As nation-of-identity politics has risen, nation-of-ideas practice has been battered. In his seven months in office, Trump has shown indifference to and contempt for the notion of shared principles, flouting basic ethical norms of financial disclosure, trolling the American institutions that elected leaders usually treat with some deference, like federal courts and the press. He has shown consistent contempt for the very idea of political principle in favor of an erratic personal code built around loyalty and betrayal, esteem for money as a sign of virtue (or at least virility) and a penchant for any utterance with shock value. As many have observed, it is as if the national id had occupied the White House and announced to its constitutional superego, “You’re fired!”
Trump might seem a singularly disruptive individual, but there are signs that he is a symptom of a bigger underlying shift. The well-regarded World Values Survey recently asked Americans, on a scale of 1 to 10, how important it was for them to live in a democracy. Only 30 percent of Americans born since the 1980s chose the highest value of 10, compared with more than 70 percent of those born before World War II. Since 1995, the share of well-to-do Americans (those in the top 20 percent of income) who approve of having “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections” has doubled, to 40 percent. Strongman politics fits naturally with nationalist identity-mongering, because a leader who acts for “the people” (the “real” people, that is) doesn’t need moral justification; he can act on the simpler imperative to protect what’s ours. Public trust in the Supreme Court, often regarded as the special voice of principle in American government, has fallen overall and fractured along ideological lines.