The Sunday Magazine

Adam Gopnik on the fate of liberal democracy in the Trump era

Adam Gopnik admits that almost everyone in the politically polarized democracies of the United States and Europe seems to have a bone to pick with liberalism. But at a time when the US is lurching into an ever-deepening political crisis, the best-selling Canadian-American author and New Yorker writer discusses what has become of democracy in the Republic of Trump and why he’s still holding a torch for liberalism.
Adam Gopnik is a writer for The New Yorker and a scholar. His latest book, A Thousand Small Sanities, explores the fragmentation of liberal democracies across the west. (Brigitte Lacombe/Basic Books)

According to writer and scholar Adam Gopnik, the United States is "facing a moment of extreme national emergency." 

Last week Donald Trump seemed to push the world closer to the brink of war when he made threats against Iran, which the U.S. believes was behind recent attacks in Saudi Arabia. Then he seemed to back away. He said, "There are many options. There is the ultimate option and there are options a lot less than that." Much of the world shuddered with apprehension. 

Gopnik is one of the most astute and disturbing chroniclers of American politics. The New Yorker staff writer has just finished his latest book, called A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

Every liberal democracy that has ever existed is imperfect, and one of the foundational impulses of liberalism is to recognize the built in imperfection of all of our arrangements.- Adam Gopnik- Adam Gopnik

It's an argument for liberalism that is especially relevant with the rise of nationalism, tribalism and tyrannical autocracies around the world. 

In a wide-ranging itnerview, Gopnik spoke to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright about the Trump era and how liberal democracies can encourage self-reform. 

Here is some of that conversation. 

Michael Enright: Last week Donald Trump declared war on Joe Biden. Is he now going to declare war on Iran?

Adam Gopnik: The thing about Trump — and this is one of the things that makes him so uniquely dangerous and toxic — is that his impulses are much greater than his ideology. His impulses are his ideology. Now in some ways that can be a perversely saving trait, because it means on something like Iran, he fired John Bolton because his impulses told him it might not be a good idea to get involved in a full scale shooting war with Iran. But there's no consistency to that. You know Trump is like the Roman emperors. Between, you know, Nero and Caligula, he's wholly hostage to his impulses. If the Iranians said something nice about him tomorrow, he would fly to Iran and take up Sharia law. If they said something mean about him, they'd start another war. 

One of the reasons ... Trump is so toxic is that he doesn't just have an ideological line against the premises of liberal democracy; every instinct and impulse in his body is against the premises of liberal democracy.- Adam Gopnik- Adam Gopnik

Your magazine last week said that every election is an exercise in trust. Why did 63 million Americans trust Donald Trump in 2016?

One of the truths about nationalism always is is that the greatest nationalists tend to come from outside the nation. Famous Cases: Napoleon was of course Corsican, Stalin was a Georgian. And Trump clearly is the herald of an American ethnic nationalism of a very profound kind, though he shares nothing in common at all as a human being with the people in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania who supported him. My own view is an outlier and a little heretical — [it's] that Trump is a kind of bullet in a game of Russian roulette that America has been playing with itself since the American Civil War. 

At any moment in American history since the Civil War independent of the specific economic moment there has been this vein of vengeful ethnic nationalism, rooted in a profound fear of immigrants and black people above all. And the ideology rarely changes. You know, people tend to forget now that Archie Bunker from All in the Family ...That was almost 50 years ago and Archie Bunker's views were exactly identical to Donald Trump's views on things. It was a totally different economic context, but that view was there.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (The Associated Press)

Throughout American history, that Trump-eyed view of the world has always been available. It has triumphed because of the particular economic depredations of 2016. I tend to think, when you look at Trump's triumph and how narrow it was lost the popular vote by an enormous margin, that this is a game of Russian roulette America has been playing and the gun went off.

[On] the title of the book: A Thousand Small Sanities. How do we recognize a small sanity?

With difficulty, often. The title of the book evolved. My editor urged me to use it from a long piece I had written about the decline of crime in the United States. Now, that was one of those things that's actually an incredible story. Crime, which had been mounting throughout the 1960s right through the 1980s, suddenly began to vanish. So there's there's less violent crime in New York now than there was 100 years ago. Hard for people to understand that. And yet we didn't see it,  we missed it. Nobody was paying attention to it. We paid enormous attention to the rise in crime but not nearly as much to the decline. And when I began to read and ask what had caused this extraordinary decline the answer was no one thing. It was a thousand small sanities, with lots of intelligent, small-scale, piecemeal instances of social engineering and work that had altered things. It was positive cycles being created. And that's when I wrote "a thousand small sanities are wiser than one big idea." 

Adam Gopnik defines "small sanities" as "lots of intelligent, small-scale, piecemeal instances of social engineering and work that [have] [...] altered things" for the betterment of social democracy. (Submitted by Adam Gopnik)

[Have we in the west] been inoculated with the principles of liberal democracy?

I think we have been, and to some degree, we've been dangerously free from the disease long enough that we don't sufficiently value the vaccine. One of the things that I find particularly worrying right now is that though the roots of liberal democracy are very deep and global, the fruits of liberal democracy are very specific and fragile.

You say in the book that the institutions and practices of liberalism are very fragile, and when they break they shatter.

Yes, the institutions are incredibly fragile. The practices are rich — they're part of our life as human beings. As I say in the book, we have many social practices of coexistence that aren't hard to find; principles of pluralism embedded in law, those are very rare in human history and they're incredibly fragile. 

One of the things that very much worries me and frightens me is to see younger generations, who are so accustomed to them, vastly underestimate their fragility. They don't understand that our ability to have this conversation right now on a national radio program is not commonplace. It's extraordinary. It took an amazing amount of Canadian history to produce this conversation right now, of people actually struggling for free speech — for subsidized free speech. And the same thing is true about universities, the same thing is true about a free media and the same thing is true about scientific debate. Those are incredibly fragile institutions. If we destroy them now, we will not remake them easily.

One of the things that I find particularly worrying right now is that though the roots of liberal democracy are very deep and global, the fruits of liberal democracy are very specific and fragile.- Adam Gopnik- Adam Gopnik

Are you living in a functioning liberal democracy right now?

Every liberal democracy that has ever existed is imperfect, and one of the foundational impulses of liberalism is to recognize the built-in imperfection of all of our arrangements. 

The United States right now suffers from enormous democratic deficits. They're built into the constitution of the country. Rural white people have a hugely disproportionate effect on political outcomes. That's a democratic deficit. The rich can pay for speech in ways that the poor and the middle classes cannot, that's another democratic deficit. Rupert Murdoch gets a lot more free speech than even a loquacious writer does. Those are all deficits. But, one of the lessons of the book, and I think one of the lessons of history, is that even very imperfect democracies are capable of self-reform and are capable of good actions.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

Listen to more interviews with Adam Gopnik on CBC Radio

Tuesday's election was cast as a referendum on Trumpism that would set the direction and tone of the country for the future. Michael talks to Adam Gopnik, the Canadian New Yorker writer who is one of today's most penetrating observers of American political culture.


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