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Revisiting the Foundations of Democratic Self-Governance



Authors as Published

Virginia Tech (VT) President Tim Sands shared a thoughtful letter with the faculty, staff and students of the institution he leads on March 30, 2018. His comments concerned an incident earlier in that week involving racial bias and discrimination among members of one of the University’s athletic teams. For my purposes here, the specifics of the scenario are less significant than Sands’ response to it and what the matter says more generally about the state of American society and politics today:

While we discuss and debate the intent, the context, and the remorse expressed by the students involved, we would be missing an opportunity if we did not accept the reality that this incident is not an isolated one at Virginia Tech, in our communities, or in our country. …

We cannot practice Ut Prosim [“That I May Serve”] without empathy, and we cannot develop empathy without curiosity and a commitment to learning more about the lived experience of others every day.[1]

Coincidentally, just two days before, Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, highlighted President Donald Trump’s pattern of appointments and daily role in assaulting long-honored values and norms in our nation’s politics. He noted that Trump had recently nominated his personal physician, Ronny L. Jackson, to head the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, knowing well that his choice possessed no managerial experience of any sort. He suggested that the President:

… is acting as if his job were to run up ratings for his TV show, not to make actual policies.…Yet America still needs to be governed, and Trump’s lack of seriousness has consequences.…Another consequence is that if and when America needs real leadership, there will be nobody home.

So far, the Trump era has been almost free from crises Trump didn’t generate himself. One of the few such events demanding an effective response was Hurricane Maria—and the response was disastrously inadequate.[2]

These examples each reflect two broader tendencies in American society. Trump has brought these together and represents their apotheosis to date as he has sought to exploit them for political mobilization and power. The first example, evidenced in the Virginia Tech incident, relates to this nation’s long festering difficulty in ensuring equal rights under the law and in practice for Native Americans, women and for the vulnerable in its midst, including, among others, non-white citizens and residents, individuals with disabilities of all sorts, including those with mental illness, and finally, those whose lone social “offense” is relative poverty. Assuring human and civil rights and freedom for these individuals requires that society treat them with dignity and respect. Yet, contrary to this imperative, Trump has exploited the relative ignorance, innate potential for cruelty and the fears of a share of the population and used their willingness to other and discriminate against those different than themselves as his primary political mobilization strategy. Thus, he sought to discredit and humiliate his opponent in the 2016 election because she was female, has routinely lied about immigrants and refugees as threats to the nation, has falsely demeaned African Americans and Hispanics repeatedly and has even gone so far as publicly to debase athletes of color who have dared disagree with his demagoguery. This behavior has broken all long-standing norms of presidential and civil behavior even as it has implicated the President personally and repeatedly in lying to the general public concerning those he has maligned. It has found him continually fanning the flames of racial and other discriminatory behaviors among Americans willing to listen to such lies. Perhaps the most obvious example of this stance on Trump’s part occurred last summer when he suggested that Neo-Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists were the moral and ethical equivalent of those protesting their behavior in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When called to account for his dismissive attitude toward human and civil rights and for his mendacity, Trump has claimed that those who question his claims are criticizing him for partisan purposes and offering “Fake News.” The more egregious his paeans to racist or discriminatory behavior or his lies, the more quickly and loudly he has denounced those who might tell the public the truth, even when those individuals expressing concern are officials in his own administration or elected Congressional leaders of his own party. Trump cannot be held individually responsible for the VT episode, or for the uptick in hate crimes and incidents of discrimination in the United States during his presidency. Nor is he personally accountable for the fact that many have chosen to believe his nonsense concerning minorities and refugees and immigrants, but he has surely made it easier for those peddling the hate and lies that underlie these examples to believe that it is reasonable so to behave, since the President daily advances such rhetoric and claims. More, he has refused to repudiate those practicing still worse behaviors, and instead has daily encouraged just such comportment in his efforts to mobilize citizens on the basis of ignorance, fear and willingness to other and hate.

Even as he has peddled animus, Trump has also appealed to voters with superficial and empty binaries and promises. For Trump, immigrants are rapists and criminals and the nation’s cities are aflame and experiencing high levels of crime, even though these assertions are simply fantasies. Likewise, in Trump’s version of reality, trade agreements are pernicious lies costing Americans’ jobs and the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is the essence of courageous leadership. Every one of these claims is outrageous and misleads and simplifies reality, even as it offers superficial binaries and scapegoats for complex social challenges. Trump was once the attraction on a reality show that featured him following carefully orchestrated scripts to “fire” individuals who fell short of his supposed entrepreneurial standards. As Krugman suggested, Trump has behaved in office as if he were still appearing weekly on that television series by appealing to voters’ basic desire for easy explanations of complex phenomena. But, as Krugman also observed, Trump’s failure to address reality with his falsely constructed Cosmos misleads citizens, even as it daily creates a new array of social problems of its own.

To the extent that Trump is able to persuade Americans of his cartoonish and contorted vision, he encourages them to hate and to simplify reality in ways that lead to superficial and distorted policies and to adopt behaviors that undermine the possibility for democratic deliberation. President Sands argued rightly that the appropriate response to the VT incident is increased probity, empathy and respect for other individuals, irrespective of their characteristics. In contrast, Trump’s mobilization strategy prompts those who believe his caricatures to adopt his anti-intellectual stance and his contempt for compassion. Nevertheless, both prudent consideration and understanding are essential for democratic possibility in a diverse democratic society. As Sands also remarked, both of these requisites of self-governance depend on individuals reflexively grasping their significance and practicing them daily: “Let us use this moment to confront our own biases, cultural misperceptions, fears, and aggressions.”[3] In the name of power and his personal narcissism, Trump daily attacks the fundaments of self-governance in American society. Sands’ warning and call to practice empathy and to learn more about those with whom we live could not be more timely for the University community he leads and for the broader society of which it is a part.


[1] Sands, Timothy. “A Statement from President Tim Sands,” March 30, 2018, Accessed March 31, 2018.

[2] Krugman, Paul. “Is it Policy, or Just Reality TV?” The New York Times, March 29, 2018,  Accessed March 29, 2018.

[3] Sands, Timothy. “A Statement from President Tim Sands.”

Publication Date

April 8, 2018