Political parties have a long history of expressing contrary visions of America and consequently dividing Americans. During George Washington’s administration, Thomas Jefferson established the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, and the two clashed over the promotion of certain regions and choosing a prominent foreign ally.
Washington realized that staunch devotion to political parties could pose a threat for the country’s future, and he used his farewell address to condemn them, writing, “The disorders and miseries which result [from the alternate domination of one faction over another] gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction … turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.” These prescient words express Washington’s ultimate concerns for the vulnerability of America’s system of government, explicitly created to prevent the tyranny of the majority from single-handedly forcing its political agenda on an unwilling minority.
Although giving the minority significant government power preserves the integrity of the democratic process, it simultaneously can empower the minority to prevent the majority’s agenda from taking shape at all. Washington feared that, if the government failed to function efficiently enough to provide for the security of the citizens, Americans would prove all-too-willing to sacrifice their liberty to an authoritarian individual who, while promising to protect the people, would refuse to surrender power after the crisis had been resolved.
The Founding Fathers did their best to create a government with safeguards against human nature, one that recognized the limited rationality of human beings. Our process of rationality is oftentimes not value-neutral when we make decisions. At best, decisions might be influenced by sub-rational predispositions and, at worst, by volatile and powerful emotions. For example, a person who loses a lot of money by investing in the stock market would likely be unwilling to invest again because of fear that he would lose more. In actuality, past circumstances do not determine future events, and it is just as rational to continue investing in the stock market even if money was lost before. This is just one example of the many ways in which powerful emotions can co-opt rationality and influence decision making.
National security has been an issue of increasing concern for many Americans over the last decade, bringing powerful collective emotions to the forefront of society. In the midst of a War on Terror that has been ongoing since 2001, terrorist attacks in Paris and around the world, increasing numbers of Syrian refugees attempting to gain entrance to America, and widespread instability across the Middle East, Americans have felt continuously angry, fearful, uneasy, and insecure.
These increasing threats to American security have been exacerbated by the hyper-partisan environment of the 112th, 113th, and 114th Congresses, which have ranked amongst the least productive in history. Congressional approval currently sits around 15 percent, and the American people are dissatisfied with leadership of the country as a whole, largely due to the fact that they perceive Democrats and Republicans to do what is politically expedient and beneficial to their own parties rather than America as a whole.
Enter Donald Trump. Although he was originally written off as an unserious contender for the nomination, his brash, callous, New Yorker attitude and his no-holds-barred, politically incorrect “Trumpisms” have struck a chord with the American people. His continuous projection of strength, unwillingness to compromise with the current political establishment, and promise to “Make America Great Again” have capitalized on the fear and anger of Americans, elevating him to the top of the Republican primary race. Unsurprisingly—and true to Washington’s forewarnings—he polls especially well among Americans with strong authoritarian leanings.
Trump’s crusade against our politically correct culture has, at times, ventured into racism, jingoism, and anti-Semitism. Yet despite his statements—from wanting to ban all Syrian Muslims from immigrating, to declaring that all Mexican immigrants bring crime, to retweeting a neo-Nazi cartoon depicting Trump murdering Jewish candidate Bernie Sanders in a gas chamber—support for him has risen steadily. Emotions have trumped reason, and it now seems almost as though he is openly testing his supporters to make sure that he can do just about anything without losing them. Only a week ago, in fact, Trump promised to become part of the “Establishment” in order to make deals with Democrats, even though he has continuously run as an uncompromising outsider candidate.
Trump is riddled with inconsistencies, prejudices, and little to no political experience. Yet despite the clear flaws in his candidacy, he appears to be the political favorite. George Washington might have diagnosed the flaws of human nature and realized that political divisiveness would drive future generations of Americans to abandon liberty for their protection, but America ignored his warnings long ago. As political polarization continues to paralyze the country, and as anger and fear cause popular opinion to coalesce around an authoritarian candidate, 2016 might just be the year that Americans see Washington’s prophecy fulfilled in the form of Donald Trump.
John Sullivan wrote for the Irish Rover as an undergrad and shares his name with a former world champion boxer. He hopes he is wrong about Donald Trump, but few things would surprise him after watching the unpredictable Republican primary race so far.