The Vulgar Manliness of Donald Trump

tags: democracy, Trump

Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of "Manliness" (Yale University Press, 2006).

The most striking aspect of the rise and reign of Donald Trump has been his unabashed display of vulgarity and the ease (so far) with which he gets away with it. “Vulgar,” a term of condescension, is not often heard in democracies, where it most applies. It certainly applies to The Donald. The brazen insults he strewed along his path to the presidency were more than enough to deserve the plain name of vulgar. His success despite them suggests something even more upsetting than Trump himself: that his vulgar manliness was not a drag but an advantage.

The whole Trump phenomenon, both the man and the people he appeals to, reminds us of the vulgarity in democracy. Or more, of human vulgarity—since disrespect for the high and mighty can have universal appeal.

We now treat democracy as unquestionably the best, sometimes as the only, form of government. That was not the case in the classical political science of the Greeks. They held democracy in far lower esteem. For Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Plutarch, democracy was typified by the figure of the demagogue, the democratic leader. This man was hasty, angry, impulsive, brash, and punitive; he sought the favor of those like himself, the demos, the hoi polloi(the many). He opposed men of quality, nobles, aristocrats, or gentlemen, and accused them of being enemies of the people, the majority for whom he spoke. The “people” was considered in the classical conception to be just a part of the whole, the majority part to be sure, but it was not a term that included everyone: The demos was quantity against quality, the many versus the few, in practice the poor versus the rich.

The American Founders, building on the philosophy of liberalism, expanded the conception of the people so that “popular government” could include everyone. James Madison made a famous distinction (one that used to be taught in high-school civics) between “democracy”—meaning pure democracy dominated by the demos and subject to “majority faction”—and “republic,” which was based on representation and structured with separation of powers and federalism. In our republican system, the demos would be required to govern through electing the few and be kept diverse and scattered to help keep them moderate. The Founders saw to it that their popular republic would provide for government by people like themselves—no longer aristocrats or nobles but still the few, and that the American people would have those Founders for heroes, rather than vicious characters like Robespierre or naive agitators like Tom Paine, who spoke and acted for the demos.

They wanted to spare the new nation from rule by the demagogue, a vulgar man who appealed to vulgar people on the level of a vulgar manliness with the traits of the demagogue. Vulgar is not always bad, though today we avoid using the term out of concern for the self-esteem of the vulgar. (“Plebeian” can occasionally be heard, but never politically.) Hillary Clinton could speak of “deplorables,” but to condemn them as “vulgar” might have excused them from the easy remedy for being deplorable, which was to vote for the Democrats. ...

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