Rashid A Mughal
THE Trump presidency has demonstrated the appeal of populist authoritarianism to many
Americans. The way the country responds now to the attack on the U.S. Capitol will indicate how long this movement lasts or has come to stay.
What do the riots at the U.S. Capitol and their aftermath say about the extent of populism in the United States? President Donald J. Trump is an authoritarian populist. And one of the key characteristics of populism lies in a leader’s belief that they and they alone, truly represent the people. That explains why Trump kept clashing with democratic institutions over the course of his presidency. Whenever he ran up against the limits of his constitutional authority, he balked at the idea that somebody else—a judge, a bureaucrat, or a member of Congress—could tell him what to do. In his mind, only he had the right to speak for the country.
This helps to make sense of the storming of the Capitol. On one hand, it was a terrible surprise. Before January 6, nobody had expected that a mob of insurrectionists could so easily enter “the People’s House.” But on the other hand, it was a fitting end point for Trump’s Presidency: the mob was incited by the populist president of the United States—and that president incited it to action because he believed that he, and only he, represents the people. He could not possibly accept the legitimacy of an election, he lost. Now, however, he has pushed even deeper into illiberal territory, spuriously attacking the legitimacy of the election. In doing so, he has won the support of many of the party’s federal officeholders (including a majority of House Republicans) and the silence of the large majority of the rest. Just a handful of Republican Senators, Mitt Romney most impressively, have found the backbone to call him out.
The fact that Trump has been able to convince so many Americans of his lies about the election and mobilize tens of thousands of them to protest against the certification of the vote, shows that a significant share of the population is now open to this kind of populist appeal. Faced with a choice between their President and the Constitution, they chose Trump. But it is also important not to cast the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol as the true face of the United States. A great majority of the population is horrified by these events. The Republican Party now has significant commonalities with the parties of populist leaders across the world. Like Fidesz in Hungary or Law and Justice in Poland, for example. Congressional Republicans have mostly stood by their leader as he attacked democratic norms and institutions over the past four years, knowing he was wrong and his policies were eroding the democratic institutions. This is alarming.
There is, however, an important distinction that stems from differences in the nature of American political parties. In most developed democracies, party leaders have significant resources at their disposal and are formally or informally able to select parliamentary candidates. This makes it very hard for dissenters in the party to sustain themselves if they fall out with their leader. In the United States, however, parties have traditionally been very weak. Candidates for office are now chosen in primaries that are open to a wide variety of challengers. (This is, of course, how Trump came to lead the Republican Party in the first place).
During the four Trump years, Republican Party remained “hijacked” to him and he and his team acted more authoritative than democratic. At one point, Gen Michael Flynn demanded martial law and suspending the Constitution. One Michigan Republican called for voiding the vote in Wayne county, thereby disenfranchising Detroit. At the same time, the President and his allies remained committed to burnishing the legacy of long-dead Confederate generals. As Thomas Ricks reminds us in book “First Principles”, the paradox of equality melded to racism dates back to the founding. The most famous pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal”, was written by a slave-owner, Thomas Jefferson. A Pulitzer-winning author and military historian, Ricks also observes that one of our two parties has felt perpetually compelled to offer a “home to white supremacists, up to the present day”. First the Democrats, now the Republicans. While freedom was supposedly on the march overseas, the home front was markedly different. Black churches were bombed. Martin Luther King was jailed, stabbed, assassinated. John Lewis was beaten in Selma. Others were sent to an early grave.
Jon Meacham a native of Tennessee, a biographer of George HW Bush and now a speechwriter for Joe Biden, in his book, “ Truth is Marching On”, about the young Lewis, says “the hypocrisy of an America fighting for liberty abroad while tolerating white supremacy at home” characterised the Vietnam era. And yet as Edmund Fawcett, a self-described “leftwing liberal” and former writer at the Economist, notes in his new book, Conservatism, “although liberal democracy is a child of the left, its growth and health have relied on support from the right.” Half a century ago, Senate Republicans defeated a southern Democratic-led filibuster and enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Those days are gone. He also posits that “when, as now, the right is divided, the haves sleep less easily that government is in safe hands.” Said differently, moneyed America is not simply about tax cuts. It can even come with a conscience, a reality that troubled Trump all along. Philadelphia’s upscale suburbs made the difference for Biden in Pennsylvania, and possibly the US.
Fawcett is keenly aware of the rise of the hard right, of Trumpism in America, of Marine Le Pen in France, UKIP in Great Britain and the AfD in Germany. “The arrival of a new century,” he writes, “scrambled assumptions and shook the conservative center.” These tremors continue. Brexit tethered to a pandemic is expensive – and lethal. Amid America’s winter of political discontent, Ricks, Meacham and Fawcett are well worth reading. Each conveys a message that deserves our attention as we strive to exit, or at least better understand, the morass.
— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.