Trump and Hillary: Rival Claims of Superiority
Trump and Hillary are sounding more and more alike, with the latter of late sounding a lot like Trump in claiming that half of Trump’s supporters are “deplorables,” implying of course that Trump himself is “deplorable.” And, of course, Trump has long talked about Hillary’s supporters and others in similar ways. But why should this concern us? After all, isn’t this just “business or politics as usual?”
It is useful to distinguish between claims of “merit” and claims of “superiority.” Politicians may claim that they “merit” an office, here, the presidency; or they can claim that they are “superior” to their opponents. And this is not a difference without a distinction. And, currently, it is the latter claim of being superior that is being made by both Trump and Clinton. Each is claiming his or her superiority to the other and not claiming that she or he merits being president. So when Clinton claims that Trump is “unfit” to be president or that his supporters are “deplorable,” her implicit claim is that “I, Hillary, am superior to Trump and my supporters are superior to his supporters.” And Trump makes the same, implicit claims.
Now, such claims make the candidates’ rhetoric and campaign more intense, more personal than these would be were the candidates to claim that they merited the presidency. “Proving” or demonstrating one’s superiority to another requires that this other be shown to be inferior; that is, shown to be an inferior human being, a human being who is not entitled to the equality that comes from a recognition of commonality, a recognition of sameness. That “half” of Trump’s supporters who are “deplorable” should not be entitled to participate in our politics, just as the “47%” of Obama’s supporters that Mitt Romney called out in 2012 should not have been entitled to such participation. Conversely, though, debating one’s merits does not require the superior/inferior paradigm. My merits may be judged independently of your merits, whereas my claimed superiority requires your inferiority. “I am fit but you are unfit!”
This distinction is crucial in a republic founded on the claim that all are created equal. Basing one’s claim to rule or govern on merit is consistent with such republicanism, while basing one’s claim to rule or govern on superiority is not. For if officials think that they govern because they are superior to those being governed, then they can claim to govern independently of “the consent of the governed.” Their superiority justifies severing the link between them and that consent, which is of course the basis of all legitimate government power. And, further, without consent, there is no politics. There is only administration or bureaucracy and the disempowerment of “we the people.”
Insofar as Trump and Clinton are claiming the right to govern us because they are superior, just so far they are claiming the right to govern without regard to “the consent of the governed.” They might take this consent into account but they do so only as a matter of accommodation, not as the essence of republican or popular government. Conversely, were they to base their claim to govern on their merits, they could do so only with our consent because claims to govern based on merit do not subvert the kind of commonality between the governing and the governed that lies at the core of republican or popular government. Claims to govern based on superiority do subvert both the commonality and the equality needed by and aspired to in republican societies. And insofar as Trump and Clinton makes such claims based on their superiority, just so far each of them has embraced an elitism that is unalloyed by a recognition of the human sameness and it accompaniment, the affection or caring that should characterize republican citizens and their governors.
In the “corporate world,” a world populated by managers who seek to manipulate others so as to increase the corporation’s and their own power, such caring, such affection is or seems simply “idealistic.” But in the political world, at least in a republican political world, such affection is not only indispensable but is or should be the very essence of citizenship.