When asked whom he would vote for on November 8, 2016 if he were an American, the man responded without a trace of hesitation: “Trump. I am just horrified about him, but Hillary is the true danger.” The respondent was none other than Slavoj Žižek, the neo-Marxist philosopher of the last decade and an online pop star. It is safe to assume that Žižek could only have been left aghast by his own endorsement on the morning after the election.
The unspeakable has happened: Donald Trump, the New York billionaire, a kind of big-mouth Me Inc., is now the most important politician of the (Western) world. Will he have as catastrophic an impact on the world as his Republican predecessor G.W. Bush did? Is Trump an American phenomenon or does the US merely hold up to Europeans a mirror of their future, as de Tocqueville once wrote? Is Trump’s election the revolt of those who have long felt unrepresented by established politics, by the “political class,” by the media, by the public discourses, and by an economic system that is generating increasing levels of inequality?
A core argument of the theorists of post-democracy, from Colin Crouch to Jacques Rancière, is that elections have degenerated into empty rituals. They are not the heart of democracy, but its mere simulation. The policy contents do not matter; and if they do, the “competing” political programs are indistinguishable from one another. As with many a thesis on post-democracy, this one is only half true. Indeed, political programs were not of much significance in this election – neither in the campaign speeches nor in the media coverage. Instead, personal attacks and mudslinging took center stage: “crooked Hillary”, “corrupt Hillary”, who belongs in prison… The Democratic candidate returned the attacks in kind: “Donald” is a sexist, racist, and chauvinist and is a chronic tax avoider. The history of democratic elections reached a new low with the American autumn of 2016.
What does not hold water in the post-democracy thesis is that there are no programmatic differences. The electoral programs of Trump and Clinton were quite different. Trump adheres to old neo-liberal formulae: cut taxes so that investors invest, the economy grows, and the jobs come back from Mexico, China, Japan, or Europe. His policy proposals follow the famous napkin sketch with which Reagan’s chief economist Arthur B. Laffer was able to convince the then-president at the beginning of his term that tax cuts lead not only to investment and GDP growth but also to greater revenues. George W. Bush, another economic layman, applied the deceptively simple formula again a decade later. In both cases, the policy led to the greatest rises in public debt that American democracy had ever witnessed. And now, with Donald J. Trump, the fiscal policy tragedies threaten to repeat themselves as farce.
The welfare state in the US is underdeveloped. There are historical reasons for this: the sanctity of private property, the ideology of the minimal state, the weakness of the trade unions, the lack of a Labor party, and the establishment of a particularly rugged, unbridled form of capitalism. One of the successful reforms of Obama’s presidency was the creation, in the face of rabid opposition from the Republicans, of access to health insurance for the lower classes through the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (2010). For Trump, “Obamacare” is nothing short of a “disaster.”
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In the realm of foreign trade, Trump’s proposals have much ado in store, if not the risk of an all-out trade war. China, Europe, and the “disaster NAFTA” are to blame for job losses according to the simple worldview of the Republican populist. Free-trade agreements are to be rescinded and products from Asia and Europe tagged with punitive tariffs if they run contrary to American economic interests. It is a strange mix of neoliberal deregulation at home and protectionist threats abroad.
The biggest question marks are in foreign policy. Trump has shown no recognizable profile up to this point. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was clearer – both in word and unfortunately also in deed. She is a hawk among the Democrats, one who supported the illegal, deceitful war on Iraq and called for the expansion of the UN mandate against Gaddafi’s Libya. The consequence was not only an unmandated “regime change”, but also, as was already the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, the destruction of an entire country’s statehood – a serious mistake with long term consequences indeed. Power, as Karl Deutsch once said, is the “ability to afford not to learn”. On Russia, as Secretary of State, she followed the Cold War logic of “containment”, but also of the continued humiliation of the former world power. Not a far-sighted policy, neither for Ukraine nor for Europe, Germany or détente in general. Donald Trump expressed sympathies for Putin during the campaign, something that is considered close to a capital offense in the US. Whether this merely amounted to male bonding between authoritarian personalities or signaled the beginning of a new rapprochement remains to be seen with a healthy dose of skepticism.
For China and Europe, however, things may get uncomfortable. The US may well demand from Europe a greater share of financial contributions to NATO, armaments, and military operations. The targeting of European businesses for legal action – a popular form of American industrial policy – could step up a gear under Trump. Whether Trump will attempt to fight China’s authoritarian-statist policy of goods and capital export remains to be seen. Here, the US may well come to appreciate once again the meaning of “imperial overstretch”.
