All US presidents come to power – and exercise it – by assembling and sustaining a broad electoral coalition of voters with identifiable interests. Donald Trump is no exception. Trump’s stunning election victory, following a populist campaign that targeted US institutions, domestic and foreign policies, and especially elites, was powered by voters – overwhelmingly white, largely rural, and with only some or no postsecondary education – who feel alienated from a political establishment that has failed to address their interests.
So the question now, for the United States and the world, is how Trump intends to represent this electoral bloc. Part of the difficulty in answering it, as Project Syndicate’s contributors understand well, is Trump himself. “The US has never before had a president with no political or military experience, nor one who so routinely shirks the truth, embraces conspiracy theories, and contradicts himself,” notes Harvard’s Jeffrey Frankel. But, arguably more important, much of what Trump has promised – on trade, taxation, health care, and much else – either would not improve his voters’ economic wellbeing or would cause it to deteriorate further.
This paradox lies at the root of some unsettling scenarios. As Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Mueller points out, “[t]here is substantial evidence that low-income groups in the US have little to no influence on policy and go effectively unrepresented in Washington.” But Trump’s claim to represent his voters is not based on “demanding a fairer system.” Instead, says Mueller, Trump “tells the downtrodden that only they are the ‘real people,’” and that (as Trump put it during his campaign), “the other people don’t mean anything.” By persuading his supporters “to view themselves as part of a white nationalist movement,” Mueller argues, a “claim about identity is supposed to solve the problem that many people’s interests are neglected.”