In a nationally syndicated op-ed this week, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said he was worried because President Trump’s inauguration speech evoked a special relationship between the people and the president, while intimating that the legislature is by its very nature corrupt and determined to subvert the people’s will in a democratic setting. In making this argument, Gerson suggested that Trump’s politics borrows unconsciously from the 18th century Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Gerson may be right about Trump. However, he’s wrong about Rousseau. Contrary to Gerson, Trump’s ideas about executive power and its relationship with the public have little to do with what Rousseau argued. Indeed, Rousseau actually warned his readers against politicians like Trump.
This is what Gerson thinks that Rousseau is saying:
Trump’s inaugural address owes a great deal to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or at least one interpretation of him). Rousseau wrote of leaders who incarnate “the general will.” Trump argues that the American people have been betrayed by the venal people they elect and reelect. Since the normal processes of democracy have been corrupted, bringing America to the brink of ruin, a strong hand is required.
In Trump’s speech, there are just two uncorrupted actors: the people and the president. The only thing that Trump asks of citizens is to support him. So this really leaves only one actor who actually acts — a leader who claims to embody the general will. When Trump asserts, “We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth,” who is the “we”? It is the “forgotten men and women” and the single leader who has not forgotten them.
In Gerson’s version, Trump is the kind of leader Rousseau wanted — someone who reflects the general will of the electorate. He sees Rousseau as impatient with the squalid compromises of legislative politics and friendly to strong leaders with a general mandate to do the things that need to be done. This also implies that Rousseau was less aware of the risks of populism and indeed totalitarianism than he ought to have been.
This is what Rousseau actually says:
Gerson’s criticism of Rousseau — that he was impatient with the legislative process and friendly toward incipient totalitarianism — has a long history. But it is also misleading. In fact, a careful reading of Rousseau and his ideas about the general will suggest that Rousseau would harshly criticize the very figure whom Gerson thinks Rousseau would celebrate — Trump.
Rousseau did not believe that the general will was a blank check that allowed would-be populists and demagogues to do whatever they wanted. He did believe that sovereignty — or ultimate political authority — should rest with the people. However, that did not mean that the people were always right. They might be swayed from the true general will by the persuasive arguments of individuals with their own particular purposes.
As Rousseau cautioned in his “Social Contract”: “The general will is always right, but the judgment which guides it is not always enlightened. It has to be to made to see objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to appear to it, to show it the good road it is looking for and to protect it from the seduction of particular wills.” Rousseau intended this as an invitation to an education in civic virtue and fraternal love among citizens, where “one cannot offend against one of its members without attacking the body.”
Rousseau warns against politicians like Trump
Rousseau’s worries about the “seduction of particular wills” were addressed precisely toward the concerns that Gerson has about Trump. Rousseau, like Gerson, was worried about the ways in which demagogues may make populist appeals and sway people away from the true general interest.
In Rousseau’s “Discourse on Political Economy,” he warned that there would be ambitious politicians who claimed to represent the general will but did not embody its principles. He cautioned the people not to be “seduced by private interests which some few skillful men succeed by their reputation and eloquence to substitute for the people’s own interest. Then the public deliberation will be one thing, and the general will another thing entirely.” Trump may not seem eloquent to some observers, but there is no doubt that his rhetoric appeals to his supporters.
The general will isn’t just what a demagogic politician says it is. Instead, it is a substantive principle that privileges equality. In Rousseau’s “Emile,” he indicated that the general will “always tends to equality.” In the “Government of Poland,” he described equality as “the principle of the constitution.” And in the “Social Contract,” he contrasted the particular will, which “tends, by its nature, to partiality,” with the general will, which tends “to equality.”
This means both equal legal rights and equality of wealth. In his “Discourse on Political Economy,” Rousseau warned that citizens can be sure that the wealthy will employ the “pretext of the public good” to assault the poor and confiscate their remaining resources. A just government, therefore, should show “strict integrity to render justice to all, and above all [seek] to protect the poor against the tyranny of the rich.” It could accomplish this primarily by “prevent[ing] extreme inequality of fortunes.” It is, to put it mildly, unclear that the Trump administration will devote itself to reducing economic inequality. If we are to take Rousseau as seriously as Gerson wants, we should be clear that the general will identifies inequality as one of the greatest social ills.
Furthermore, Rousseau insisted repeatedly that the general will necessarily generates laws that are general in application, rather than favoring particular people or groups. He insisted that “there can be no general will directed to a particular object,” since if the government favored particular parties or corporations, other parties would inevitably feel the sting of favoritism. If the Trump administration starts negotiating special tax deals for some firms and not for others, or punishing specific firms for political reasons, it will be violating the general will.
We shouldn’t blame philosophers for politicians’ actions
Commentators are often tempted to blame renowned philosophers for political difficulties, especially during challenging times. The celebrated philosopher of science, Karl Popper, for example, wrote two volumes blaming the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin on Plato, Hegel and Marx. No one has been more subject to this kind of strained interpretation than Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, attentive reading of Rousseau suggests additional reasons to challenge the new administration. If Gerson wants to criticize Trump, he is obviously in his rights, but if he wants to associate Trump and Rousseau, he needs to go back and do some more careful reading.
David Lay Williams is professor of political science and Wicklander Fellow at DePaul University and the author of “Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment” (Penn State, 2007) and “Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2014). He is presently writing “ ‘The Greatest of All Plagues’: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought” for Princeton University Press.