In a week, a year will have passed since Donald Trump’s election. In this time, we have seen a flourishing of political involvement among the intellectual left. Pink knit hats, blue ACLU ribbons, and posters with witty slogans visually symbolize the left’s anti-Trump resistance.
Of course, liberal intellectuals are not the only demographic opposed to President Trump’s administration. But they do comprise a large part of organized resistance. One indication of this phenomenon—among many others—is the high rates of higher education among participants at large-scale protests. The liberal intellectuals in the resistance left—educated professionals, students—frequently have the time and resources to “show up” at these events.
In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan describe the unique paradox of liberal intellectuals in democratic regimes. Democracy is the form of government that best suits liberal intellectuals’ interests, they claim, but few liberal intellectuals living in eroding democracies actively defend the existing system. Linz and Stepan cite several reasons for this apathy, including intellectuals’ elitism, disrespect for professional politicians, and desire for morality to factor into political decisions.
Not all parts of Linz’s theory apply to liberal intellectuals in the anti-Trump “resistance,” since the Trump administration is not a new regime, and it is too early to tell whether democratic breakdown is actually occurring. Still, liberal intellectuals’ recent surge in political involvement can help us interrogate Linz and Stepan’s claims about their political apathy.
The left’s political mobilization seems like a counterexample to Linz and Stepan’s claims about liberal intellectuals’ indifference towards democratic stability. After all, we’ve seen a reinvigoration, if not a resurgence, of political activism among the intellectual left.
A clear example is Linz and Stepan’s assertion that liberal intellectuals avoid political involvement because of the “basic moral ambiguity” of a political system that doesn’t consider justice or ultimate values in evaluating the correctness of decisions (48). The anti-Trump intellectual-led resistance movement, however, extensively uses moral claims to contest the Trump administration.
We see this trend in the resistance’s extensive use of attacks on the president and high-level administrators’ personal morals, such as the focus on Trump’s history of sexual assault, refusal to release tax returns, personal egotism, and conflicts of interest. This focus has even entered policy, through bills like the Making Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act (“MAR-A-LAGO Act”). This “ethical angle” sometimes supersedes political claims as the resistance’s main fuel for criticizing the administration.
Even when talking about policy, the resistance left uses moral charges, accusing the administration of cruelty and callousness. Examples include the resistance’s responses to increased ICE raids, proposed ACA repeal, and travel bans, as seen here, here, and here.
How can we account for this discrepancy between Linz and Stepan’s theory and the resistance left in practice? It’s possible that we have an aligning of the stars of sorts, a case where liberal intellectuals’ focus on morals in politics actually encourages their involvement with the anti-Trump resistance, instead of fomenting apathy.
To be certain, there are some general benefits to moral-based political rhetoric (please note: prioritizing morality in policy decisions is not the same as moralized politics as seen under populist leaders). It can help incentivize citizens’ participation by allowing people to contribute regardless of the depth of their political knowledge, increases citizens’ perception that government decisions can affect them personally, and makes political loss appear more costly by depicting the other side as not only politically incorrect but also as morally “bad.”
But more prominently, there are aspects about the Trump administration that make the moral-based opposition rhetoric especially advantageous for retaining support.
For one, this administration does show especial disregard for political precedents, and branding these deviations as unethical allows the resistance movement to claim that the Trump administration is unfit for power. It allows the resistance left to depict themselves as the real party that “should” be in control, the party of stability and order. Of course, this rhetoric won’t do much to sway Trump supporters, who generally prize Trump’s “outsider” status.
Furthermore, moral-based resistance rhetoric incentivizes leftist participation because Trump speaks so openly about acting selfishly—in other words, being explicitly “bad.” Similar to his “outsider” rhetoric, attacking Trump’s morals won’t do much to change Trump supporters’ regard for him. As Jan-Werner Müller (who views Trump as a populist) describes in What is Populism?, supporters will endorse populist leaders’ transgressive actions as long as the leader claims to be acting according to the will of “the people.” Yet, for people who oppose populist administrations and do not subscribe to this rhetoric about leaders speaking for a monolithic “people,” enlisting moral principles allows the opposition to sidestep this rhetoric and deny populists’ entire claim to power. Citing these higher morals allows these liberal intellectuals to reconstruct a universe in which they, not populists, make the rules. This autonomy can in turn galvanize support among the resistance.
It’s possible that this phenomenon exists with more of Linz and Stepan’s reasons for liberal intellectual apathy—elitism, for instance. If there are in truth more examples of this phenomenon, then we could start to see trends in how the Trump era mobilizes resistance. Indeed, models like Linz and Stepan’s may not easily or directly apply to current U.S. politics, but if we tweak the models to fit our political present, we could actually start to understand it better.
Photo by @elnortej (Twitter), untitled.
I thought your post wonderfully illustrated the changing role of liberal intellectuals under the new administration. Despite Linz and Stepan’s assertion that liberal intellectuals are mostly apathetic towards politics, there has been a rise in political activism among liberal intellectuals. I thought one of your most interesting points was the way liberal intellectuals are using morals claims to criticize Trump and his administration. It brought to mind my class’s discussion of populism and populists leaders’ own use of morality as a political tool and how populists’ use differs from left intellectuals’ use.
“Yet, for people who oppose populist administrations and do not subscribe to this rhetoric about leaders speaking for a monolithic “people,” enlisting moral principles allows the opposition to sidestep this rhetoric and deny populists’ entire claim to power. Citing these higher morals allows these liberal intellectuals to reconstruct a universe in which they, not populists, make the rules.” It seems to me that populists use a similar tactic as the one you cite liberal intellectuals as using. Populists describe the universe as one in which the rules of the current system are broken. Using this system as justification, populists then deny the opposing party’s claim to power and reconstruct the universe. Populists cite the brokenness of the system as caused by institutions that produce “morally wrong” outcomes (Mueller 39). Populists employ a different set of morals to justify their reconstruction.
The difference in the use of morality by intellectuals and by populists seems to be to rest in what/who is immoral. Intellectuals are attacking individuals. Populists are attacking groups. Certainly, Trump attacks individuals as well but the basis of the attacks are a reflection of their membership in certain groups. This idea fits with populism’s anti-elitist tendencies.