The Rise of Populist Authoritarianism in the U.S. and the Study of Politics

    There has been a fundamental change in U.S. politics. It emerged with the primaries and came to fruition with last night’s election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The basis of support for the country’s two traditional parties has changed in fundamental ways, with the Democratic Party becoming the party of big business and foreign policy hawks, while the working class (at least the white working class) has moved to the Republicans. The nastiness of the campaign was without precedent. Trump called Clinton a liar and demanded that she be jailed. His rhetoric has been particularly vitriolic—misogynist, racist, and widely regarded as irresponsible in its lack of respect for the institutional process. And yet, he won; his supporters were not dissuaded either by his malice or by revelations about his unsavoury behaviour. No one predicted Trump’s rise to political centre stage, nor appeared able to venture a convincing explanation for it—not the media, and certainly not the profession of Political Science. What do we make of this turn in American politics? Many in the media have characterized this new moment in U.S. politics as the work of a narcissist, who was able to catapult himself into a position where he could stir up and manipulate public opinion—or at least public opinion among the ignorant, racist and sexist “deplorables” (to use a term uttered by Clinton). The implication is that were it not for Trump, this would not have happened. 

    Can the Trump phenomenon be explained away so simply? I do not think so. While there is no question that Trump has stirred up substantial segments of the population, he could not have done so had his words not resonated a large proportion of the public. Trump supporters were open—I would venture to say more than just open—to his anti-establishment appeal. His charges of electoral rigging and media bias have done enormous damage to the legitimacy of the country’s institutions and electoral process and there may be more institutional damage to come; this is the new and disturbing part of this election. Racist and misogynistic attitudes, on the other hand, are not something new among the American electorate (or any other electorate for that matter) so we cannot explain away his appeal by pointing to these issues alone. The question is: what accounts for the rise of populist authoritarianism—what relatively new or distinct structural conditions and more immediate triggers can help us understand what has happened? This is the key question that political scientists must grapple with and it is one that challenges some of the sacred tenets of mainstream Political Science thinking.

    Not since Samuel Huntington and Guillermo O’Donnell, both political scientists, has Political Science encountered “political decay.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the term was applied exclusively to Global South countries to refer to the rise of mass mobilization and the deterioration of formal political institutions. It was not a term that was ever applied to northern industrialized nation, where it was assumed (perhaps rather arrogantly), then as now, that democracy was consolidated, institutionalized processes routinized, party systems stable, and the public overwhelmingly convinced that the democratic process was the best and fairest political game in town. Now we know differently; we know that seemingly routinized entrenched “institutionalized” political arrangements, even in long-term democracies, can breakdown in the face of authoritarian populism. We are compelled to cast aside the notion that our democratic political systems are immune to the sorts of conflagrations and deteriorations that one finds in other parts of the world. Only once we fully absorb this important understanding will we be properly motivated to move beyond the sort of superficial analyses that comes with smug satisfaction. Only then, will we gain greater insight and empathy into the political turmoil and political difficulties found in most other parts of the world. And, only then, will we (hopefully) become aware that political instability and the deterioration of democratic institutions has underlying processes that may not be easily precluded or fixed by formal political institutional arrangements (such as checks and balances, independent judiciaries, and “democratic” constitutions—all of which the U.S. has in spades). These kinds of formal institutions, so often pressed upon the Global South as the panacea for their problems, under the rubric of “good governance” have generally failed to achieve their purported outcomes elsewhere. It is about time that political scientists took a closer and more humble look at the reasons for these failures.

Additionally I have written a short piece for the University of Toronto News on Trump's election.