Much has been made of the Trump presidency and of illiberal democracies around the world resurrecting the menace of far right political views. Under this theory, voters in this country and abroad have been converted to the ideology of the far right, including the rebirth of political institutions from the 1930s that favor authoritarian leaders and permit them to undermine the press and the courts. Some liberals are even espousing the age-old default position that the masses asserting populism are “up to no good” and can no longer be trusted to deliver equality, liberty and justice for all.
I believe this position is overblown and misses the point of how Trump and others have won elections. First, it is important to remember that no right-wing populist has come to power anywhere in Western Europe or North America without the full cooperation of traditional conservative elites. In our country, Republican voters did what they always do and voted for the representative of their party. For Republicans and many Independents, Hillary Clinton was unelectable. What took place was predictable and normal. It was the candidate who was not normal, not the electorate.
Second, the election of Donald Trump was not the enthusiastic endorsement of a Ronald Reagan or an LBJ. Those who voted for him were compelled to overlook character flaws in favor of their anti-abortion or other conservative policy positions. Many of Trump’s illiberal attacks against the media and the courts did not appear until after the election. There is no evidence that many of those who voted for him support these authoritarian right-wing views.
Third, the mid-term elections demonstrated a strong moderate and left of moderate current in the American electorate. The trend in American political history has always been that following any period of extremism the pendulum swings back toward the middle. It is my view that the 2020 election will follow this inclination and elect a moderate Democrat to the presidency.
Fourth, in America, the appearance of acts of right-wing violence and rhetoric since Trump’s election are representative of the perspective of a small minority, unlike troubling reports from parts of Germany and Eastern Europe. The incidents in America, fueled by domestic and foreign social media and by the president’s own conduct, have encouraged America’s fringe right wing to take action. There has not been a significant shift in public opinion in support of right-wing views.
Lastly, the American democratic experience of a constitutional republic balanced by three branches of government runs deep and strong. There is no appetite to permit Trump, his family and wealthy political supporters to gain economic advantage through the presidency, or to label non-Trump supporters as “enemies of the people,” or to permit the executive branch to brazenly act in unaccountable ways.
Progressives would do well to stop trying to analyze what caused Trump and to plan for the future, post-Trump. Moreover, the average voter is not interested in hearing about revisionist history and how our founding fathers got our institutions all wrong because of racism and sexism. While there may be some historical truth to these claims, it is counterproductive. We need to stress what the founders got right and why it is worth preserving for the next generation of Americans.
Trump alone is responsible for breaking the office of the presidency into an unrecognizable institution. Much of the damage can be traced to his self-promotion and to self-preservation, not a grand plan of right-wing authoritarian takeover, as was the case in Russia, Hungary and Turkey. The American electorate will soon make things right.