On Democracy in America
Trump has won the presidential election and the Republicans have the majority in Senate and House. The semi-democratic winner-take-all system with the archaic electoral college made this threefold victory possible.
Pippa Norris, the renowned scholar of democracy and elections at Harvard University, has examined for many years the integrity of elections in democracies and autocracies. In her ranking of 153 countries, the US finishes just 52nd. Ahead of the US are countries like Croatia, Greece, Argentina, Mongolia, or South Africa. Reasons for the lower integrity of US elections include the massive influence of wealthy private donors on electoral campaigns and programs, the frequent gerrymandering, the voter registration system that de facto discriminates against lower classes and African-Americans in particular, the extremely low turnout at Congressional elections, that winner-take-all electoral system, and the shamefully low number of polling booths in a technologically and economically advanced country like the US.
American democracy is known for its extensive “checks and balances”. Checks on power, in particular, are strongly developed: Congressional majorities are not automatically of the same party as the president’s; under the US federal system, the federal government has a relatively weak position vis-à-vis individual states; the Supreme Court is one of the most powerful constitutional courts in the world. Congressional control of the executive will, however, be initially weak if Trump brings the Republican establishment in line after an earlier falling-out. Trump has also made it clear that he will nominate a hand-picked conservative candidate for the Supreme Court vacancy. The current political constellation, then, means fewer constraints on President Trump than was intended in the Constitution. In this context, the “mainstream media” (Trump) and the civil society watchdogs will have an important oversight role to play. What cannot be expected in the coming years, however, is a boost for democracy and tolerance in the American polity.
Is Trump a Right-Wing Populist?
Is Trump truly a right-wing ideologue or is he merely a demagogic populist campaigner who could be reined in by institutions, by his advisors, and by public opinion once in office? To begin with, Trump is considered fairly resistant to advice; moreover, counterbalancing institutions are less effective in populist times and with a presidential majority than what constitutional theory would have us believe. More important is the question: who are the voters behind Trump? What do they mean for democracy? Initial analyses suggest that Trump has disproportionately large shares of the vote among male, less educated, white working class, and non-urban voters. They are the losers of economic globalization but it is questionable, however, that the economic situation was the driving motivation behind the Trump vote. In other words: It’s not the economy, stupid!
There are parallels here to right-wing populist parties in Western and Eastern Europe. The established political forces, the media, the progressives, the better-to-do, and the chorus of “reason” are all too often content with merely representing their own interests and their cultural modernity. Conservative fears of a “loss of Heimat [homeland]”, of the city district, of the familiar culture, of the nation, of state sovereignty, of the meaning of borders, or of traditional conceptions of marriage have been countered not only with the force of better argument. All too often, the response has been one of moral condescension or even exclusion from official discourse in cases where “incorrect” terms or ideas were expressed; a cosmopolitan spirit with a sanctimonious sense of morality has dominated the discourse. Just as Brexit supporters are said to be from the world of yesterday and to not understand today’s world of supra-nationalization, the voters of right-wing populist parties are held to be the moral and cultural laggards of society.
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In Western Europe, right-wing populist entrepreneurs have captured in these “laggards” some 10-30% of the electorate. In Poland, and especially in Hungary, right-wing populism has shown its ability to win majorities – and now in the US, the supreme global democratic power. Yet not all voters of Trump are anti-democratic racists, sexists, and chauvinists and not all belong to the lower classes. But they largely represent a major rebellion against the establishment. Even money did not buy Hillary the electoral victory. She spent two or three times as much money for her campaign than Donald Trump for his.
The better-off and the established of civil and political society, have become sedate, complacent, and deaf toward “those at the bottom” – economically as well as culturally. The working class has gone over to the right-wing populists. The now comfortable Left has come to defend existing conditions, whereas the Right has taken up its former battle cries of change. Trump’s electoral success must therefore also be interpreted as a warning sign. A representative democracy must represent each and every one as much as it can and also permit reactionary or conservative criticisms that transgress the supposed bounds of political correctness. This should not detract from the determined advocacy of freedom, equality, and the cultural progress of recent decades; these must be defended. However, preaching from above, moral intransigence, or the discursive exclusion of the “non-representable” only plays into the hands of the right-wing populists.
Translation by Seongcheol Kim.
Wolfgang Merkel is Professor of Comparative Political Science and Democracy Research at the Humboldt University Berlin, Associate of the Sydney Democracy Network, University of Sydney and Director of Research Unit Democracy: Structures, Performance, Challenges at Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB).