Today’s dominant conservative voices try to appeal to people by the millions. You win attention in the mass media through perpetual hysteria and simple-minded polemics and by exploiting social resentment. In search of that mass right-wing audience that, say, Coulter enjoys, conservatism has done its best to make itself offensive to people who value education and disdain made-for-TV rage.
It’s ironic that an intellectual tendency that champions free markets was ruined by the forces of commercialism, but that is the essential truth. Conservatism went down-market in search of revenue. It got swallowed by its own anti-intellectual media-politico complex.--David Brooks, "The Conservative Intellectual Crisis," The New York Times.
The best normative and empirical theories of democracy recognize that voters are imperfect, often self-interested and fearful, and not infrequently immoral. Yet, a proper functioning democracy finds ways (through clever institutional design, political leadership, the right mores, a proper political economy, and some luck, etc.) in which our aspirations and longings are channeled into collective decisions that do not express our lowest impulses and that even ground our opportunities for flourishing. For, very often prudence and enlightened self-interest coincide or, at least, cohere with minimal demands of morality. Even the manner in which government is practiced can combine prudence and virtue. For example, a rule following bureaucracy may be an efficient and transparent as well as a morally approved way of conducting public business (I am not suggesting it is the only or best such way).
Of course, in fact, a recurring, dangerous temptation of politicians and other political elites (media, bureaucrats, political donors, public intellectuals, etc.) is to encourage our imperfections and immoralities. The temptation is often indulged: citizens are set against each other (and non-citizens) fairly regularly, and these, in turn, may well wish to promote (tribal) policies that disadvantage others or that exhibit the superiority (economic, political, and even moral) of one group over the other. There are plenty of institutions that are an integral part of modern society that have (perverse) incentives to facilitate ongoing low-level social conflict, or worse.
An essential feature of political leadership is, precisely, the practice of promoting dispositions (through law, education, example, the media, and other institutions, including religious ones) that block or prevent the giving in to such temptations and that, by contrast, generate minimal political unity. In a liberal democracy a feature of such leadership is the sometimes hypocritical practice of not disparaging others groups of voters, even flattering them. Of course, this norm is routinely violated, alas ('welfare queens;'47%;' 'the basket of deplorables,' etc.). Again, often adhering to this norm is prudent, too: this is one reason why a lot of partial interests promote their favored policies in terms of a public interest.
Minimal unity is not an edifying commitment, but the disposition to it is a minimal requirement for a society to survive against foreign enemies and prevent internal dissolution (or civil war). Obviously, the forces of habit and tradition (social inertia) or lack of foreign/internal enemies may make a society survive long after the dispositions that facilitate unity have disappeared.
One striking feature of Donald Trump's electoral campaign is his routine willingness to violate the norm of political leadership described in the previous paragraph. His understanding of 'greatness' involves a commitment to not just a zero-sum international order, but also a zero-sum national order. He has been facilitated in so doing by our mass media including newly developing forms of social media and this, in turn, has emboldened the worst instincts of some Nativist, anti-Semitic, and racist elements of the population.
The previous paragraph is compatible with the truth of the critique sometimes also voiced by Trump and some of his sympathizers of the political status quo, including the features of crony capitalism revealed, once again, by the (illegal) leaking of Clinton emails. It is not impossible that only a candidate like Trump can disrupt, if he so wishes, the military-industrial-financial complex that is so characteristic of today's politics. It is not impossible that the relatively free movement of people and goods are, for all their commercial benefits and moral desirability, not just harmful to many, but undermine other valuable ends, including community, belonging, and substantive well-being of many. Perhaps, it's true that only a candidate that rejects the liberal status quo is willing to really tackle the polity's more structural ills.
This year's Presidential campaign has brought Trump tantalizingly close to victory tomorrow.* Most forecasters seem to doubt it will happen, but the real possibility (at least according to Nate Silver) is unsettling. The polls published today are compatible with a Trump victory, and after having been wrong on the status quo bias that I falsely assumed prior to the Brexit vote I am very cautious about pontificating about tomorrow's results.
Nobody knows, perhaps not even Trump (who has not set forward a coherent plan for the future), what will happen if Donald Trump wins the election tomorrow. The President has enormous powers, especially in foreign policy, a huge pulpit, and sets the tenor of the workings of the executive branch of the most powerful and dangerous government in the world.
The winner of tomorrow's election will inherit a state apparatus that is capable and seemingly willing to spy extensively on its own citizens and to execute foreign enemies from drones hovering in the skies anywhere. So, it is certainly possible that any President can, with reasonable popular support, undermine the domestic system of checks and balances and violate the existing local constitutional order and, through a mixture of force, fear, and reward introduce an anti-Liberal social order. A lot of my intellectual friends understand the moment as akin to periods of democratic turmoil that in the early 1920s in Italy (in the aftermath of WWI and social conflict) or in the early 1930s in Germany (in the aftermath economic depression and hyperinflation) brought dictators to power, in part, by electoral vote and, in part, by the misguided facilitation of anti-Liberal, Conservative political elites and the mistaken, Marxist adherence to the belief that anything that undermines parliamentarian democracy aids their path to rule. In so far as the Enlightenment project today, warts and all, is ultimately underwritten by American military and financial power it is quite possible that a Trump win will mean the end of Enlightenment.
As I said, I have no idea what happens if Trump wins. But I do think that, if he loses, some of the claims about the impact of his campaign on the national fabric are overblown. Some people claim that there is no path forward and that the political terrain after the election is not navigable (see here for an example). But is worth noting that The United States survived not just many extremely divisive and nativist political campaigns, but (far worse) the many evils associated with the institution of slavery, the Civil War, the failures of reconstruction and Jim Crow, the Great Depression, the social unrest and assassinations of the 1960s, defeat in Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon, and the blunders of the Iraq invasion.
The point is this: whatever happens after an election is what happens after an election and is subject to the demands of political craftsmanship and art. The question, then, is if the winner of the election and the other members of our political elites will recognize and are capable of rising to the occasion in order to maintain a liberal form of government despite the enduring and powerful temptations otherwise.
*It's an open question if that is because or despite his practice of disparagement.