While President Trump has been defeated, populism still poses a potent threat to our democracy.
Trump is a right-wing populist. Müller defines populism as “a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified… but ultimately fictional… people against elites who are deemed corrupt….” Trump claims to represent the people against “the establishment” of corrupt elites. He focused on people suffering from a changing economy, facing unemployment, stagnating wages, and a globalized labor market in which their skills are no longer valued. Trump combined this invocation of economic struggle with xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Right-wing populists claim to represent the people’s interests but simultaneously create an exclusionary definition of “the people” that is limited to certain ethnic groups and vilifies minorities. Trump linked the anxieties that some white people share about losing their privilege and status with concerns over economic wellbeing in order to scapegoat minorities. Regardless of Trump’s defeat, American democracy remains vulnerable to right-wing populism. This is due to the Republican Party’s willingness to embrace radicalism and their legitimization of populism, as well as Trump’s role in exacerbating racial divides.
In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt describe political parties as gatekeepers. Parties must prevent radical candidates who are unfit for office or pose a threat to democracy from obtaining power. Parties are thus responsible for filtering out dangerous or radical views and preventing them from gaining traction. Some may argue that it is unrealistic to expect parties to obstruct radicals if it would hurt the party electorally. However, gatekeeping has worked to protect democracy. In Austria, the center-right Austrian People’s Party supported their ideological rival, the left-wing Green Party, in 2016 in order to prevent the radical right-wing Freedom Party from achieving the presidency.
The GOP has done the opposite, demonstrating a worrying willingness to accept Trump’s radical and dangerous views. They have permitted Trump to sow doubt about election integrity and refused to investigate him during the impeachment hearings simply because he is their party’s candidate. This reveals the GOP’s inclination to allow dangerous populists like Trump near-free reign so long as it benefits their party. This stunning breakdown in gatekeeping has cemented populism into our political system; the GOP has abandoned its gatekeeping duties in favor of winning elections. The Republican Party has decided that it is worth supporting Trump’s populism and demagoguery in order to preserve its hold on power. For example, Jeff Flake asserted that many Republicans are unwilling to condemn Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election because the party requires his assistance during the Georgia Senate runoff elections. This places our democracy in a precarious position where parties are willing to support radicals to win. The GOP prioritizes success by any means necessary, even if it is harmful to democracy. We have already seen this in their attacks on voting rights, and it is now evident in their complicity with Trump’s actions. This embrace of radicalism leaves us vulnerable to future populists like Trump because the GOP is unwilling to sacrifice its electoral interests for the sake of protecting democracy.
In addition to welcoming radicalism, the GOP has allowed right-wing populism an entrenched position in mainstream political discourse. Through its breakdown in gatekeeping, the GOP has accepted populist views, forgoing the introduction of a new party platform in 2020 in favor of expressing their full support for the President’s agenda. No longer a fringe, outsider movement, populism has been sanctioned as a legitimate political force in this country. One of the two major parties endorses populist sentiments regularly; the fact that populism is now accepted by such an influential actor grants it a central role in American politics. This provides a clear avenue for future right-wing populists to run for office within the GOP, harnessing its influence and resources as one of the two parties in our political system.
Beyond this breakdown of gatekeeping, Trump has endeavored to increase racial tensions through his attempts to frighten his white base of voters, leaving us vulnerable to populism. During this summer’s protests over racial justice, Trump attacked the protestors and labeled them as “thugs”, a racially charged dog whistle. He has made efforts to intimidate white suburban voters, alleging that their neighborhoods will be overrun with crime and low-income housing. This is another thinly veiled racist assertion associating minorities with crime. There is evidence that this has worked. His support among white women increased in 2020 due in part to his warnings about violence in the suburbs. The difference in opinion between Trump voters and Democrats on whether systemic racism is a threat has widened since 2016. In exit polls, Biden voters ranked racial inequality as their highest priority; for Trump voters, it was the lowest.
Trump recognized the cultural anxieties many white voters feel over demographic shifts and their loss of privilege in a diversifying society. He mobilized this cultural fear, vilifying minorities and immigrants as the source of America’s woes. Trump’s weaponization of white voters’ racial resentment thus creates fertile breeding ground for another right-wing populist. Research has shown that populism is “a result of acute perceptions of collective status threat on the part of national majority-group members (i.e., typically native-born whites), fueled by a confluence of rapid social changes.” When Trump leaves office, these deep-rooted psychological perceptions of a loss in status will not disappear; in fact, it is likely that they have been amplified due to Trump’s fear-mongering and racist rhetoric.
The people who supported Trump are experiencing anxiety, frustration, and fear; such emotions require an outlet. Hoschchild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land notes that many Trump voters with cultural anxieties found comfort within his candidacy, and that he provided an emotional “high,” or relief from their fears. Trump gave their concerns a voice. Now that he has lost power, continued demographic shifts and societal changes will leave in their wake racial anxiety that can be exploited by another right-wing populist. This is made easier by the fact that Trump has legitimized using racial appeals to mobilize white voters, normalizing blatantly racist rhetoric. Trump’s presidency has thus both harnessed and agitated powerful, ethnonationalist forces of racial resentment that will be difficult to diffuse. It is possible to argue that America has always been systemically racist, so this may not necessarily lead to future populists. However, Trump’s appeals are unique in that he has managed to assert a causal relationship between economic strife and increased immigration and social change. We face a Pandora’s Box situation, where now that this populist idea has been unleashed, it is difficult to reverse the appeal it has for so many.
Trump may have lost this election, but it was not the repudiation of populism that scholars of democratic backsliding had hoped for. Populism continues to pose a major threat to American democracy. The Republican Party has failed in gatekeeping, embracing radicalism and enabling populism as a legitimate political force. The mobilization of white racial resentment has intensified social tensions that can easily be exploited by another populist. American democracy is highly vulnerable to populism, raising the worrying possibility that Trump may not be the last, but rather the first in a new wave of right-wing populists.