Why Trumpian Populism Failed
Former US President Donald Trump didn’t think strategically or have a plan to translate his autocratic tendencies into new, authoritarian institutions. Frighteningly, however, it isn't difficult to see how a more serious and savvy wannabe autocrat might have succeeded.
CHICAGO – Although it may seem hard to believe for anyone who watched the spectacle, former US President Donald Trump’s recent second impeachment trial in the Senate suggested that American democracy remains strong. Four years of Trump’s bombast and blatant flouting of precedent and procedure had undermined confidence in the US political system’s resilience. But the impeachment proceedings seemed to affirm the hardiness of the country’s democratic institutions.
The Trump administration shook America by actively rejecting those institutions, culminating in the January 6 invasion of the US Capitol by a Trump-summoned mob. Under President Joe Biden, it feels like solid footing has been regained.
In fact, US democracy remains vulnerable, not least owing to many Americans’ lack of commitment to democratic institutions. While Trump worked to de-institutionalize America and enrich himself while in office, the Republican Party either sat on its hands or in some cases applauded, paving the way for sedition. Many Americans and a sizable chunk of the political elite were willing to see US democracy overthrown – an impression that all but seven Senate Republicans reinforced when they voted to acquit Trump in February.
Of course, even if Trump’s Senate trial fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him for inciting the January 6 insurrection, his effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election failed. American political institutions prevailed. Democracy triumphed. Trump didn’t think strategically or have a plan to translate his autocratic tendencies into new, authoritarian institutions.
Frighteningly, however, a more serious and savvy wannabe autocrat might have succeeded where Trump failed. It is not difficult to see how.
Successful autocrats need to have something that looks like an overarching political project. At the end of the day, Trump’s “America First” was mostly posturing, because he couldn’t deliver real improvements in the lives of his base. All successful autocrats – like former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, postwar Argentine President Juan Perón, or current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – somehow “deliver the goods” for their core constituencies.
Trump delivered, but only to the rich, by cutting taxes and regulations. His symbolic gestures won’t endure, and his “Make America Great Again” slogan is destined for burial at the back of millions of American closets.
Republicans would be wise to consider this. Instead, much of the party, both in Congress and at the state and local level, still clings to the false narrative of election fraud and support for the insurrectionists, or advances the notion that the storming of the Capitol was staged to undermine Trump.
This is deeply concerning. Perón was able to rule as he did after World War II because increased presidential meddling in Argentina’s Supreme Court and political institutions had eroded these bodies over the previous 15 years. Most Americans do not want to go down this path, even if many of their elected political leaders do.
Fortunately, the US political system has many sources of resilience. One is the integrity of local and state officials, such as those who certified last November’s presidential election result in Michigan, despite threats from Trump supporters, and Georgia’s Republican governor and election administrators, who stood up to threats from Trump himself. Another is the judiciary, with even judges appointed by Trump refusing to give any credence to the groundless claims of electoral fraud propagated by the president and his allies. These officials did their job and believed in the system.
But the Achilles heel of Trump’s populist appeal was his extreme anti-statism. He hated the government and couldn’t bear to strengthen its capacity. For proof, one need look no further than the countless appointed positions in the federal government that remained unfilled throughout his four-year term, not to mention his administration’s disastrous COVID-19 response, capped by a botched vaccine rollout.
Successful populist leaders, by contrast, harness the power of the state in discretionary ways to create jobs for their supporters, and to provide them with goods and services. That was anathema to Trump, and he paid the electoral price for it. Many Americans face genuine problems, and Biden – thankfully – is not hamstrung by antipathy to using the state’s power to make a difference in their lives.
Democracy’s survival requires both the state and society to be strong and counterbalance each other. Maintaining this equilibrium demands constant effort. Ultimately, it engenders greater state capacity to deliver what citizens want and encourages greater social mobilization to monitor this capacity.
This is the corridor in which Trump could not function. It is also, one hopes, where all aspiring destroyers of democracy will ultimately fail.
James A. Robinson, Institute Director of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, is University Professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He is the co-author (with Daron Acemoglu) of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, and Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.
First Published: March 9, 2021