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Kiwi philosopher Jeremy Waldron on Trump and the spiralling savagery of politics

Southland-born New York University law professor Jeremy Waldron. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

A Kiwi close to the seat of US power, law and philosophy professor Jeremy Waldron sees danger in the goings-on in the White House.

In a meeting room at Wellington’s best hotel, self-confessed “Trump failure addict”, New York University law professor and New Zealander Jeremy Waldron is laying out the case that the loss of civility in politics, highlighted by any number of recent events in the United States, is dangerous for democracy.

“There is a simmering potential for violence,” he says of the current US political climate.

It’s not the anger he minds. That’s part of politics. It’s the spiralling savagery of political discourse he fears.

“The whole premise of democratic politics is that if people are angry and resentful, someone had better find out why and see what can be done about it.

“Yet we know that politics requires a certain degree of civility and institutionalisation”, and a collapse of civility is “posing a threat to the institutions for the practice of politics”.

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A Southlander by birth, Waldron has lived mainly in the US in the past four decades. On his most recent trip home, he delivered the Maxim Institute’s annual Sir John Graham Lecture in Auckland, just days before Graham’s death.

Adopting a Letter from America style, Waldron titled his address “Reclaiming Respect in a Time of Polarised Politics”.

Democracy rests on what he calls a “radically egalitarian premise”: that all people are fundamentally equal, irrespective of their income, achievements, merits, abilities, race, religion or any other distinction.

“But it also rests on institutions and frameworks and practices, including formalities, that make it possible for angry people to engage respectfully with one another. That’s a precarious business, because the anger always threatens to overwhelm the civility. For some people, the civility might threaten to drain the anger,” he says.

“Some of the Trump voters would say they’ve been locked out by the practices of cosy in-groups of civility and they want some mode of political engagement that will hear their anger and their resentment, and if things have to get a bit noisy and unpleasant, so be it.”

That’s fine, as long as civility and seriousness return.

Civil politics “enables a community where no one person’s indignation can be dominant to craft complicated solutions to complicated problems by working together”.

In US politics, however, he sees a president whose primary tactic is to stoke such anger and an enraged opposition intent on the Trump presidency’s early demise, not necessarily by democratic means. Waldron approves of neither group and gives a “pretty bleak” prognosis for the restoration of US political civility any time soon. He also acknowledges he’s part of the problem.

“We’ve all – those of us who are Democratic supporters, Hillary supporters – become Trump failure addicts. I found I was getting withdrawal symptoms if I wasn’t getting the hit of anti-Trumpism every night.”

He is harsh on those seeking Trump’s impeachment. “After barely six months of this presidency, people are already talking about impeachment as if this would now become the normal mode of transition from the leadership of anyone you radically disagree with.”

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

The issue of blind Trump hate is a live debate in the US. “Maybe this hostility is justified,” wrote Vanity Fair columnist Michael Kinsley in the New York Times on July 29. “In fact, I think it probably is. But that doesn’t justify reaching out to twist stories or looking for the anti-Trump angle. Nor does it justify hoping – if not assuming – that something will come along to rid us of this turbulent hotelier. Impeachment is supposed to be an occasional tragic necessity, not just another tool for replacing the results of an election.”

But surely Trump’s trampling of the politics of civility can’t be ignored or normalised either?

“There is some concern there – that if we give the man an inch, where will we end up? And there comes a point where everyone has under their arm the Hitler Exception,” says Waldron. He declines that option. “We tried that in New Zealand during the idiotic Citizens for Rowling campaign in the 1970s,” which portrayed then aspiring prime minister Rob Muldoon as a dictator.

Part of the problem – exacerbated by the societal divisions created by income inequality – is that too many people really don’t know how the other half live.

Yet “a robust sense of civility even among the direst opponents” is essential to democratic politics, along with the willingness to rule and be ruled.

“Democracy depends on a certain rhythm, a certain alternation of power – the National Party, then the Labour Party – that each band of politicians is willing to rule or be ruled as the parties alternate over three-, six-, nine-year periods,” says Waldron, who may not be focused on the potential for a 12-year reign by National Party governments in New Zealand.

“That when you lose an election it doesn’t become important for you and your family to go into the mountains or to commit suicide or move your assets overseas. We work with a loyal Opposition, continued engagement.”

Legislation advances, modified by submissions from political opponents and the public, rather than the back-room negotiations that drove the final attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

If that process fails, “at the extreme level, the result is either low-grade political violence or civil war”.

Compared with the US, New Zealand has a good Parliament, Waldron reckons. He hasn’t seen the social media polarisation created by Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei’s admission of historic benefit fraud, but compared with the US, New Zealand political anger strikes him as a small hill of beans.

For example, topics such as abortion and gay rights end up in the courts in the US. “New Zealand is a more grown-up country in some respects, having dealt with both sets of issues through parliamentary legislation, debate, voting, rather than leaving it to a supreme or constitutional court.”

He can also sound a bit stuffy, as if only people who learn politics the traditional way can run democracies – rejection of which was one impulse that propelled McCain-punked political novice Trump to power.

It’s about “the way someone decides to go into politics; someone who goes into politics because his father was in politics; or somebody who grows up going to meetings of the Dunedin Central Labour Party, then starts going to the annual conferences, jockeying for a list or constituency position, so they are beginning to make a life for themselves in the structures of politics – they’re beginning to learn the ropes, to learn how not to be an arsehole in politics, to take on some of the responsibilities of politics as a vocation.”

Trump did not take that route and his base loves it.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.