President-elect Donald Trump

Populism, welcome to America

How could an obviously unqualified person like crass celebrity businessman Donald Trump win the presidency of the United States?

I believe this is the result of a perfect storm made up of a large disenfranchised population and opportunistic populism.

Barack Obama’s campaign for president was very personality-based, building on his great charisma and oratory skills to create an emotional connection with the public. His speeches were powerful and memorable, making a tired electorate believe that he was the outsider who would bring much-needed change to Washington. His message of hope and his grandiose, high-minded promises clearly resounded with voters that had just been through two unpopular wars and a large-scale economic crisis.

Obama’s electoral strategy worked. He got the job. However, he had set too high a bar for himself and naturally fell short of the expectations—and not because he was a bad president (he wasn’t spectacular, but wasn’t by any means bad), but because it was impossible for him to deliver the kind and intensity of change that his electorate was hoping for. Instead of a revolution, they got more of the same, with minor changes here and there. The economy was on the road to recovery, but most people weren’t feeling it in their everyday lives. People feared for their livelihood and even for national security, as the situation in the Middle East seemed to become ever more out of control. All of this would usually make people turn to traditional Republican candidates. This time, however, this was not viable, as the GOP was undergoing a dangerous identity crisis.

The unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis of 2008 created the perfect conditions for a rift inside the Republican Party, with a newfound prominence of populists and religious reactionaries that directly opposed the more traditionally conservative GOP mainstream. This forced the party to shift rightwards to cater to this new, more radicalized base. Its more radical image was also exacerbated by excessive demonization by Democrats (and often even the press), who didn’t hesitate to call George W. Bush’s presidency the worst ever and brand moderate, reasonable Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain as potential harbingers of the Armageddon.

Adhering to Newton’s third law of motion, the apparent growing strength of the religious right (with some help from the economic situation) probably provoked the surge of a more aggressive, socially progressive, and socialist-leaning left—the Democratic Socialists, with their armies of Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) and excessive and divisive political correctness. This, in turn, paved the way for the xenophobic alt-right and its online crusade against SJWs, political correctness, and traditional conservatism.

The stage was set for the coming of the populists. A disenfranchised, disillusioned people fed up with mainstream politicians. Two weakened parties, hurt by their own irresponsible demagoguery and mutual demonization. As often happens in situations like this, it was just a matter of time before outsiders (real or perceived) presented themselves as messianic saviors.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump hijacked the party, abandoning its traditional conservative values in favor of his own alt-right-friendly nationalist populism. On the Democratic side, previously independent senator Bernie Sanders managed to mobilize Millennials with his own brand of socialist-tinged populism. Proposals from both populist sides were largely absurd, politically naïve, and economically nonsensical. In a normal situation, neither would have been viable as mainstream candidates. This, however, was not a normal situation.

Despite the impressive strength shown by Sanders throughout the primaries, with the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic establishment managed to contain him, even though he brought to light an ominous disconnect between his newly adopted party and what should have been its base. The Republican establishment, on the other hand, turned out to be even more fractured and out-of-touch with its base, letting Trump bulldoze his way to the nomination and make party his own.

With Clinton and Trump as candidates, the contest for the presidency became one between a traditional, establishment politician and a populist outsider. In what probably harks back to Obama’s highly personalist 2008 campaign, elections became more and more focused on emotional connection, with facts and matters of policy  taking a backseat to narrative and popularity.

The Trump phenomenon does not necessarily mean that his electorate agreed with the self-evident absurdities that he said during the campaign. However, they at least either didn’t care or didn’t take their candidate literally as long as he fought against the establishment, which included traditional politicians and the mainstream media from all sides of the political spectrum. The more flak he got (usually fairly), the more popular he became—his insults and improprieties seemed to be seen as a weapon against the corrupt, unfair, politically correct mainstream world.

So what are the consequences of Trump’s victory?

Domestically, the probable end of the two major political parties as we know them. The GOP ceased to be the natural home of conservatives, who will have to appease to Trump and his alt-right support base if they want to remain relevant. This is a very different GOP from Ronald Reagan’s or George H. W. Bush’s. To remain electorally viable, Democrats, in turn, will probably be increasingly busy dealing with the populist left, as Bernie Sanders’s socialist rhetoric was able to garner a lot more genuine enthusiasm than what the establishment and its candidate, Hillary Clinton, had to offer. Another problem facing the Democrats is that, after Clinton, they have no viable national leaders left. How will it behave as the new opposition and how effective will it actually be?

Internationally, Trump’s victory brings renewed energy to populists all over the world, being especially dangerous to many European countries with strong nationalist parties, such as Austria and France. He could also reignite leftist populism in Latin American countries by becoming their tailor-made scapegoat. His promised protectionism, if implemented, could also have troubling consequences for both American and world economies.

As for what his presidency will ultimately be like, at this point, it is very hard to tell, as he had very few concrete, coherent proposals. His election was more about what and who he was not than about his ideas. One theory is that he could still turn out to be a pleasant surprise, even if at the cost of losing his popularity among voters who wanted him to turn Washington upside-down. The checks and balances that constrain a president’s field of action and the reality of everyday presidency could also be a factor that end up taming Trump.

Whatever happens, much like Obama, but to a much larger degree, Trump in all likelihood will not be able deliver on most of his promises. This could either continue the vicious cycle of disillusionment, as politicians will need ever more fantastic rhetoric to win elections, leading to ever larger disappointment, or maybe even break the populist chain, with the electorate finally concluding that a saner, more capable person is the lesser of two evils. In any case, at this point, nobody knows anything. This story is yet to be written.

Image source: Gage Skidmore

3 years ago

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