Undoubtedly, Donald Trump’s victory constitutes a turning point in the history of the United States. What many have labeled as the “Trump effect” can have a long lasting impact in the state of American democracy. However, this concept does not refer to the widespread fears of his populist rhetoric causing irreversible democratic erosion. Rather the “Trump effect” explains how different social movements of underrepresented groups were impulsed by Trump’s victory, ultimately, leading to a potential growth of participation in public life of historically oppressed population, such as women. Thus, contrary to all predictions, Trump’s victory could even prove beneficial to the condition of democracy in the United States.
Last year, the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, thousands of women gathered in Washington D.C. and many other cities worldwide, in order to express their discontent over the offensive rhetoric and policies Trump represents. Hence, this 2017 Women’s March constituted the first mass social movement response to Donald Trump’s election. The protest, originated, coordinated and led by women, marked the beginning of a new era in American Politics, in which women are increasingly demanding more participation and representation. Moreover, women activism has been gaining momentum through other social mobilizations such as the #MeToo or #TimesUp movements. In fact, ‘The Silence Breakers’, people who came forward about their personal experiences with sexual assault or harassment were named Person of the Year 2017 by Time magazine.
All of these social mobilizations have also translated to the political arena. Women are not just protesting in the streets, additionally, they have decided that it is time to claim their space inside the political institutions, where women are still considerably underrepresented. This year 2018, could turn out to be the ‘Year of the Woman in Politics’, with more women running for office than ever before. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 2018 could break the 1992 record of women running for office. For example, around 80 female candidates are exploring the possibility to run for governor this year, possibly doubling the historical record set in 1994. The ‘Trump effect’ is especially noticeable inside the Democratic party, where the number of female candidates likely challenging incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives could rise nearly 350% from the 2016 elections.
Not only are women more likely to run for office, but they are also more likely to actually become elected representatives. Last statewide elections held in Virginia represented a major win for female representation in politics. Women’s representation increased by almost 50% in the House of Delegates, female candidates won three out of five open seats for which they ran, and also defeated eight male Republican incumbents. Furthermore, according to the polls, both in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrat candidates won principally due to the support of a significant majority of female voters.
Whereas it is frequent for large number of women to support Democratic candidacies, these considerable increases are consistent with other research that points into the direction of a “Trump effect”. According to it, Democratic women reported having the most visceral reactions after Trump’s victory, feeling “appalled”, “shocked”, “angry”, or “depressed” by it. Interestingly enough, they also reported to be more likely to engage politically after Donald Trump’s victory than before. While the example of Hillary Clinton could serve as another explanation for the increasing female participation in politics, the majority of female candidates directly attributed their candidacies to Donald Trump.
A large body of literature on twenty-first century populism has been developed since 2016, after the rising of far-right parties all across Europe and the Brexit referendum, but especially after Donald Trump’s victory. For example, Dutch political scientist Jan-Werner Müeller, author of the book What is Populism?, considers that populism poses a great danger to democracy, because it challenges pluralism and tends to centralize power around the leader, disregarding the system of checks and balances. Moreover, besides being anti-elitist and anti-pluralist, populists claim to be the sole voice of the population, defining the boundaries between “real citizens” and the rest, who immediately become the root of all the national problems. Since democracy necessarily requires pluralism-a system in which the different ideas that a diverse population holds, weight equally and are proportionally represented-, for Müeller and for most of the current Western political actors and thinkers, populism is the biggest peril to liberal democracy.
Consequently, the rising support for populist movements has been the main source of anxiety and concern for political scientists, journalists and social scientists in general. However, paradoxically, the triumph of Trump’s populist rhetoric can become the source of a healthier and more diverse democracy than ever before in the history of the United States. Despite the troubling increase of polarization inside the American society, in order to avoid despair, it is necessary to focus on an optimistic point of view that reveals a light in the midst of all this darkness. The fifty percent of the population that has been historically ignored, silenced and disregarded are now more than ever before participating in politics, speaking out, getting involved in activist movements, and finally claiming their space and representation. The “Trump effect”, instead of the predicted democratic erosion, could potentially become the necessary impelling force towards a healthier, more robust democracy.
*Photo: 2017 Women’s march in Washington D.C., Rosa Pineda. Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons license: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women%27s_March_Washington,_DC_USA_41.jpg