In recent months, a divide has opened up among those seeking to understand President Trump and the threat he poses to American democracy.
On one side are those who see him as a potential authoritarian whose anti-democratic instincts continually endanger core American norms and institutions. So far, the system — including the courts, long-established bureaucratic procedures, and federal law enforcement — is managing to constrain him, aided by his own ignorance and incompetence. But a halfway capable version of Trump? Such a president could seriously threaten the functioning and even survival of liberal democratic government in the United States.
On the other side are those who treat Trump as more continuous with earlier Republican presidents (including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush) and more politically feeble. Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by three million, showing how thin and dependent on contingency his victory was. His approval ratings are extremely low. Democrats appear to be on their way to an electoral blowout in the midterm elections later this year. And then there will be the 2020 election, which could well produce a decisive repudiation of Trump and much of what he represents. If all of this unfolds, the ominous warnings about the dangers confronting democracy in America will appear to have been so much hysteria.
Keeping a level head like this is usually wise. But in this case, it’s also foolhardy — and far more an expression of American parochialism than analytical clarity.
No one who aspires to understand Trump and what his presidency represents should limit their analysis to the United States. Even if on one level the president grows out of and extends long-term domestic political trends, on another level he is the American manifestation of a much bigger development: the rise of right-wing populism (and simultaneous collapse in support for center-left political parties) throughout vast swaths of the Western world. That populists are surging in so many places at the same time points to the influence of deeper structural trends at work. Those trends may not augur the impending demise of liberal democracy. But they do indicate that our form of government faces real and significant threats that should not be downplayed or dismissed.
That's why the most trustworthy and insightful commentators writing about the Trump presidency are people with a European background and orientation — writers like Yascha Mounk, Jan-Werner Müller, and Ivan Krastev — who place America's experiment with right-wing populism in a global context.
Reading the work of these authors, one begins to see that the liberal political order is being buffeted by similar forces in many places, from Washington and London to Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. In all of these places, and others, significant numbers of voters are angry — angry at established parties that seem not to represent their views on a range of issues, especially immigration, crime, and national cohesion; angry about economic policies that persistently fail to deliver on promises and expectations for prosperity; angry about the way elites (who invariably favor the neoliberal center-left or center-right) have managed affairs of state since the end of the Cold War.
Right-wing populists both respond to and intensify this anger, directing it squarely at the centrist establishment, and promise to address the sources of anger more boldly than any member of the entrenched establishment would dare to. They do this by unapologetically speaking the language of grievance and solidarity. This isn't the universalistic, trans-political, humanitarian solidarity favored by all variants of the left and great many on the libertarian center-right. It's the solidarity of the group, the tribe, the nation (or at least the majority's vision of the nation — what it once was and might be again).
The message then gets amplified via the megaphone of social media — the most effective and efficient echo chamber for political grievance ever devised — and manipulated by outside actors (like the Russian intelligence services) that have an interest in sowing political polarization and instability in Western countries. Contributing to the rising tide of rage are the deposed members of the centrist establishment, who respond less like the high-minded caretakers of the public good that they claim to be than angry, embittered partisans out to sabotage their successors any way they can. This only strengthens the hands of the populists, who can point to the unprincipled, partisan ruthlessness of their opponents as confirmation of the need for dramatic change in the established norms of democratic politics.
This schematic description of the rise of right-wing populism resonates with many aspects of life in the U.S. during Trump's presidency, but it also echoes a dynamic at play in the post-Brexit U.K., France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and (mostly recently) the Czech Republic. It is the underlying political logic of our present moment.
President Trump is a serious threat to longstanding democratic norms and institutions. But the threat didn't originate with him — and it's not likely to end with him either.