In the months leading up to and following Donald Trump receiving the official nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016, it was obvious that Democratic politicians opposed him, but, more surprisingly, we saw members from within his own party calling for him to step down or stating publicly that they would not vote for him. If, according to authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, this is one of the main ways political elites can help to maintain democracy, why did it fail?
To answer this question, we need to look at which Congressmen withdrew their support for Trump. Looking at an article from the Washington Post, 46 Congressmen—including former supporters of his—either tweeted or released official statements stating they would not be voting for Trump, largely due to “the abhorrent comments” he made at many of his campaign rallies. Nearly all of the Congressmen who refused to back Trump were from Republican states, so one would assume their constituents would follow suit and also not vote for him. As Levitysky and Ziblatt mention, when co-party members oppose a rising demagogue, it is often beneficial to put political differences aside and ally with their rivals, in order to preserve democracy. However, none of the 46 politicians mentioned in the above article endorsed the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. In fact, many of them either decided not to vote entirely (unless Mike Pence became the nominee) or put their opposition to Trump to the side in order to defeat Clinton and the Democratic Party. Republican politicians did the exact opposite of what was needed to keep a demagogue out of the White House.
Possibly more important than the politicians who initially refused to support Trump, are the politicians whose support never wavered, despite the many crude comments he made. Many of these politicians are big names within the Republican Party, including Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, former presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Charles Grassley. Because of their celebrity-like status within the party, their ongoing support for then-presidential nominee Donald Trump carried much influence and persuasion onto the voters, giving Trump the legitimacy he needed to be truly considered the Republican candidate.
Would it have made a difference if both big and small name Republicans stayed rooted in their stances against Trump throughout the entirety of his campaign and election? It seems unlikely, given how popular he was in the Rust Belt. Many residents in the Rust Belt responded so positively to Trump’s populism because they felt resentful towards politics and rich political elites after the loss of local industries, and wanted to see things shaken up. It seems as if those fed up by the way government had been working for decades would have needed more than the denunciation of Trump by their representatives to sway their votes and keep Trump winning enough votes to become nominee; they would have needed representatives who actually represented them long before the populist demagogue that is Donald Trump came onto the scene.
Very interesting post. I wonder though, is the notion of relying on powerful political leaders to stop the rise of someone supported by the voters antidemocratic in itself? I’m not sure myself, and I think it raises an interesting question: are antidemocratic justified in stopping the decline of democracy?
I think that your post raises an important issue about partisanship in the face of democratic backsliding. As you stated, political elites have the ability to help prevent populist leaders from being elected. As Levitsky and Zibatt said, those 46 Congressmen had the ability to endorse Hillary Clinton, their “rival”, to attempt to prevent a populist from becoming President. I do agree with you that it is unlikely this would have prevented Trump from winning the election. He gained extreme popularity from claiming to be unlike all of the other politicians. His “us v. them” narrative and populist rhetoric made his base see him as “one of them” and not like the politicians they resented. Therefore, it would be unlikely that he would lose their support. However, I do feel that it is important for representatives to attempt to preserve democracy by voting against populist leaders, even if it requires voting for their political “rival”. Protecting democracy should be a greater priority than reelection.
I think you bring up an important point in the last paragraph concerning the Rust Belt. We will never know if those 46 Republican politicians had endorsed Hillary Clinton who would be president right now. Regardless of that lack of endorsement, those people in the Rust Belt were hearing everything they wanted to hear. These people have been forgotten by major politicians for decades and now somebody seems to listen to them. So yes, I think you’re right in saying the Republican party could have tried harder to keep Trump out of the White House. However, Hillary could have campaigned harder in battleground states and the population as a whole should have seen these people in the Rust Belt as a bigger threat. There are many more factors that go into Trump being elected than simply the Republicans not endorsing Hillary.
Kendall, this is a topic that has been on my mind for quite some time. In my opinion, not only were many prominent Republicans at fault for the success of Donald Trump, but I think equal blame can be placed on the Electoral College as well. Given that the EC was originally conceived to protect the American people from electing a populist demagogue, I believe this duty was breached in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. Conversely, addressing the point made by Eli Kramer in the previous comment, I can also see that there may exist an inherent antidemocratic aura surrounding the notion of political figures acting as the “guard dogs of our Democracy, specifically in regards to the Electoral College. The American people (in some aspects) don’t choose the president at all, and it the prerogative of the 538 members of the Electoral College that are tasked with submitting their votes on behalf of the majority of their given state…or so one might assume. In fact, despite the fact that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump as still elected president under the Electoral College given that some members voted against their states majority. Does this not directly undermine the voice of the American people? And given that 21 states currently hold no laws requiring their EC members to vote in favor of the majority, should these laws be introduced? Or the entirety of the Electoral College be abolished altogether?
This post is probably one of the most coherent posts I’ve seen on this site so far. And while you offer a good question and offer fantastic insight, I believe that you only scratch the surface of the issue regarding how the U.S. political figure heads as well as those who are not as well know failed to provide proper “Gatekeeping” as Ziblatt and Levistky would call it. Of course those who opposed Trump but did not actually act on opposition is in question here. The question I might ask would be: To what point did those who rebuffed Trump, truly want Hillary to win in order to preserve democracy? To say that those who chose not to vote did not help preserve democracy by not stopping trump, does not mean that they are the reason a leader who is willing to subvert our democratic values managed to take office. Considering the negative approval ratings of both Trump and Clinton, to choose the lesser of two evils may not necessarily be what it means to effectively prevent democratic subversion.
Another question one could is, to what level does the thought process of those who chose not to vote fall in line with Lilliana Mason and her explanation of the unconscious psychology behind tribalism? Of course those Republican congressmen who opposed trump were in control enough to prevent them from giving into the temptation of banding together with their half of the isle. However, given that no one is in complete control of their subconscious, what is the probability that those individuals failed not out of contempt for Hillary or secretive support for Trump, but for the desire to not betray their tribe completely?
Kendall, your post raises a question that many people around our nation, including myself, have thought about. I think your conclusion perfectly sums up how gatekeeping, regardless of how the Republican party and its politicians reacted to Donald Trump, it would have not been enough to deter him from obtaining presidency given the polarization and populism that gave Trump his popularity. Although they did fail in keeping him off the ballot, as you discuss. However, I think it is important to note, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue before our conventional system with the Electoral College, that the old system was not very democratic, and due to its exclusive nature, “most rank-and-file party members, the poor and politically unconnected, women, and minorities, were not represented and were excluded from the presidential nomination process.”
Furthermore, if we think of US democracy at its core, it’s hard to put blame solely on the Republican party for the demagogue we have as president, as you argue. For example, Donald Trump was produced as a result of open, free, and fair elections, what many scholars would argue is the foundation of democracy. In addition, Samuel Huntington explains in “The Third Wave”, “governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable, but they do not make them undemocratic.” Therefore, if there’s any “blame” to be placed, it is on the divisive nature of our country, lack of proper local representation, and improper policies that ultimately led to the election of this demagogue and so many Americans falling victim to populist rhetoric.