The outcome of the 2016 American Presidential Election was, to say the least, startling. The support for Donald Trump is often characterised as a sign of the discontent towards the establishment. Similar populist movements are occurring in Europe (e.g. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen), and sounds of protest and incomprehension are being excreted (politically) from both the left and right. What receives the most critique in mainstream media is the amount of public disinformation put forward by the presidential office, notoriously termed by Kellyanne Conway as “alternative facts”. In the midst of all the tumult, opposing voices emerge telling us that not all the criticism aimed at Trump is legitimate.
Advocates of Trump point out that the current American president isn’t the first politician to lie to the public. This notion cannot be denied, and it makes it hard to pinpoint why a lot of critics see Trump’s actions as distinct from the typical ‘manipulation’ that seems a natural occurrence in politics. Furthermore, there are people claiming that Trump is giving the people what they want and what he promised. So are we all just overreacting to what is merely a change in political discourse? Or are the worries of Trump’s critics justified and does he pose a threat to democracy?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at why politicians lie and make false promises in the first place. Once we’ve established what constitutes ‘business as usual’, we can identify the self-undermining mechanisms of democracy and argue why critics justly characterise the actions of Trumps is a bridge too far.
In a democratic society, political leaders are chosen by the people through an electoral process. This means that gaining political power has to come by way of politicians winning the support and trust of the voter, and they have to make policies appeal to individual voters as well as networks of interest-groups, and the societal context influences the political style applied. In times of (economic) prosperity, political parties can make bigger promises and will show political ‘credit claiming’ (as we have seen during the expansion of the welfare state in the last few decades). Contrastingly, in times of (economic) insecurity and associated retrenchment, politicians are more inclined to apply ‘blame-avoidance’. No one wants to take responsibility for civil losses. Newcomers in the political arena are often eager to blame those currently in office for societal problems, and portray themselves as bringers of change [and thus as ‘reclaiming’ times of progress]. Here we can draw a parallel with the anti-establishment sentiment that Trump has tapped into.
Psychological processes also influence how politicians present themselves to the public. Studies on voting-behaviour have shown that most voters (at least in the United States) have negativity bias in that they are willing to take larger risks in order to prevent their (economic) circumstances worsening. This explains why people who are lesser off are more easily persuaded to vote for someone who promises change.
These inherent mechanisms to democratic elections often lead to politicians focusing on short-term results (which explains why we often see a shift or weakening of political stances after the elections – many insisted that this would be the case with Trump i.e. that the Trump we saw during the election was just a persona). Furthermore, they tend to favour larger or more powerful interest-groups. Therefore, there is definitely some truth in the notion of the political elite not having payed sufficient attention to those that felt silenced and unheard, and it explains why many people feel politicians are not to be trusted. What then, makes Trump so different?
Self-Undermining Aspects Of Democratic Elections
Many advocates of Trump argue that he is just a ‘new type of president’ who gives the people what they want. Democratic government is aimed at serving the will of the people. Why then do so many self-proclaimed Democrats protest against a president elected by the people? (We can debate on the efficiency and justness of the current American electoral system, but for the sake of argument we will adopt for now the premise that this system is fair).
If we believe Trump, the humble millionaire stands up for ‘the forgotten people’. However, I do not think he is going to authenticate such hopes. Due to the mechanisms just explained, [populist]politicians tend to focus on voters’ preferences rather than their actual interests. Just looking at the proposed tax-reform and the appeal of Obama-care, for example, makes it safe to say that the lower income classes, whose interests he claims to protect, will only be worse off in the next four years. This is only speaking financially, of course. When, rather, we take into account the hostile attitude Trump articulates against multiple social and ethnic groups, it is hard to believe that his presidency will close the social divide in America.
The difference between populist movements and democratic ‘revolutions’ lies in how one defines ‘the people’. From a democratic perspective, ‘the people’ is an open and inclusive concept, adaptive to societal change. In populist rhetoric, ‘the people’ is characterised as a fixed identity, that excludes (large) groups of society. ‘The people’ in this sense is not representative of the entire population of a given nation. The danger and risk lies in the possibility of this false, fixed identity of the people being large enough to grant political power to someone who does not serve the interest of all inhabitants. In this sense, the ‘one voice, one vote’ principle in democracy has a self-undermining aspect.
What Can We Learn From Trump?
So what are we supposed to take away from all this? Am I arguing that we should abandon democracy? Absolutely not. Even though democracy has its flaws and imperfections, I still believe it to be the best form of government available to us. But if recent events teach us anything, it’s this: Even though Trump seems to induce the current political tumult, the cause lies in the self-undermining mechanism of democracy as described above. This institutional instability should be acknowledged. If we want to uphold a government that carries out the will of the people, we must ensure that the people is informed and well equipped to make these kinds of decisions. Furthermore, we must see to it that our political leaders are focused not just on their electoral results, but on actual societal results, and hold them accountable as such. Once again, solidarity and (moral) education prove an essential component in the social and institutional stability of our society.
To summarise: Trump may have indeed given a voice to ‘the forgotten people’, a voice embodying the limits of the current political discourse. Whether he will actually serve their interests, of course, is a different question. Obviously, it is too early to state anything about the outcomes of Trump’s presidency. Proclaiming that this is the end of democracy and the start of a ‘tyrannical regime’ is at this point too presumptuous. As for those worried about the next four years with Trump in office (and I count myself amongst you), we should remember the ancient Greek ‘crisis’ which translates to originally mean ‘decisive point’. Let’s hope – or rather, make sure – that in the future we can look back at 2016/ 2017 as an overdue wake-up-call for democracy, and not as its ruin.
Dutch student in Humanistic Studies, specializing in ethics and political philosophy.