Checks and Balances
Liberal Democracy Is Stronger Than Trump’s Populism

Why Trump isn’t the threat to America’s liberal institutions that many fear.

Appeared in: Volume 13, Number 4 | Published on: December 11, 2017
Kurt Weyland is the Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, most recently Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America Since the Revolutions of 1848. Raúl L. Madrid is professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and author of various articles and books, including The Rise of Ethnic Politics in Latin America.
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  • AbleArcher

    The threat comes from the Fake News and the Obama Admin and Clinton corruption that infected [and impacted] the FBI, CIA, and even the DNC.

    • CheckYourself

      If liberal democracy delivers bad trade deals and handouts to MNCs, waves of illegals, and PC culture then liberal democracy will go, and should go.

  • QET

    First, America’s liberal institutions have already survived a populist leader–Barack Obama. All of the elements of your definition describe Obama to a T; e.g.:

    Populist leaders seek to boost their personal power and hence see checks and balances as obstacles to their efforts to advance “the will of the people.” Whereas liberal democracy disperses and limits political power in order to guard against tyranny and promote fair political competition, populist leaders seek to concentrate power. Do the words “pen and phone” mean anything to you? How about “Dear Colleague”?

    Furthermore, populist leaders mobilize their supporters through direct, personal appeals rather than relying on party organizations: They create new, broad and amorphous mass movements or layer them on top of conventional party organizations with the aim of weakening or smothering them outright. Do I really need to mention the complaints that Democratic party officials have leveled against Obama, that he did nothing to strengthen the Party? Do I really need to link to the videos of children coerced into signing Dear Leader paeans to Obama?

    Because this country has not had a populist leader occupy the presidency in 180 years, Wrong. See above.

    Second, the following are not violations of “liberal-democratic norms”:

    First, he has used unusually harsh, even insulting language to criticize the media, the political opposition, past and present government officials, and even members of his own party and Administration. The US MSM used and continues to use, not just “unusually harsh and insulting,” but unprecedentedly hostile language to criticize Trump. Regardless, treating the media as sacred is most certainly NOT a liberal democratic “norm.”

    Second, the President has exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists, proposing to ban Muslims from entering the United States, denouncing black protests of police violence, and appearing to sympathize with white nationalist groupings. I’m certain that the assembly-line production of articles like the recent one out of Texas (these professors no doubt are jealous that the student isnot a UT student) titled “Your DNA is an Abomination,” the constant stream of invective out of the Left like the college Democrats president who tweeted that she effing hated white men, and the serial racial “hate crime” hoaxes perpetrated by the putative victims themselves, are doing far more to “exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions” than anything Trump has said or done, but that’s just my opinion. What is a fact are the deliberate mischaracterizations here by the professors, who must think this piece is being read by their usual ignorant brainwashed undergraduates rather than people who actually remember what Trump has said and the contexts in which he has said it.

    Third, he has undermined faith in the electoral process by depicting it as rigged and suggesting, without any evidence, that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 presidential elections. His undermining of the “faith” is junior varsity level compared to the Russian collusion and Russian meddling charges Trumped up by petulant leftists. At least there is evidence of illegal vote casting, even if not at the order of magnitude these profs say Trump clams.

    Fourth, he has flouted long-held traditions of releasing tax returns and avoiding financial conflicts of interest. We are light-years away from “liberal democratic norms” here.

    Finally, he has aggressively sought to block investigations of his Administration by firing the Director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, among other actions. This is the only allegation that comes close to referencing a “liberal-democratic norm,” although for the life of me I cannot determine which one. Still, Comey’s resignation was actively demanded by Democrats when he was investigating Hillary’s e-mail server matter, but apparently that was not a violation of a liberal democratic norm because. . . .well, it just wasn’t. And in any case, 10 months of “investigation,” first by Comey and now by Mueller, has turned up exactly nothing. Results like that usually get people fired.

