Does Trump represent America? You probably had an immediate and visceral reaction to that question. But you probably did not think, “That question is out of bounds.” I think that’s because we are re-litigating what representation means.
Representation was a Latin term that came to English by way of Old French. As Hanna Fenichel Pitkin details on her excellent book on the subject, it migrated to politics by way of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes told us that the representative was the one who could act whereas the represented had no real role (aside from formally choosing the representative). In Hobbes’ view, because the representative’s actions are legally binding on those he represents, he has all the rights and privileges while the represented bear all the responsibility.
That is the view Jerry Falwell seemed to endorse when he assured us that we were attacked on 9/11 because “God will not be mocked.” Implicitly, Falwell asserted that politicians enacted a series of laws about same-sex couples and women’s rights and God punished people for those laws. The people who suffered did not enact the laws but they voted for those who did. If you share that view of representation then, presumably, you will want to be represented by individuals whose actions will not get you in trouble. That may help explain why Trump’s popularity among Evangelical Christians is so high. His affairs are personal, not something for which ordinary people will be punished.
But that is not how most people view representation. When people speak of a representative government, they often mean a government that is responsive to them. The president is elected to lead. However, not only do we choose to follow (or not) but when we express an interest, the president, as our representative, has to either fulfill that interest or explain to us (in terms of our interests) why he will not do so. This process– from us expressing an interest to our leaders either enacting our wishes or explaining to us why they won’t—is public and institutionalized. That helps explain why so many have rallied to the defense of American institutions. How many of you thought two years ago that liberals would be wholeheartedly embracing the FBI? How many thought that conservatives would denounce attacks on the liberal media?
However, a president is not just a legislator. He is also a symbol. He represents the nation much the same way the flag does. And just as we are legally bound by our leaders’ actions, so are we symbolized by their comportment. If the president swears, sleeps around, says one thing one minute and another one the next, that reflects on America. To a segment of the population that’s fine because they are not being represented elsewhere.
For Trump voters, culture has gotten worse since the 1950s. Yes, there is some racism in that but there is also a lack of representation. For we are depicted not just in politics but in theaters, in popular culture, in music. When was the last time you watched a movie about Appalachia or a sit-com about a traditional family? There is a reason Roseanne got such high ratings. It may not be the greatest show on earth but it’s one of the few portraying that other America. When Trump supporters look at Trump, many recognize their inclinations and prejudices. He symbolizes them.
And maybe that brings us to what Trump supporters were telling us with their votes. For yet another way of deciding whether someone represents us is asking, “Is he one of us?” When CBS asked Trump supporters whether Trump advanced their interests, they truthfully answered no. That does not matter to them. They want symbolic representation and Trump is giving that to them in droves.
If I’m right about this, the debate looks something like this. Folks who oppose Trump say: We do not represent madmen on television or in the legislature. We elect representatives to look out for our interests. We expect them to be responsive to us and have created various institutions to make sure that they will be. Trump does not even pretend he is taking our interests into account. He is dismantling the very institutions that let him know what we want. Look at his attacks on the press, the Department of Justice, and the FBI. Look at the corruption all around him. He does not represent us.
The response is: We have listened to you people long enough. And we don’t see anything that resembles us anywhere. Trump’s not perfect but he reminds us a little of the people we talk to every day. Is he doing a good job as president? Well, honestly, maybe not. But he’s shaking things up and reminding you lot that we matter. He forces you to see us. Because all your talk of representation and institutions has done nothing for us.
The two sides are talking past each other. They are both right in a way. But this is not so much a debate as an incompatibility. The goal here is not to win an argument but to prevail. How it ends, I do not know but I can’t help feeling that our republic may be at stake.