As President Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have pushed the U.S. into a period of democratic uncertainty unrivaled in its modern history, it feels as though the situation has regressed to a level previously unimaginable. This makes it all the more remarkable to recognize that Trump’s threat to American democracy would be more severe if he simply integrated economically populist policies into his current platform of cultural populism.
Trump is an economic populist, right? After all, didn’t Trump win in 2016 by seizing on the economic anxieties of those displaced by the forces of globalization and technological change? While this narrative remains commonplace, it turns out to be empirically untrue. Mutz1 finds that it is not recent changes in economic fortunes that explain which voters went for Trump, but rather anxieties from those in socially dominant groups (whites, Christians, men) who felt their status was under threat (I will refer to this appeal as Trump’s “cultural populism”). American economic anxieties are very real, but Trump has yet to capitalize on these on a systematic level more so than his opponents.
Trump in the 2016 primary season hinted towards diverging from the GOP economic orthodoxy. He proposed big spending on infrastructure, railed against Ted Cruz for being controlled by Wall Street, and even said he wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy. Yet, as president, Trump has reneged on this posturing and reverted to traditional GOP economic doctrine. He has left infrastructure absent from policy priorities, stacked his administration with former Goldman Sachs executives, and slashed taxes for the wealthy and corporations in his one major legislative achievement.
Yet, this sort of corporatist economic platform remains deeply unpopular with the American people, who significantly favor more progressive economics: 76% of registered voters want the wealthy to pay more in taxes, 67% favor an increased minimum wage, and 75% (including 72% of Republicans) support tougher Wall Street regulation to prevent future crises. Indeed, Democratic strategists have (worryingly) expressed that a shift in Trump’s economic platform in this direction could yield him significantly more support from the working class and organized labor.
Could these economically populist ideas (by which I mean economic policies geared towards the middle and lower classes at the expense of the wealthy elite) merge cohesively with Trump’s cultural populism? While the historic antipathy of the Republican party towards left wing progressive economics makes these two ideologies seem incompatible from a U.S. perspective, I contend that they could coalesce quite effectively.
Look to Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who currently runs the most popular cable news program on TV, for a starting clue as to how this can be done. Tucker wholeheartedly embraces Trump’s “America First” cultural populism, saying things like “[immigrants] make our own country poor and dirtier and more divided”. On the other hand, but still within this Trumpist “America First” vein, he has also assailed multinational corporations that have “no allegiance to America” as part of his endorsement of many parts of Elizabeth Warren’s progressive economic platform.
Leaders from other countries offer even stronger precedents. The Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, champions an extremely robust welfare state, but argues that globalism and immigration threaten the success of this system for the Danish people. Some of her stances make Trump look immigrant-friendly by comparison: she has called for a restriction on the number of non-Western immigrants, expulsion of asylum seekers to North Africa, and forced labor (!) for immigrants in exchange for inclusion in the welfare state.
A Trump that embraced this sort of platform would see his populist grip on the American people widen, particularly among the working class, posing an even graver threat to American democracy. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz2 explain how a widening populist appeal from a political leader with authoritarian tendencies increases the likelihood of democratic backsliding. For one, populists with wide appeal can dismiss critics as establishment agents working against their broadly popular agenda. They also tend to experience broad approval for subtle anti-democratic reforms because of their vigorous popular support. And most applicable to the present moment, in the case of Trump, a broader populist appeal would significantly increase his chances of winning reelection, leaving him free to act on his authoritarian tendencies for (at least) the next four years.
As Levitsky and Ziblatt3 point out, however, popular support is not sufficient for a wanna-be authoritarian to erode a standing democracy. They assert it also requires existing establishment elites to willfully enable them, as did, for example, establishment conservatives in Weimar Germany when they appointed Hitler as chancellor. As they put it, “political parties are democracies gatekeepers”. Would a hypothetical Trump abandonment of traditional GOP economic orthodoxy prompt establishment Republicans to finally stop enabling his every move, shutting the gates on his antidemocratic pursuits?
Assuming said establishment Republicans have interest in staying in power themselves, the answer is likely “no”. With Trump’s populist grip on the base of the Republican party as strong as it is, Republicans simply cannot gain office by coming out against him. In 2020, of the 111 primary candidates Trump endorsed, 109 won the Republican nomination, good for a whopping win rate of 98 percent.
Furthermore, Trump flipping traditional GOP economic policy on its head with the eventual approval of the party establishment is not without precedent. While I contended earlier that Trump has fallen into traditional GOP economic stances, there is a notable exception: his protectionist trade policies. Trump ushered in a rapid reversal in the GOP base’s historical support of free trade, and GOP lawmakers followed suit soon after. It’s unclear where the line would be, if there is one, for the GOP establishment.
So, this hypothetical where Trump embraces populist economics would leave us with a demagogue in Trump that commands substantially more popular support and a GOP establishment still uninterested in checking his authoritarian tendencies. It is even conceivable that if Trump adopted this type of platform, some Democratic leaders who prioritize economic issues would be more willing to let Trump’s undemocratic forays slide. This is all clearly a recipe for an even greater threat.
Perhaps on some level, those concerned about the state of U.S. democracy should be thankful that Trump is continuing to run on unpopular corporatist economic policies. He seemingly continues to shoot himself in the foot on this front, recently urging the courts via Twitter to outlaw Obamacare, despite the fact that a clear majority of Americans now support the law.
On another level, though, the fact that the Trump threat to democracy could be made more acute by a mere adjustment in his economic policy stances is scary, if not now but for the future. It’s quite plausible that the next demagogue that comes along realizes the potential of marrying Trump’s cultural populism with leftist economic populism. This makes it all the more crucial that a party firmly committed to democracy and inclusion of minorities seize the narrative of economic populism by squarely addressing the economic anxieties of the middle and lower classes, in a way the Democrats have yet to. If not, even if Trump is voted out and power transitions to Biden, there could be a worse storm on the horizon for U.S. democracy that will be much harder to weather.
1. Mutz, Diana C. “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 8, 2018.
2. Kendall-Taylor, Andrea and Erica Frantz. “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs. December 5, 2016.
3. Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter
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