    This is just another in a long, and growing longer, line of TAI articles demonstrating both a near-total incomprehension of what “populism” really is and an ardent desire to simply construct a reality through sheer repetition.

    • Everett Brunson

      In addition to BHO I would add FDR to the “populist” list. His Fireside Chats were a direct appeal to the electorate–using the then “new” technology much as Trump uses Twitter. When The Supreme Court knocked down all of his New Deal initiatives he threatened to pack the Court in 1937. He even used the Fireside Chat format to promote that too. And, lest we forget, FDR was also responsible for the internment of US citizens–kinda’ make Trump look like a piker.

      I would like to add that TAI continues to sink in intellectual honesty.

      • QET

        Agreed re FDR. I had thought of the court-packing plan but had overlooked the fireside chat innovation. To me, FDR is just more evidence that the current attempt to define “populism” as a pejorative that applies only to Trump (and a few European leaders) is intellectually dishonest. These professors, like nearly every other TAI writer, clearly loathe Trump and are searching for an intellectual dress to cover their emotional state. I will repeat here that I do not question the sincerity of their hatred of Trump, but I reject as specious and spurious the arguments they make in support of that feeling.

        Modern Western politics is conducted by the Left and by all elites only on an aesthetic plane. Obama was judged to be Beautiful by elites, academics, professional commentators, the media (TAI included); Trump is judged to be not Beautiful. That is the extent of it. The actual successes and failures, policies and positions, of the two are totally irrelevant to the judgment. This article is no more than another exercise in that kind of judging. The close association in Western thought of the Beautiful with the Good leads intellectual types to infer the fact of the latter from their perception of the former–and the absence of the latter from their perception of ugliness–without so much as even one minute of reflection, so far as I can tell.

        • Everett Brunson

          Yes. it is amazing how beguiled they became with polished rhetoric. Too, I felt much of Obama’s glibness was due more to the content on the teleprompter. Whenever he strayed off script the number of uhs and ums expanded exponentially. With Trump the continued mistake is to confuse crude speech patterns with lack of thought.More than this I’ve found Trumps instincts to be amazingly dead on.

          I try to follow what is going on behind the scenes in foreign policy and the things he, Tillerson, and Pence have accomplished in 10 months is breath taking. Not all will agree on his direction, but if they look deep enough, they cannot fault him on moving the needle.

          • D4x

            State has a photo site – not easy to find, especially the photo albums of overseas meetings:
            62 photos SecState Tillerson, Dec. 4-8, 2017 at EU Foreign Ministerial, NATO Foreign Ministerial; OSCE Foreign
            Ministerial; Paris UN&France ISGLebanon.
            SecTillerson and President Macron after ISGL conference – worth a thousand words:

            Monday, December 11, 2017 has been quite a day in foreign policy – and I only paid attention to the ME, where Putin was the newsmaker, in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. I posted at American Greatness, where ‘Trump’s Jerusalem Gambit Recalls Harry Truman’ By Brandon J. Weichert glimpsed a bit of what we have been witnessing, without realizing
            there IS a Team of Trump-Pence-Tillerson, and, oddly, used his poorly researched essay to trash McMaster.

            At PJM, Michael van der Galien posted on December 10, 2017, his read, of Maxim A. Suchkov’s Dec. 8, 2017 “Moscow’s leverage in Syria is strong, but limited” at Al-Monitor: good, but, again, lacking in depth.

            I started my day at liveuamap, and, wow, huge day. So, I posted at both, just to clarify my analysis until I could watch the US media spin, or ignore it. No time to do that, but I did just finish up at al-Monitor, where they are using news reports by AFP. I thought that most interesting, after my expose of Associated Press’s deliberate abuse of foreign policy news out of the State Department, and that AFP was the one news source that actually
            covered the UN&France sponsored conference on Dec. 8 in Paris, of the International Working Group for Lebanon, a big deal, and obviously (to us) a breathtaking accomplishment by TeamTrump, including Sec Tillerson.

