Wednesday, 6 January saw a dramatic tipping point in Donald Trump’s ongoing crusade to assuage his personal grievances by overturning the results of November’s election. Members of his own party seemed almost Sanchoesque in their willingness to humor his baseless accusations—right up until a mob of far right Trump supporters descended on the Capitol and stormed Congress, leaving at least four dead in their wake. With mere days left of his presidency, the GOP finally turned on the sawdust demagogue, with many even calling for his immediate removal from office—a remarkable break with a man who seemed destined to keep an iron grip on his party well into the future.
The riots catalyzed and brought into plain sight all the worst elements of Trumpism. With the Confederate flags proudly paraded through Washington—something Lincoln would no doubt have found ironic—the tantric repetition of long disproven conspiracy theories and Trump’s stubborn unwillingness to emphatically condemn the violence, Wednesday played out like a greatest hits of postmodern Trumpism’s ugliest side. But what was most shocking was the overtly authoritarian quality of the whole display, revealed in everything from the way the boss himself called on his supporters to march on Washington to put pressure on disloyal Republicans to the violent intimidation and refusal to accept a peaceful transfer of power, despite a clear electoral outcome. The riots marked the culmination of Trump’s flirtation with authoritarian tendences, casting his actions over the last four years in a more sinister light than ever before.
Trump himself has often adopted authoritarian rhetoric and aligned himself with authoritarian figures—mostly notably wannabe czar Vladimir Putin—and has attacked the free press as “enemies of the people.” After every repugnant strongman gesture, there have been plenty of apologists defending his democratic credentials—a trend that has continued right up to the present moment. Trump’s personal outlook is no doubt anti-democratic. There is little evidence that he possesses the democratic mindset that regards the views and experiences of others as worthy of equal consideration to his own. What is more important, however, is whether the postmodern conservative populism with which Trump has become associated is irrevocably anti-democratic or whether these authoritarian tendencies are just an aberration restricted to Trump himself alone.
The rap sheet doesn’t look good. Not only did Trump’s enablers engage in anti-democratic agitation at home—including in their attempts to disenfranchise untold numbers of American voters who cast their ballots by mail (among other supposed crimes), but many other right wing populists have showed their own authoritarian colors lately. From Viktor Orban, who has finally seized dictatorial powers overtly, to members of the Polish Law and Justice Party, who continue to erode any checks on their power and Jair Bolsonaro’s explicit desire to return to military-style rule, right-wing populists have mirrored Trump in their authoritarian aspirations.
Why then do Trump and his pals continue to adopt democratic sounding rhetoric? Even during his speech on Wednesday, Trump called on his supporters to “take back our country” by force, echoing his longstanding claim to speak for the people against vaguely defined but affectively vivid elites and their backers—except, of course, that the people Trump claims to speak for have never included the Democrats, the political left or pretty much anyone who doesn’t support him and who, together, comprise a majority of Americans. The same is true of many other right-wing populists: despite hedging the system heavily in their favour, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party haven’t won an outright majority of the popular vote in Hungary since their initial victory in 2010. What, then, explains this rhetorical invocation of the people?
In his excellent new book Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition (reviewed here), Edmund Fawcett points out that the modern political right emerged in the late eighteenth century as a reaction against the twin political ideals of modernity: liberalism and democracy. After a titanic struggle, many conservatives made peace with liberalism—though, as the emergence of post-liberal thought on the political right shows, this was not an inevitable reconciliation. However, as Fawcett points out, the acceptance of democracy was far more begrudging. Conservative movements remained at the forefront of efforts to limit suffrage and further democratization and insulate privileged forms of power and property from interference. Nonetheless, many conservative populists recognize the need to invoke the trappings of democracy to legitimate their movements in an increasingly democratic era. Corey Robin points out that these populist movements have never embodied a genuine democratic ethos, in the sense of regarding all citizens as moral equals and attempting to include everyone in political processes. Democracy is pluralistic in accepting and even embracing the variety of personalities, groups and ideologies in a society. In this respect, it also overlaps substantially with liberal toleration, with its commitment to engendering different experiments in living. This is antithetical to Trumpism, which ha lamented the emergence of pluralism and difference from the beginning and frames politics in antagonistic terms, playing on the resentments of groups who feel that their status has been undermined by egalitarian movements and promising to restore them to a more auspicious position in society.
Because it rarely adopts a genuinely democratic ethos, Jan-Werner Müller points out, populism on both left and right tends to become leader oriented, promising that a single strongman can speak for the supposedly authentic people who need to empower him to eliminate their enemies. And because it regards anyone who doesn’t support the leader as an inauthentic member of the polis, it sees no contradiction in claiming that any democratic process that vindicates the leader is legitimate while rejecting any that doesn’t. Under such a regime, elections devolve into mere plebiscites. This kind of thinking is central to postmodern Trumpism, which has catered to the grievances of conservatives who felt that their country was being seized and given over to a motley collection of immigrants and minorities and their over-educated allies in the media and academia. Trump and his enablers have spent years characterizing everyone who has opposed him as fraudulent, mendacious losers. Ironically, the cynicism this generated didn’t lead many of his supporters to turn on Trump. Instead, they simply assumed that, since all politicians lie and cheat, there was nothing illegitimate or even unusual in Trump’s efforts to do the same. If anything, they saw Trump as someone willing to fight dirty on their behalf and to be as ruthless as necessary against unscrupulous enemies willing to do anything to win. Politics was a zero-sum competition between the real people and their leader and everyone else, a competition they had to win. This is deeply contrary to the spirit of democracy, which accepts that, in a pluralistic society, differences in opinion mean that there will always be changes in government and that this is legitimate insofar as it reflects what most people want over time. The upside is that, even if you lose today, you may win tomorrow. This would never be acceptable to Trumpism, which, of course, has always been about winning permanently—even if that means rigging the game.
In the end, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations have revealed the fundamental weakness of both the man and the movement he created. Rather than inspiring people with an attractive vision of how the world might be, he has appealed to people’s most malicious and cynical impulses to compensate for ultimate emptiness of his worldview. Trumpism is a vacuous phenomenon, based on a façade of power and strength, rather than anything substantial enough to generate principled conviction. It is appropriate that, after so much petulant posturing, this last gasp of violence and entitlement should have been met with a combination of scorn and sad bemusement—a tragicomic resignation at the vindictive banality that has defined the last four years. The movement may gather itself again and take another stab at power. But, for now, liberals, leftists and even many conservatives finally seem to be collectively saying what they should have said right from the beginning: enough is enough.