Antipathy to liberal democracy has become a staple of the modern incarnation of the Republican Party, a move that is detrimental to the entire international community. In a myriad of examples over the past couple of years, there appears to be a party-wide embrace of international populists and nationalists.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Experts on both sides noted and continue to celebrate the focused, tactical implementation of liberal democracy by republican President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War. Following the cold war, the Republican Party was noted for its support of the spread of democracy and opposition to autocrats and populists. This model of foreign policy was accepted and supported by presidential nominees, congressional leaders, and the larger party membership in the decades following the cold war. As recently as 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney was mocked for claiming that the increasingly autocratic Russia was the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. (Though the mocking tones employed by Romney’s critics has turned to backtracking, with many prominent supporters of President Barack Obama have since apologized to Romney.)
But, in June 2015 a major reversal began in the party. Businessman Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was, from its chaotic beginnings, supportive of populist and nationalist themes: supporting a ban on Muslims entering the United States, calling Mexican immigrants criminals, leading chants which called for the jailing of his opponent, trumpeting Vladimir Putin a better leader than Barack Obama, and refusing multiple times to condemn support from white nationalists7(among many other things.) Some of the factors of his election included tribalism, stoking fears of terror and race, and shifting demographics all played into the seismic shift in rhetoric8. But even though some political scientists may have rational explanations for why such a tolerance for Trump occurred, it still remains ever perplexing why his rhetoric was so readily accepted by the party. The fact remains: the Republican Party has morphed into a nationalist and populist movement so antithetical to its recent predecessors that it is barely recognizable.
Since his election, the rhetoric of Trump has ratcheted up. Despite apologists of the President claiming that his words don’t matter, literature in comparative and domestic politics would strongly reject such claims. In fact, I argue that Donald Trump’s words are an inseparable facet of his presidency. Trump’s words are, purposefully or unwittingly, contributing to global democratic erosion. This entry will demonstrate three examples of President Trump’s rhetoric contributing to a global populist movement that is antithetical to democracy.
Donald Trump has embraced populism. One example of his international embrace of populist movements is in France. In 2017, following his stunning election as President of the United States, Trump all but endorsed French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen1. Le Pen is noted for her anti-immigrant, anti-religious, anti-European institutions stance. Her political party has long been considered a credible threat to liberal democracy, not just in France, but throughout Europe. And yet, Trump heaped praise upon the controversial nominee.
After Le Pen lost to centrist Emmanuel Macron, Trump initially developed a positive relationship with the new French President. However following the outbreak of violent protests by the populist Yellow Jacket movement in late 2018, Trump expressed implicit support for the movement despite its attempts to delegitimize the democratically elected president.
But, Trump’s embrace of international populist movements is not isolated to the president himself. Organizers at the highly-influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) invited and heavily featured Le Pen’s niece as a speaker at one of its annual conferences. When conservative commentator Mona Charen noted the history of Le Pen and her party, the crowd booed and she was escorted out with a security detail.
Donald Trump has openly supported nationalism. He has called himself a nationalist on multiple occasions, refused to condemn white nationalists in the early months of his presidency, and refused to acknowledge the global spread of white nationalism. However, Trump’s nationalist rhetoric has also spread across the Atlantic.
Trump advocated for and lauded the British referendum to leave the European Union. The then-candidate encouraged a vote in favor of the referendum despite the openly nationalist rhetoric espoused by those in favor of the so-called “Brexit.” One startling example: he even invited prominent Brexit leader Nigel Farage to speak at a rally during his presidential campaign.
But Trump’s support of nationalism is also shared by prominent leaders in the Republican Party. For example, multiple United States senators openly embraced Brexit and called into question the legitimacy of the European Union.
Literature in political science heavily supports the idea that populist movements are antithetical to democracy. Combined with nationalism, they breed resentment and broad polarization. Therefore, it is important for western political parties to stand as gatekeepers of democracy by rejecting the global spread of populism.
Instead of continuing the post-Cold War work of defending democracy, the Republican Party has broadly accepted populist and nationalist rhetoric. Most concerning, however, is that they have sought to duplicate such messages by embracing even more dangerous political parties and movements internationally. Though this entry only listed two examples, the actual list is much longer.
It is imperative, for the sake of democracy, that the Republican Party reclaim its mantle of gatekeepers of democracy by rejecting the rhetoric of President Trump. If they don’t, the consequences are internationally catastrophic.