, rose, once, to an unexpectedly eloquent height. Republicans have seemed mostly inarticulate with rage over their primary’s winner, given that Trump’s record is of a pragmatic moderate. At last, however, the likable Andrew Sullivan has expressed the intellectually conservative view.

Published in the May 2 issue of New York Magazine, his searching essay “America has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” has gone viral. In this classical essay he’s fighting for—with every persuasive tool he’s got—what he calls “America’s near ­unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility.” Speaking as it does to America’s worrying climate of factional resentment, I found the passage below intensely resonant:

For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near­ bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working ­class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.” 

Though Sullivan draws on a lifetime of experience, he notably cites Plato’s Republic, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, and Eric Hoffer’s 1951 tract The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Sullivan has come to critique our increasingly democratic (but perhaps less stable) political system that frightens him. He calls the Republicans’ fight to hold open a Supreme Court vacancy “another massive hyperdemocratic breach in our constitutional defenses.” And: “The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

As a man of good sense, Sullivan cannot help but cheer Barack Obama’s attainments. As a student of history who is by temperament a conservative, he cannot help but furrow his brow at the implications of such outsider politicians. Did Obama lead to Trump? Has our increasingly freewheeling democracy, inflamed by the internet and by growing economic inequality, led to both?

I understand his view but probably part ways with him over his conviction that we’re endangered by too much freedom. At the same time, America’s federal government has worked so well because of its brilliantly established checks and balances. What are they other than a way to curtail the “freedom” of elites’ greed, of mass unchecked resentments, of ideologues’ narrow isolating convictions?

Sullivan, of course, expresses joyous wonder that things have not already flown apart. He’s an interesting Republican: learned, gay, deeply religious, temperamentally conservative. Maybe it’s such an interesting essay because he’s trying to resolve so many inherently irresolvable things. And yet, its worth continually circles back to whether you can accept the statement he cites with the lightest caution from Plato’s Republic:

Democracies end when they are too democratic.

Have Trump and Bernie Sanders, whom Sullivan calls a similar demagogue, arisen to relive us at last from “democracy’s endless choices and insecurities”? That fear seems the underlying force uniting many Democrats and Republicans at this hour. The inflamed mob scares everyone.

Sullivan is right to examine why America’s electorate, if given a sudden economic downturn or a devastating domestic terrorist attack, could usher Trump into office. What would that be like? Consider Vladimir Putin, a thuggish leader Trump admires. God save our republic.


  • Thanks for these thoughts and the examination of Sullivan’s thoughts, Richard. As we near the election, I get more and more nervous (or as Alice would say in a different kind of nightmare world, “nervouser and nervouser” instead of “curiouser and curiouser”), and neither Trump (God save the thought!) nor Sanders seems to me the right choice. Yet, even though I am getting ready to plump down a vote for Hillary Clinton, and think that the e-mail brouhaha is a bit overdone, I still don’t think she’s the one with the right to claim that it wasn’t important the way we think, and she has more or less said that. Oh, for a new and nearly perfect candidate!

  • dclaud says:

    I read Sullivan’s essay before I saw your blog post and found it intelligent, reasoned and so very well written and argued. His above-the-fray perspective is refreshing. What’s the old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

  • Here’s a direct answer to Sullivan. Not as compellingly written but maybe more realistic and nuanced. Makes some good points about the backlash, claims people are upset about an erosion of perceived loss of freedom:

    As I said in my blog post, the checks and balances system has worked brilliantly. The fear is, Until now? Maybe before it’s through we will praise the electoral college everyone has always hated, as an elitist check that worked. I have written about it and disseminated stuff because I don’t know what I think. But I am a progressive, which means faith in progress, which means faith in people and their potential. Conservatives seem the opposite: people are basically bad and need to be constrained. That’s where Sullivan is with his fear of the mob. Which edges into fear of common folk.

    Republicans believe Democrats have created an entitlements society. I engage with that in the sense that I see America in a resentful era, after staggering progress—yet “women” and “blacks,” based on scattered stray comments, a few essays, and a few books, are seen as furious. But where Republicans see entitlements, I see actions that have recognized our increasing diversity. To me, they will reflexively oppose that recognition and would kill America’s ideals if they could.

    America’s ideals are not easy, however, and we’ll always fall short. The Democrats are so prudent and mainstream and essentially conservative they may be kindling these populist eruptions along with the far right’s reactionary rage.

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