Donald Trump Is Much More Resilient Than He Looks
The White House might not be popular, or organized – but it’s populist enough to keep a firm grip on power.
In these dark days for American democracy, some liberals are finding solace in the thought that bad as Trumpism might be, it cannot actually govern. Chaos reigns in the White House; the president himself clearly prefers campaigning and brawling to administration; and the Bannons and the Millers have so far exhibited what one observer has nicely called the “incompetence of evil.”
These impressions fit neatly into a larger picture according to which populists are simply incapable of governing: Their policy ideas are supposedly so simplistic that they will immediately fail in practice; more important still, populism is always about protest, and, once in power, populist parties and movements realize that they cannot protest against themselves. These are comforting thoughts — but they are also naive.
The world has seen plenty of populists take their countries in an authoritarian direction — think of Hugo Chávez, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or Viktor Orban — and we all should have learned by now that populism in power is by no means a contradiction in terms. All these populist actors provoked serious opposition; all proved far more resilient than those initial impressions suggested. And the governing style of the Trump administration — if one can call it that — exhibits important similarities with the most successful ruling populists.
Populists claim that they and only they represent the people or what populists frequently call the “real people” or the “silent majority.” Donald Trump brought out this logic almost textbook-style in his inauguration speech on Jan. 20, when he claimed that power had at last been given back to the people. In other words, if Trump rules, the people rule — it’s as simple as that. By definition, then, whoever opposes Trump prevents the will of the people from being implemented — and thereby also reveals themselves as an anti-democratic elitist. Thus, any institution critical of the populist (let alone one thwarting the populist’s will) can be attacked in the name of democracy. It is hence not surprising that Trump has maligned a judiciary that failed to go along with his “travel ban,” while media critical of the president are denounced as the “enemy of the American people.”
Apart from attacks on independent institutions such as courts and a free press, populists immediately try to politicize all aspects of state administration. Of course, in many countries political appointees are perfectly legitimate and in fact expected to enable the implementation of a particular political mandate. That is different, however, from attempts to destroy any neutral civil service with its own rules and professional ethics — which we have witnessed in Turkey, Hungary, and, most recently, Poland. When civil servants do their job in ways that do not please populist rulers, they are accused of “betrayal” — just as Trump did with acting Attorney General Sally Yates last month. To be sure, Yates was a political appointee effectively on her way out, yet the way she was maligned as “weak on illegal immigration” and dismissed on account of what turned out to be a correct professional legal assessment shows that Trump will not have anything approaching a normal relationship with the bureaucracy. Populists will always tell their followers that all politicians try to take possession of the bureaucracy — hence the need to remove all who worked for their predecessors — but they are the only ones who do it truly for the people. After all, only the populists authentically represent the people, and it is only proper that the people appropriate the state for their proper purposes.
Populists also engage in what political scientists call “mass clientelism”: They give benefits and bureaucratic favors exclusively to their supporters. To be sure, many governing parties seek to reward their followers. The difference is that, as with the politicization of the bureaucracy, the populists can do this much more openly with recourse to what in their eyes is a moral argument — after all, when they claim to be the only representatives of the “real people,” they always imply that whoever does not follow them is by definition not part of the real people. As Trump put it at a campaign rally last year: “The only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” In other words: Some people, even if they happen to be American citizens, simply won’t count. And it is only proper that the government looks exclusively after the “real people.”
What’s more, populists can form groups that conform to their image of the ideal people — and that are loyal to the regime. In Venezuela, Chávez created his Boliburguesía, which did very well indeed out of the Bolivarian revolution. Erdogan continues to enjoy the unshakeable support of an Anatolian middle class that emerged with the economic boom under his rule (and that also embodies the image of the ideal, devout Turk, as opposed to Westernized, secular elites and to minorities such as the Kurds). Hungary’s Fidesz has built up a new group that conforms to Orban’s vision of a “Christian national” culture, combining economic success, family values (having children brings many benefits), and religious devotion.
For some observers, populists cannot be all that bad and exclusionary in their approach, because these leaders so frequently talk about “unifying the people.” After the election, Trump tweeted messages such as “We will unite and we will win, win, win!” In his inauguration speech, he again invoked a “united” and “unstoppable” America, and in a press conference last week he ruminated at length about ending divisions in U.S. society.
But, in general, democracies are not in need of “unification.” As anyone remotely familiar with James Madison and the other founders will recall, democracy is about civilized, institutionally contained conflict, where political opponents respect each other as legitimate (the very thing populists fail to do). When populists say “unification,” it is always unification on the populists’ terms — or else one excludes oneself from the “real people” as defined by the populists. Populist talk of ending divisions is the very opposite of a message that different interests and identities in a democracy will be respected.
When there is protest against governing populists, it becomes supremely important to delegitimize dissent — even if it poses no real threat to the populists’ power. After all, by definition it cannot be true that the people themselves are turning against their one and only authentic representative. Hence populists have followed a strategy pioneered by Vladimir Putin: They claim that what looks like genuine civil society protest is in fact steered from the outside. Putin held that all the “color revolutions” in Russia had been engineered by the West; the Turkish government, exhibiting an unusual degree of creativity with its conspiracy theories, concocted a story that the Gezi Park protests were the doing of Lufthansa (which was supposedly afraid of increased competition from Turkish Airlines); and, most recently, Orban has vowed to go after foreign agents disguising themselves as Hungarian NGOs. Trump has attacked “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” — clearly all un-American figures who by definition are opposed to real Americans who also by definition want to make America great again.
Populists thrive on conflict; for them, polarization and facing protests are not problems but in fact conditions for maintaining and, if possible, increasing their own power. To be sure, they did not invent culture wars in Turkey, Hungary, or Poland — but they did everything they could to exacerbate them. Populists relish protests, as long as protesters can be presented as an alien minority bent on betraying the homeland — which then also goes to prove to the populists’ supporters that they are the majority or indeed the “real people” as such.
None of this is to say that protesters in the United States should stay home — far from it. Culture wars — let alone flagrant rights violations — that end up alienating a mobilized majority will also be a problem for populists, no matter how committed their own base. The point is that liberals should not be complacent in thinking that chaos and opposition on the street will necessarily be sufficient to delegitimize populists in power. They should also recognize that there is a method to the madness of Trump’s attacks on judges and the media; scapegoats are being put in place for when policies cannot be implemented or go horribly wrong. The critics of the likes of Erdogan and Orban have had to learn the hard way that populists can entrench themselves in power — and find numerous ways of convincing their supporters that their authoritarian ways are in fact perfectly democratic.
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