In Brief

After Trump, Is American Democracy Doomed by Populism?

The Trump presidency has demonstrated the appeal of populist authoritarianism to many Americans. The way the country responds to the attack on the U.S. Capitol will indicate how long this movement lasts.

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.

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That explains why Trump has 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.

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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 somebody who believes that he, and only he, represents the people could not possibly accept the legitimacy of an election he lost.

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.

How would you compare the Republican Party to political parties abroad that have turned illiberal?

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.

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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).

As a result, Republican lawmakers have at some key moments proven more willing to stand up to their leader than have populist lawmakers in other countries. For example, it is striking that a great majority of Republican senators ultimately voted to certify President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory.

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What’s more, populists such as Hungarian President Viktor Orban remained in control of their political parties even after they lost elections. The Republican Party, by contrast, now effectively enters a period without a real leader. We won’t really know whether it will remain under Trump’s control, instead of moving away from his authoritarian tendencies, until the next presidential primaries in 2024.

Do the decisions by Twitter and other major social media platforms to suspend Trump’s accounts effectively impede extremist messaging? 

It is too early to tell how effective the suspension of Trump’s accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms will be. It has certainly impeded his ability to speak directly to his followers over the coming weeks. But over the course of the next four years, he could adopt new ways of communicating with them.

A crowd of people are shown holding American flags and flags with President Trump's name on them
Supporters of U.S. President Donald J. Trump attend a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

At the same time, these decisions have also raised a number of risks. It is now imaginable that the internet will slowly break into two pieces—or a whole chaotic array of shards. On Twitter and Facebook, Americans with different political beliefs sorted themselves into their own echo chambers but at least shared the same platform. In the future, parts of the populist right will attempt to build platforms of their own. This could end up accelerating rather than slowing their radicalization.

The moves are also likely to empower dictators abroad. As opposition leaders such as Russia’s Alexey Navalny have warned, the suspensions provide a perfect excuse for oppressive governments to censor democratic challengers. If major political figures in the United States are banned from using social media platforms, the country will find it more difficult to condemn similar bans abroad even when they are pursued for much more cynical reasons.

Twitter and Facebook long ago became a kind of public square. Although speech rights are not absolute in any context, and incitement to violence should be illegal anywhere, it is concerning that a few powerful people in Silicon Valley can now effectively decide who gets to speak their mind in the public square. Handing the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook the ability to determine without any accountability which politicians do, and don’t, retain the ability to speak to their followers is hardly a good precedent for American democracy.

What tools can the incoming Biden administration use to ease tensions and address Trump supporters’ grievances?

As I describe in my book The People vs. Democracy, the rise of populism is owed to a number of structural reasons, including the stagnation of living standards for ordinary people, rapid cultural and demographic changes, and the rise of social media. The Biden administration should enact policies that, for example, help to stimulate wage growth for working- and middle-class Americans. But with Democrats’ small majority in the House and smallest possible majority in the Senate, the administration’s ability to push through ambitious reforms will, at least for the next two years, be limited.

Just as important, then, is that Biden continues on the path that won him the Democratic primaries and allowed him to beat Trump. He needs to be clear and forthright in his condemnations of Trump’s antidemocratic extremism. But he also needs to demonstrate that he seeks to be the president of all Americans—inviting those who voted for Trump to abandon their allegiance to a dangerous demagogue without portraying them as irredeemable deplorables.

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