All of us have certain broad principles of justice we claim to adhere to. All of us, equally, have a variety of individualized judgments we make on the particular moral cases and controversies we might consider on a daily basis. Needless to say, sometimes our broad principles and our particular judgments don't precisely line up. In such cases, we can either modify the principle to account for the particular judgment or modify our case-specific judgments so they match the principle. Neither move is inherently more or less legitimate than the other -- sometimes reference back to a broad principle can tell us that our assessment of an individual case is mistaken, other times the exigencies of a concrete scenario can illuminate a flaw or inadequacies in our principles. The process of moving back in forth between the general and the specific, trying to bring the two into alignment, is known as "reflective equilibrium".
The rise of Donald Trump -- openly racist, avowedly xenophobic, deeply misogynistic, contemptuous of the very idea of rule of law -- has made me rethink some very basic assumptions I had about the American polity. Most notably, it raised the question about whether racism really had just gone to ground -- people's views not so much changing from the 1960s as being covered up until the moment was right. Yet it remained difficult for me to accept the idea that nothing changed, that this was simply the people getting what they always wanted. Was it really the case that a good 45% or so of Americans had always been secretly thirsting for far-right autocracy, awaiting only the right standard-bearer? Did bedrock American values regarding rule of law, regarding basic temperament for office, regarding human rights and liberties, really have so little purchase?
As I've been thinking about it, I've wondered if we are witnessing folks go through the reflective equilibrium, darkly. Many Americans, it is clear, held some pretty brutal case-specific views regarding social outgroups -- including mass deportations of immigrants and religious tests on public office. And Trump stood before them and endorsed those views loud and clear, but also was unyielding in identifying the principles that such particularistic views were and were not compatible with. Even the time-worn platitudes about colorblindness wouldn't do. And people, as reflective equilibrium would predict, adjusted their principles accordingly. And in doing so, well, that made certain other, still more radical specific proposals seem a little less out-of-bounds. Maybe we should endorse violence against protesters. Maybe it's okay to lob Holocaust imagery at Jewish journalists. And back-and-forth we go, the boat rocking ever-steadily towards fascism.
When I fret about a Donald Trump presidency, the first thing that springs to my mind is not a particular policy -- as abhorrent as I'm sure I'd find most of them. It's a question of more fundamental principle: the very idea of "rule of law". If a court tells Donald Trump he can't do something, can anyone say with confidence he'll listen? Does he believe, in any meaningful sense, in limited authority when he's the authority? Does he believe he's constrained by the rules, orders, statutes, cases, precedents? This charge -- thrown with such reckless abandon at Hillary Clinton ("there’s no politician who has been at the center of so many scandals that have turned out to be worth so little") -- is a very real concern when it comes to Trump. This is not someone who will work the system in a way I'd cluck my tongue at. This is a guy who may well destroy the system if it doesn't bend to his every whim.
The scariest thing about the Trump movement, then, is not that its adherents don't see how their man flouts the conventions that keep America's constitutional system afloat. The scariest thing is the prospect that they do see it, and they're simply okay with it -- those values and principles aren't what guides them anymore. To support Trump and his specific policies would require tossing out significant swaths of what makes America recognizable as a constitutional democracy. And so, on reflection, they reached a new equilibrium.