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What the US Election Is Really About

For all the hand wringing over Donald Trump's authoritarian rhetoric, the 2020 US election is not really about the incumbent. It is about deep-seated suspicion regarding the national government's role, which makes populism a recurring feature of American political history.

CHICAGO – Next month’s United States election is not about policy, nor is it even about President Donald Trump. It is about America’s constitutional system. This is not to suggest that the election could end that system. While Trump has an authoritarian temperament and admires dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is unlikely to become an autocrat even if he is re-elected. The real question that America faces concerns the role of the national government in the life of the country.

Trumpism is just the latest in a series of populist waves born of anger toward what people see as unaccountable, self-interested political elites in Washington, DC. Indeed, the story begins before that city was founded. The American Revolution targeted remote, self-interested elites in London, and it was soon followed by a major dispute over the power of the national government.

Critics argued that the proposed new Constitution would create a national governing elite, thus undermining the hard-won sovereignty of the colonies-turned-states. Though the Constitution’s proponents prevailed, the critics proved prescient. Almost immediately, populist movements emerged to challenge what was seen as elite rule. Jeffersonian democracy overthrew the Federalist elites in 1800, and then Jacksonian democracy overthrew the Jeffersonian elites in 1829.

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