There is a very real threat to liberal democracy in Trump’s America, but it has nothing to do with populism. In fact, populism — an insistence that government authority reflect the will of the people — could be a big part of the solution to the current crisis.
Trump looks and sounds like a populist, a leader who whips up his supporters into chanting anti-democratic slogans like, “Lock her up!” But behind the horrible spectacle is a very different threat: the tyranny of an unaccountability minority.
The most egregious examples are playing out right now in states ranging from North Carolina to Michigan to Wisconsin, where the GOP increasingly has an answer to the problem of what you do if you lose elections — ignore the outcome and just change the rules to avoid giving up power. Even more alarmingly, in both of the aforementioned Midwestern states, the GOP has been confirmed in its legislative majorities despite large popular vote losses, due to gerrymandering.
Trump’s governing agenda, meanwhile, has been an unpopular set of initiatives supported by members of Congress who believe themselves, often correctly, to be insulated from popular will by electoral maps. Trump’s greatest policy impact is almost certainly coming from lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary, which will help further entrench conservative policies in places where it is beyond political control.
Democrats took the House in a blue wave, but their ability to change policy is limited. The resistance to Trump — the largest and most powerful social movement in generations — needs to enter a more radical stage that goes beyond electoral advocacy to include civil disobedience and direct action.
American political history is a story of the fight to live up to our founding ideals. Civil rights advocates registered voters and encouraged people to go to the polls, but given the fundamental repressive reality of Jim Crow, they employed acts of civil disobedience from sit-ins to marches to boycotts that shut down commerce. They made life uncomfortable for the ruling Southern class and forced institutional change.
Now the resistance is going to have to find opportunities to do something similar, and make the rolling crisis Trump and Republicans have unleashed on American democracy something that’s discomfiting in tangible ways for the business executives and economic elites who are the real beneficiaries of Trump’s politics.
There has always been more to democratic self-government than “majority rules,” but the notion of will of the people is a powerful one, one that asserts democratic accountability as the core to a free society. The anti-Trump resistance is bewitched by the specter of populist autocracy. But they need to deploy the rhetorical and organizational tools of a populist movement.
The menace of populist authoritarianism
The specter of majoritarian tyranny has long stalked Western political thought. The founding generation of the American Republic was deeply troubled by the notion of a charismatic demagogue who might gain the allegiance of the people and use the legitimacy they bestowed upon him to undermine the rule of law and the liberal order.
That’s why they devised a system of government that not only featured separation of powers between branches but also eschewed the direct election of either the president or the US Senate.
Their fears were realized shortly after the Constitution’s promulgation when the charismatic young general Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’état that he followed up with a quick plebiscite to demonstrate his popular support. Plebiscitary dictatorships of this kind became an entrenched aspect of the political scene in later decades.
In today’s world, a number of leaders broadly fit the model of Fareed Zakaria’s mid-1990s warning about the rise of “illiberal democracy.” From Orbán in Hungary to Duterte in the Philippines to Erdogan in Turkey, there are leaders who ride to power on a wave of genuine popular support and then wield that popularity to trample on the institutional constraints on their power. Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, has not yet gone down this path, but his track record of statements praising Brazil’s former military dictators unquestionably raises the prospect that he will.
Faced with the threat of populist authoritarianism, the appropriate response really is to retreat to institutionalism and legalism as defenses of the liberal order against the passing madness of the crowd. The title of Yascha Mounk’s Trump-era book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It captures the spirit of this well.
But while that may describe the situation in Europe or Brazil, it is most definitively not what is happening in the United States. Here, the forces curbing democracy do not have popular support. They are relying, instead, precisely on their control of institutions and constituted legal authority. They do so with the enthusiastic blessing of the Chamber of Commerce and the bulk of the business community.
Populist authoritarianism, in short, is not a phantom, and it’s absolutely true that the practice of durable democratic self-government has always involved more than majority will or occasional elections. But critically, even though Trump strongly echoes many of these populist authoritarians in his personal style, the actual crisis of democracy playing out in the United States has essentially nothing to do with this.
Establishment Republicans are leading the charge against democracy
While populist autocracy is a real phenomenon in global politics, it happens to be the No. 1 problem the authors of the US Constitution had in mind when designing our system of government. That system, for all its considerable flaws, is quite robust to resisting efforts to create a personalist dictatorship.
The Senate’s large “advise and consent” role is particularly critical. It’s fairly clear from Trump’s public statements and his conduct vis-à-vis the Department of Justice that he would like to staff both the executive branch and the judiciary with personal loyalists who have few if any ideological commitments. But he can’t actually accomplish this.
To fill posts on a permanent basis, Trump needs a working majority in the Senate, and that means appointing slates of ideologically reliable conservative Republicans. Trump does try to find and exploit loopholes in this system — hence acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker — but by and large, “the system works.” Trump is delivering appointments to both judicial and regulatory agencies drawn from the same basic Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation lists that anyone plugged into Republican Party establishment institutions would deliver.
The problem is that those institutions themselves are deeply hostile to democracy:
- When Democrats won the North Carolina governor’s mansion in 2016, the state GOP used the lame-duck legislative session to strip the governor’s office of powers.
- When Democrats won the Wisconsin governor’s mansion in 2018, the state GOP rolled out the same playbook — this time expanding the power-stripping to the attorney general’s office, which Democrats also won.
- They are now doing the same thing in Michigan, where they are also engaging in shenanigans to avoid implementing a minimum wage increase that the legislature passed earlier in the year specifically to prevent a minimum wage increase from appearing as a ballot initiative.
- Meanwhile, there appears to have been systematic election fraud committed on behalf of the Republican candidate in a House election in North Carolina, and zero national figures in the GOP have anything to say about it. They’ve used hysteria about the basically nonexistent problem of ineligible voters trying to impersonate eligible voters to enact a series of voter suppression laws in states all around the country.
Of course, interbranch conflict laced with partisanship is not new in America. But the typical remedy for a legislature acting to defy popular will would be to mobilize the public backlash to their unpopular actions and beat them at the ballot box. But Republicans already lost the popular vote for state legislature in both Wisconsin and Michigan, and they nonetheless won majorities of seats because of gerrymandering. In North Carolina, the GOP won a narrow majority of votes but has carried a larger majority of seats thanks again to gerrymandering.
Reformers were once optimistic that the Supreme Court might act to curtail these kinds of partisan gerrymanders, but in a key case last year, former swing Justice Kennedy sided with the four more conservative justices to decline to act. Then Kennedy retired in a manner timed to ensure that he’d be replaced by an even more conservative justice.
Meanwhile, following Democrat Doug Jones’s victory in the 2017 Alabama special Senate election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell basically gave up on trying to advance a legislative agenda since he knew House Republicans’ ideas were too unpopular to be viable in a narrow Senate.
Instead, he focused on confirming as many Federalist Society judges as possible. And with the House now in Democratic control, this trend will only continue. Once installed on the court, Republican appointees will rule reliably in favor of bus