BERLIN – The short-lived coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed in large part because Turks poured into the streets in their tens of thousand to oppose a military takeover of their country. The fact that so many would willingly risk their lives for what they perceived as their “democracy” speaks well of their courage. But it is also likely to reinforce Erdoğan’s troublesome understanding of what democracy is: a form of government in which the will of a popular majority is fully represented by him, and is to be implemented by him without regard for institutional or legal constraints.
Donald Trump’s campaign for the American presidency also seems to draw on this understanding of democracy. His recent praise of torture, his calls to exclude all Muslims from entering the United States, and his attempted intimidation of a federal judge all speak to a contempt for law as a limit on what he believes a majority of Americans really want.
That so many US voters seem to agree with Trump raises a question that would have seemed utterly bizarre a year ago. Is the political system of the world’s mightiest power and oldest democracy in danger of going down an unstable, populist path? For most Project Syndicate contributors, the question is even broader. It would be easy to think of Trump, and of the reasons for his rise, as uniquely American. But while the particulars of his appeal – from his boasts of almost supernatural entrepreneurial skill to his defense of America’s lax gun laws – take their cue from the political culture of the United States, they also highlight the parallels between his rhetoric and values and those of populist strongmen like Erdoğan elsewhere.
In the apt words of the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a new breed of politicians across the West now seem to be forming “a new International, not of communism, but of vulgarity and bling.” Leaders like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi also seemed ludicrous, until they managed to amass power, degrade their countries’ political culture, and erode the integrity of public institutions. Given this, it would be a mistake to underestimate the challenge that the bling and rant brigades pose to the status quo. “One is tempted,” Lévy writes, “to ask whether Trumpism might not also be the harbinger – or perhaps even the apotheosis – of a truly new episode in world politics.”