The presidential election of November 2016 is not an event easily forgotten, and in fact remains a searingly fresh memory in many a mind; for some, however, it cannot be fresh enough. This week, albeit over fifteen months on from election night, and despite many pressing concerns (including the aftermath of a mass school shooting) Trump was still dwelling on his election glory. “A beautiful map,” he touted, retweeting a twitter user’s image that depicts the USA by the county-level results. Preoccupation with victory has become typical of President Trump, a disturbing observation given the literature we have studied in our Democratic Erosion course that typify this characteristic with democratic backsliding. For Hannah Arendt, writing in 1951, preoccupation with victory is a marker of a totalitarian leader; nearly seventy years later, Jan-Werner Müller connects it to the anti-pluralist tenet of a populism. Anti-pluralism is a distinct threat to democracy as it illegitimises any opposition to the majority, and Trump’s dependence on his election victory, through his callous and recurring references to it, is a marker of democratic backsliding in the USA today.
In her discourse The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt stresses the link between a preoccupation with victory and the supporters of totalitarian regimes. “[The masses]…are not bound together by those special collective interests which they feel to be essential…More important to them than the cause that may be victorious…is the victory of no matter what the cause.” In this instance, the exact grounds for victory are of secondary concern to the victory itself: what matters is winning, and an indisputable, unequivocal win at that. The danger of such an outlook is that the winners are not held accountable to any promises made, nor can they alienate their core support bases by repugnant or immoral actions, solidifying their power at a grassroots level. It also removes the weakness that elected officials open themselves to when they campaign to realise a distinct goal or common good: if there has been no articulation of such, or simply no real commitment to it by the leader and the followers alike, then it is almost impossible to successfully impugn or impeach the leader once in power.
Similarly, in today’s world, victory without a distinct collective interest is a fundamental concern with populist voting. Rather than outrightly admit to having no distinct goal, populists avoid specificity by simply claiming to be ‘for the people,’ or ‘for the will of the people,’ a dangerously vague notion that removes direct accountability. Müller, in his discourse What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), notes that populists succeed not based on their specific policies but on the attraction of their “symbolic representation of the ‘real people’ from which the current policy is then deduced.” In this way, their actual politics and political positions are “immune to empirical refutation,” as their victory was not contingent them, and in the worst cases, it gives almost unchecked power over their policies, as they “adopt a kind of ‘caretaker’ attitude toward an essentially passive people.” Furthermore, once in power, they can use their mandate to distract and distort any criticism, as the victory alone justifies their right to power. This moral claim to exclusive represent the people is he crux of anti-pluralism, a crucial tenet of populism.
Trump’s dependence on reiterating his victory–even a year on from the election–has several implications, including a glaring warning of democratic backsliding in the United States. Firstly, it both solidifies and undermines his power. The constant reminders of his win–both visually and verbally–work to purport that he, and only he, can represent the people. He can claim moral and symbolic representation that can not be diminished by failures or frustrations in policy-making. However, in the case of Trump, this is also a significant weakness of his platform, and rather self-defeating. Notoriously, Trump won the 2016 election only through the mechanism of the Electoral College, and in fact lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. The institutional ‘checks and balances’ of the American election process means that anomalies such as this can and have occured, and although Trump’s presidency is legitimate, it is undermined by this loss. This gives an interesting perspective on perhaps why Trump is so insistent on reiterating his victory–it comes not from a place of smugness, but insecurity. Since his mandate is symbolic representation, the fact that he technically lost the popular vote is a hugely detracts from his legitimacy, and would surely have been sensationalised had the results been the opposite outcomes.
Crucially, Trump’s preoccupation with victory is a marker of democratic backsliding as he negates the tenacity of all opposition voters. By relying on his victory to mark him as the only true representative of the people, those who did not vote for Trump which, as mentioned, was the majority of the public, are invalidated as not true citizens of the country over which he presides. Müller notes that at a campaign rally, Trump announced that “the only important thing is the unification of the people–because the other people don’t mean anything.” This anti-pluralist outlook marks democratic backslide as he illegitimises all detractors and political opposition. Pluralism is necessary for democracy: without competition, or recognition of such, their can be no free and fair elections, which is a slippery slope towards undemocratic, authoritarian regimes. By constantly reiterating his victory, Trump exacerbates partisan divides and implies those who did not vote for him (again, the majority of the population), are of secondary importance under his administration.
Preoccupation with victory is not a novel criticism levied on the President, and nor does it appear likely to dissipate. Over a year on from the election, Trump still delights in–or rather relies on–recalling his technical win to reaffirm is position as a representative President. It is important to monitor this behaviour, and heed historical precedent, as anti-pluralist actions such as this are in direct contention with a strong, unassailable democracy, and a significant indicator of democratic backsliding.