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).