There’s no debate that throughout the 2016 election, Trump was met with a lot of opposition, not just from Democrats, but members of the Republican party who publically criticized or refused to endorse him. Despite all this, Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election and was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. The thing is though, that in their book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt claim that gatekeeping by political elites against a populist leader is a way to guard democracy. So, if members of Trump’s own party actively refused to support him, what went wrong?
A blog post article entitled “How the Republican Party failed to keep a populist demagogue off the 2016 Presidential Ballot” suggests that the central reason this safeguard failed was the inability of Republicans to instead throw their support behind the Democratic candidate, as well as a lack of party unity as some big-name Republicans rendered Trump their unwavering support. Although these are contributing factors, to claim they are the central cause of the failure of this safeguard and the election of Donald Trump is a gross oversimplification. Might it even be a logical fallacy to argue that the cause of an event is the inability to protect against it? And on top of that, is it fair to say the Republican Party is at fault?
If we’re going to answer this question, we have to look deeper. Is it true that a good number of party elites and former supporters released statements that they would not be voting for Trump? Yes, it is. Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that the proper course of action to protect democracy would be to throw support behind the other candidate despite party differences. It’s pretty easy to say this is where the Republican Party went wrong; no member publically chose to support Hillary. But that’s just not true. A number of prominent Republican party members with celebrity status equal to that of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio publically stated they would be voting for Hillary in the 2016 election. Knowing this, we can’t claim that a central reason the party failed was its inability to support another candidate. Taking all of this into consideration, however, we could certainly make the argument that the Republican Party was in fact polarized in 2016. Could this polarization and disarray within the party have contributed to the election of Trump? It could have. But more importantly, if the party did in fact take a unified stance against Trump, would that have made a difference? According to a Reuters article (among many), the majority of Trump’s supporters are loyal to Trump, not the party. So, if party elites did unify against him, wouldn’t that fuel Trump’s populist rants against the “swamp” and the party elite. Wouldn’t that rally his supporters closer around him?
This really comes down to two things: Trump is a populist, and the base of the Republican party has changed dramatically. As Trump is a populist (or at least has populist tendencies), rejection of the political elite and the establishment plays a big role in his platform. Trump is an outsider, and that’s something that his supporters love. Trump’s rise led to a simultaneous decline in the power of the Republican Party. Mueller claims populism rises when people are fed up with the establishment, and the rise of a populist leader entails the delegitimizing of not just the opposing party, but anyone who is in public opposition, be they Republican or Democrat. The power of a populist leader isn’t derived from a party or establishment, in fact it’s the opposite. So, if the Republican party did unify against Trump, Trump may not be as affected as thought. And in that way, the party can’t take full blame for the rise of Donald Trump.
But there’s something else. Something the Republican Party could be faulted for. The party isn’t what it used to be, in fact it’s gone through some pretty dramatic changes in recent years. The base of the party has shifted from wealthy businessmen who wanted to see less regulation and lower taxes, to lower class, poorer, white voters who were frustrated with the current system, who felt they had been cheated out of opportunity, and who weren’t educated about the political foundations of their party. Their elected leaders however haven’t really caught up. So, in the 2016 Republican primary, the Republican Party put up a bunch of candidates who didn’t know what their support base wanted and ran their campaigns as if they were appealing to Republicans in the days of Reagan. Except for Trump, who saw the shift in the party, and knew his support base. And maybe this is where and how the Republican party failed to keep a populist demagogue off the 2016 Presidential ballot: when they failed to recognize this change in their base and in their party.
When we think about it, we can’t really say the reason Trump was elected was because the Party wasn’t unified or didn’t support the other candidate. We can’t even say that it was the Republican party that is 100 percent to blame. Elections, especially this one, are complicated. We can argue that it was the Republicans who let us down, or we can argue that Trump’s cult was more powerful than the current institutions. But just as there is no one way to prevent populism, there is no one way to cause it.
Photo by Unknown, “finish the wall “, Creative Commons Zero license