          • Everett Brunson

            I followed the conversation you had with Altalena earlier this afternoon. I was happy to just watch and listen. I didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation.

            I have been very heartened with the Trump Administration moving closer to Saudi Arabia. That the Saudi’s see us as a buttress against Sh’ia expansion is clear, but it is also heartening to see the actual enthusiasm beyond the cold calculus of “The Game”.

            While the US apppears to be doing more for the Kurds than MSM reporting will allow, I still feel we could be doing more. Right now, anything that puts Erdogan’s panties in a wad makes me smile.

          • D4x

   changed to glossy coffee table magazine format – making it difficult to find the statements and readouts, especially with their bad search function. And, am being harassed by the troll who hijacked that Jerusalem-Truman thread – Altalena did not catch on as quickly as I did. Now the troll followed me here. I flagged him for targeted harassment here, but can no longer cognitively block online hate. Have been avoiding him every time I see him – he is one of those whose role is to distract, using the storm front guidebook recently exposed at HuffPo
            I will be in touch, anywhere but here. Time to disappear again.

      • D4x

        Thanks so much Everett – I stopped with UT-Austin profs Weyland and Madrid at paragraph 9: “In
        practice, Latin America’s systems of government also diverge from U.S. presidentialism.[…]”,
        went to the comments. QET nailed it with Obama, and you with FDR, although we would all agree it was Wilson who laid the groundwork for both.

        TAI has betrayed my trust so often in 2017, after being a dim ray of light after The New Republic went 24/7 propaganda for Obama’s Organizing for America in 4Q2011, but TAI’s re-launch on Oct. 18, 2017 is beyond
        ‘sinking in intellectual honesty.’

        TAI should do America, and the Liberal International Order a favor, and shut itself down. Their dishonest agenda can not even find new subscribers who buy the propaganda they want to sell. Those subscribers are at The Atlantic.

        • Everett Brunson

          Compared with other sites, there is only a small cadre of commenters here. I have found most agree with you regarding the downfall of TAI. For me, I got here too late to know what it was like before the editorial change. The “Loyal Opposition” seems to be embodied in the small camp of Anthony and Friendly Goat. Too, the rebuttals by the commenters is sheer gold. It is truly the comment section that keeps me coming back.

          • D4x

   when TAI still had interns
            When the blog was Via Meadia. Mr. Mead was a major draw.
   This was fun. Helped me think differently about Trump’s Tweets, because of how
            most reacted to this one. I still mostly ignore them, but this post got me to
            finally read one of them. I stopped with “Study what General Pershing of the United States did”,
            for a fascinating American history lesson from our National Park Service,
            which already had me engaged because of Aug. 12, Charlottesville; the night I let this ‘resistance’ really get to me.

            The other TAI commenters got me posting after a five year silence, 2012-2016,
            due to the creeping oppression of living in NYC and NE, which followed intense cyber-bullying in 2008,
            when I worked in Obama’s online campaign. That is why I try to edit out personal details.
            I was still a registered Democrat in 2012, but had been protest voting since 2006, starting with HRC – she was a terrible U.S. Senator. Schumer was still good – NY’s Senator ‘Pothole’.
            Everything changed in 2012, as I watched Gillibrand develop the War on Women as a cynical GOTV tactic,
            and Schumer pretend he was not even on the ballot.

            I started my paid TAI subscription in 2016 just so I could read WigWag’s comments in the Features;
            changed my screen name to Disappeared4x, but when I realized that was a turn-off to others: D4x.
            The first three ‘disappearances’ were as a casualty of corporate America’s various
            external stressors, 1985, 1996, and 2002. #4 was the 2012-2016 self-isolation as
            every anchor of my world (life-long media favorites, alma mater, religion, friends, access to medical care!),
            was hijacked by the ‘fundamental transformation’.
            There is nothing left except my interest in history.

