Donald Trump’s first year: Is it really all that bad? For an entire year there was astonishment, dismay, despair, scorn, ridicule, anger and resistance, but at the first anniversary of this inconceivable presidency, quite a few in the media decided to try a different approach. Time for reflection − and a bit of self-examination. Screaming bloody murder, that we know by now. What has really changed in a year? If you take Trump and subtract the verbal madness, mentally delete the hateful tweets, forget for a moment the chaos and infantile tribal war in the White House as credibly described in “Fire and Fury,” what, then, are the major changes? The real shifts?
The gist is that it has all been quite better than expected, and except for the tax plan that was adopted, which will have an enormous impact on American society, not much has changed fundamentally. Much was blocked by the courts, by politics, by allies, by individual incompetence. And whether that wall will ever be built remains to be seen. Trump has not kept many promises; too bad for his supporters, good for the rest. The gist of that reaction was that Trump overreacts. Beware that we do not overreact either.
Can We Sleep Peacefully?
Such sober reactions were welcome − were they also reassuring? Certainly, they formed a welcome antidote to the Trump cult of the Trump haters. I mean, when you believe someone is incredibly wrong and even dangerous, there is a risk that he will become a daily obsession whereby he becomes increasingly bigger. When I want to prove every day, every hour, that someone is horrible, ludicrous and malicious, I quickly forget that I am talking only about him. Or about his hair, or about his piano. That, in turn, gives his supporters ammunition; they can cry over the bitter “anti” mood, pointing out the shallowness of much of the criticism.*
In the case of Trump, can you treat all the chaos and uproar as froth that masks a much less dramatic reality? To me, that so-called level-headedness seems particularly dangerous, an example of what the British political scientist David Runciman calls “the confidence trap.” A few years ago, he published a book with the same title, in which he stands up for democracy in an original way. Every democracy, Runciman states, looks rather hopeless at first glance – messy, rarely efficient, at the mercy of the whims of politicians and citizens, continuously in the grip of short-term thinking. The mistakes and misconceptions of predecessors need constant correcting. But appearances can be deceiving. In the long term, democracy is the durable and sustainable form of governance, and by far the best for a country and its citizens. But democracy comes with discontent, Runciman poses, both discontent with politicians and with democracy itself. Every democracy suffers from a deficit of democracy.
But precisely in that reassuring notion lies a real threat to democracy, according to the British author − the expectation that democracy is a given. That is the “confidence trap,” the pitfall of trust, as I translate it freely. It is precisely the perceived certainty that everything will always be all right that can cause citizens and politicians to become irresponsible. Paradoxically, discontent with the mistakes of democracy can free untamed anger, a hate for democracy, exactly because democracy is taken for granted. Alternatively, people apathetically turn their backs on democracy, voting is no use, nothing ever changes, etc.
This week, former VVD politician Frits Bolkestein said on BNR** that the anti-European Union feelings of many Dutch will soon end and be done with should a Nexit*** really happen. I believe that is correct. There is a lot that is wrong with the EU, but that romantic, rebellious coquetting with a Nexit is the irresponsible behavior of an angry child who thinks his toys are unbreakable − until he holds the pieces in his fist. Giving the establishment a firm kick, smacking its smug face, that is where the pleasure is. But how hard can you kick?
Trump’s words may be completely at odds with his accomplishments, [but] he who dismisses them as mere words, and thus irrelevant, falls with eyes wide open into the trap of confidence. Just because democracy so far has been fairly Trump-resistant does not mean democracy is not in danger.
*Translator's note: The author uses a self-made word here; what he implies is the mood of everything being against Trump, hence “anti-.“
** Translator’s note: The VVD is the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands. BNR is Business News Radio, a news radio station in the Netherlands.
***Editor’s note: "Nexit" is the term for the possible exit of the Netherlands from the European Union.