The Trump election has been as shocking and disorienting to mainstream opinion as the Brexit vote in the UK last year. Indeed, it is tempting to think there is no “mainstream” any more as the public appears divided into rightwing and leftwing populists and radicals.
One reaction to Trump, and especially his “alt-right” hangers-on like Bannon, has been to demonize them by screaming “fascist” at their populist, authoritarian, white nationalism. The “Muslim ban”, attacks on the media, on the institutions of government, especially the Courts but also parts of the executive branch like the intelligence agencies, all speak to an authoritarian agenda.
Alternatively some seek to normalize Trump and suggest what he’s doing is just a slightly exaggerated version of “normal” politics – all politicians lie, make outrageous claims, denounce their opponents, moan about the media misrepresenting them, etc. The realities of office will soon bring him down to earth and it’ll be more or less business as usual.
Both reactions are wrong because they fail to see what Trump really represents – he is not Hitler or Mussolini but he could easily turn out to be the precursor for something as bad. He is, as Mel Brookes wisely and wittily said, “a song and dance man”. But a dangerous one for what he could unleash.
Populists like Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey do not – like traditional fascists – outright reject the institutions of democracy. Rather they complain they are flawed and need to be fixed – “drain the swamp”. They seek to bend and warp the institutions, one bit at a time, to cement their rule once elected. They tend not to abolish elections, in favor of rigging them.
Trump is a populist in this vein, without doubt, but he is far less competent than Putin or Erdogan and a lot lazier. They dedicate themselves to power, Trump sees it as a game (show) in which he is the star player.
The big myth that no-one has adequately punctured is that Trump is a “successful businessman”. He is certainly a wealthy one, but successful? He inherited most of his wealth and has a string of very public failures that we know about. He’s good at putting “Trump” on buildings, but anyone with his wealth could do that. I suspect the main reason his tax returns have been kept secret is not to hide the fact he pays little or no tax, but because the main reason he doesn’t are the huge losses he’s racked up over the years.
Trump has created a political movement centered around himself, but he’s so far failed to create a “Movement”, like the Tea Party, much less a political party like United Russia or the Turkish Justice and Development Party. He’s not taken over a large chunk of the private media as Berlusconi did in Italy (maybe because he doesn’t really have the money to do it?).
It could be argued Trump has by-passed the need for a Party of his own by hijacking the GOP. Whilst that may appear so now, time will show he has an awful long way to go before he has the GOP under his control, and the US Party and constitutional system makes it very hard for a populist to control a federal party.
Similarly it could be argued he doesn’t need to own the media to control it – he’s done a pretty good job of manipulation so far. Again, the limits of that strategy are starting to show – manipulating the media for a campaign is one thing, doing it once you are in office is quite another.
The real question – and worry – is what happens to all those voters Trump mobilized when his project fails to deliver the jobs, or the curb on migration, or turn the clock back to a 1950s WASP America? Where will they go and what will they do? Some will undoubtedly just be disillusioned, further exacerbating the erosion of faith in democracy.
Some will turn to more extreme politics and possibly those promising “direct action” to do what Trump failed to do. That’s when we’ll see the red flags with funny emblems on them.
The way forward for democrats – Democrats, sensible Republicans and independents – is to use the institutions to stop Trump. Show that the Courts and Congress can be made to work in restraining impulsive, authoritarian, executive power. Using the Courts has made a good start, but the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018 should be the main focus – getting Democrats and moderate Republicans elected.