VIENNA – Barack Obama was right to say that democracy itself was on the ballot in the just-concluded US presidential election. But, with Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton, do we now know for certain that a majority of Americans are anti-democratic? How should Clinton voters relate to Trump’s supporters and to the new administration?
Had Clinton won, Trump most likely would have denied the new president’s legitimacy. Clinton’s supporters should not play that game. They might point out that Trump lost the popular vote and hence can hardly claim an overwhelming democratic mandate, but the result is what it is. Above all, they should not respond to Trump’s populist identity politics primarily with a different form of identity politics.
Instead, Clinton supporters ought to focus on new ways to appeal to the interests of Trump supporters, while resolutely defending the rights of minorities who feel threatened by Trump’s agenda. And they must do everything they can to defend liberal-democratic institutions, if Trump tries to weaken checks and balances.
To move beyond the usual clichés about healing a country’s political divisions after a bitterly fought election, we need to understand precisely how Trump, as an arch-populist, appealed to voters and changed their political self-conception in the process. With the right rhetoric, and, above all, plausible policy alternatives, this self-conception can be changed again. Members of today’s Trumpenproletariat are not forever lost to democracy, as Clinton suggested when she called them “irredeemable” (though she is probably right that some of them are resolved to remain racists, homophobes, and misogynists).
Trump made so many deeply offensive and demonstrably false statements during this election cycle that one especially revealing sentence went entirely unnoticed. At a rally in May, he declared, “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.” This is telltale populist rhetoric: there is a “real people,” as defined by the populist; only he faithfully represents it; and everyone else can – indeed should – be excluded. It is the kind of political language deployed by figures as different as Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Notice what the populist always does: he starts with a symbolic construction of the real people, whose supposedly single authentic will he deduces from that construction; then he claims, as Trump did at the Republican convention in July: “I am your voice” (and, with characteristic modesty: “I alone can fix it”). This is an entirely theoretical process: contrary to what admirers of populism sometimes argue, it has nothing to do with actual input from ordinary people.
A single, homogeneous people who can do no wrong and need only a genuine representative to implement their will properly is a fantasy – but it is a fantasy that can respond to real problems. It would be a mistake to think that Venezuela and Turkey had been perfect pluralist democracies before Chávez and Erdoğan came along. Feelings of dispossession and disenfranchisement are fertile ground for populists. In Venezuela and Turkey, parts of the population really were systematically disadvantaged or largely excluded from the political process. There is substantial evidence that low-income groups in the US have little to no influence on policy and go effectively unrepresented in Washington.
Again, notice how a populist responds to a situation like this: instead of demanding a fairer system, he tells the downtrodden that only they are the “real people.” A claim about identity is supposed to solve the problem that many people’s interests are neglected. The particular tragedy of Trump’s rhetoric – and, arguably, its most pernicious effect – is that he has convinced many Americans to view themselves as part of a white nationalist movement. Representatives of what is euphemistically called the “alt-right” – latter-day white supremacy – were at the center of his campaign. He has stoked a sense of common grievance by maligning minorities and, like all populists, portraying the majority group as persecuted victims.
It did not have to be this way. Trump has obviously made a successful claim to represent people. But representation is never simply a mechanical response to pre-existing demands. Rather, claims to represent citizens also shape their self-conception. It is crucial to move that self-conception away from white identity politics and back to the realm of interests.
This is why it is crucial not to confirm Trump’s rhetoric by dismissing or even morally disqualifying his supporters. This only allows populists to score more political points by saying, in effect: “See, elites really do hate you, just as we said, and now they are bad losers.” Hence the disastrous effect of generalizing about Trump’s supporters as racists or, as Hillary Clinton did, “deplorables” who are “irredeemable.” As George Orwell once put it: “If you want to make an enemy of a man, tell him that his ills are incurable.”
Of course, identity and interests are often linked. Those defending democracy against populists also sometimes have to tread on the dangerous ground of identity politics. But identity politics need not require an appeal to ethnicity, let alone race. Populists are always anti-pluralists; the task for those opposing them is to fashion conceptions of a pluralist collective identity devoted to shared ideals of fairness.
Many rightly worry that Trump might not respect the US Constitution. Of course, the meaning of the constitution is always contested, and it would be naive to believe that non-partisan appeals to it will immediately deter him. Still, America’s founders obviously wanted to limit what any president could do, even with a supportive Congress and a favorably inclined Supreme Court. One can only hope that enough voters – including Trump supporters – see things the same way and put pressure on him to respect this non-negotiable element of the American constitutional tradition.