Donald Trump And Edmund Burke: Common People, Might Not Have Got Along


The rise and fall, then rise and fall, then rise and whatever of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has got Blair Boyer wondering what might happen if he sat down with a famous political figure from history.

If 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke and Republican nominee for President Donald Trump sat down for a New York sandwich, each would see the other as being everything that’s wrong with democracy. Trump would see Burke as a self-important elite, and Burke would consider Trump a fraudster preying on ignorant fears.

Self-styled anti-establishment hero Trump would undoubtedly characterise a political theorist-cum-politician like Burke as the very embodiment of the establishment. No surprises there.

But Burke’s impression of Trump might be far more telling. In Burke’s 1774 Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll he foreshadowed what he saw as the risk posed by democracy. Burke was an advocate for representative government; that is a system whereby citizens vote to elect people to represent them in parliament, as opposed to a system where elected officials are merely delegates, or a means through which the peoples’ will is expressed, unsullied.

Irish statesman and political theorist, Edmund Burke.
Irish statesman and political theorist, Edmund Burke.

In ‘The Concept of Representation’ political scientist Hanna Pitkin explains that Burke’s issue with the latter strain of democracy was threefold: First, he believed that government required the kind of intelligence rarely found in the general population.

Second, and most importantly in the context of this article, he thought if common people could vote, demagogues would take advantage and give voice to the lesser parts of their nature. A demagogue could best be described as a political leader that takes power by “…arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.”

And one need only take a glance at some of Trump’s quotes from the US election race to understand why Burke would see him in this light. Here’s a small sample:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”

In the early days of the primaries these comments were written off by the commentariat as political self-immolation; the sort of statements that would end Trump’s tilt at the Presidency before it had even begun. But more than a year on, Trump secured the Republican nomination, and coalesced the GOP hierarchy into reluctantly endorsing him.

Donald Trump emerges from a bus in 2005, in the clip that has destroyed his run at the 2016 presidency.
Donald Trump emerges from a bus in 2005, in the clip that has destroyed his run at the 2016 presidency.

There is a frightening lesson to be learned in Trump’s ascension. It is a lesson that has been sharply mirrored in the United Kingdom’s decision at referendum to exit from the European Union.

Boris Johnson, former Lord Mayor of London and newly appointed Foreign Secretary was an architect of the Brexit campaign. Indeed, Edmund Burke way well have found parallels between Trump’s strategy to win the Presidency and Johnson’s strategy to build support for the UK leaving the EU.

In May this year Johnson claimed that the EU prevented bananas from being sold in bunches of more than two or three. He also remarked:

“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out [a European Superstate], and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods… there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe.”

Johnson was a powerful voice behind influential ‘Vote Leave’ arguments such as a halt to immigration, and a weekly NHS saving of 350 million pounds. Both these claims have been shown to be questionable at best.

Lord of the Idiots, UK's Boris Johnson.
Lord of the Idiots, UK’s Boris Johnson.

Say what you will about the intellects of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but it is difficult to accept that they truly believe their own outlandish statements.

More probably they are seizing an opportunity and taking advantage of a big, disenchanted cohort that feels increasingly unrepresented by traditional political parties and ‘establishment’ figures.

Trump and Johnson are like the erstwhile travelling salesman, Gladstone bag in hand, going door-to-door selling liniments and ointments guaranteed to cure the incurable but giving false hope to all those unfortunate enough to answer the knock.

And as that cohort gets bigger, the lure of this strategy grows, for as the US election and Brexit have shown, that disillusioned mob now carries enough clout to win the vote.

The fringe is growing toward the centre. And as it does the prophecies of Edmund Burke are coming to pass.

For a moment I lamented the fact that Burke is not alive to re-prosecute his own arguments; but then it occurred to me that those persuaded by the politics of Trump and Johnson would be lost at “demagogue” – at which point they would cry “demigod!” in fierce agreement and go on their merry way.

Blair Boyer is Deputy Chief of Staff to South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill. He lives in Adelaide.