            Since Charlottesville, my self-cure for too much cognitive dissonance is trying to stop this truly insidious, destructive manifestation of mass hysteria over an election.
            The past few weeks are my last gasp, because I believe it is too late for America to recover.
            That State DPB on Nov. 28? The Associated Press is far worse than CNN.
            No one knows how to restore integrity to enough media for America to recover; most are not even trying.

            Every night, I promise to NOT turn on my desktop – to ignore news.
            Too bad I started reading the news every morning at age three. 🙂

          • Everett Brunson

            Check you email notifications for a response.

          • Europa

            YOU voted for OBAMA? YOU were a Democrat? a Left wing Liberal? OMG!

          • Jim__L

            If anyone has any idea where WRM is publishing nowadays (aside from Twitter), I’d love to know.

            Heck, I’d consider joining Twitter just to become a fan.

          • CosmotKat

            Look for him here: or the WSJ.

          • CosmotKat

            Look for him here: or the WSJ.

          • CosmotKat

            Look for him here: or the WSJ.

          • CosmotKat

            Look for him here: or the WSJ.

          • D4x

            You can read Mr. Mead’s Tweets: (maybe that is what you meant Jim_L, so TY)
            I had not thought to look for Twitter accounts in order to finally have real news, again, until Nov 28-30 following Global Entrepeneurship Summit 2017 in Hyderabad, India, with 26 US State Dep’t Tweets, because US media was MIA on an important conference.
            My “NEWS’ file now has other fine journalists/analyst Twitter:
            Brahma Chellaney covers Asia, especially China water wars, but he also retweets -so much better than looking for news in America:
            Because I have keen interest in Chin’a use of Tibetan plateau in Water War, this Tweet:
   linked to
   linked to: nice recap of Net Neutrality, which I have ignored

            Husain Haqqani is Director (South & Central Asia) Hudson Institute.
            Really good re-tweets, to cover that part of the world, and related USA news – who is saying what – so much faster to scan a reliable Twitter. Am looking for more at Hudson Institute, in addition to Mr. Mead. Seems to be the sole American policy think tank: clear-eyed Realists, NOT Swamp.

        • M Snow

          Just want to thank you for your comments and links. I share your disappointment in the changes to TAI since the departure of WRM.

    • D4x

      Thanks so much QET – I stopped with UT-Austin profs Weyland and Madrid at paragraph 9: “In practice, Latin
      America’s systems of government also diverge from U.S. presidentialism.[…]”, went to the comments, because I was thinking what you nailed , re: Obama; and Erverett with FDR. I add it was Wilson who laid the groundwork for both.

      It is not “near-total incomprehension of what “populism” really is and an ardent desire to simply construct a reality through sheer repetition”. Since the re-launch on Oct. 18, 2017, TAI is deliberately constructing a sickening propaganda vehicle to delegitimize the 2016 election and Presidency of Donald J. Trump. I wonder who is paying them.

  • Tom Scharf

    It didn’t happen because it was a figment of liberal’s imagination and hyperventilating fear mongering from the beginning. The only people who are surprised these fears didn’t come to pass are over educated academics who are absolutely clueless what is happening off campus. Hilariously these same academics are equally incapable of seeing the illiberal forces at work inside their campus.

    Perhaps people were never trying to elect the next Hitler / Chavez.

  • Gary Hemminger

    I don’t really see what choice Trump has in attacking “his enemies.” From the moment the elites realized he was going to get the nomination, they attacked him mercilessly. If he did anything but attack back, he would have been slaughtered. Many of the things you attribute to Trump are in fact shared by his enemies. they also attempt to attack “the oppressors” with their cultural marxism approach to life. This won’t play well in the heartland and right now our colleges and universities are bastions of cultural and economic marxism ideology. In fact I would say it is more than an ideology, it is their religion. Look what Gov Brown said yesterday on 60 minutes. He said that Trump does “not fear the wrath of god” on climate change! If that isn’t a religious dog whistle, then I don’t know what one is.

    The fact is that yes, the institutions in our country will survive Trump. But can they survive all of the other populists out there. The danger isn’t solely Trump, it is the progressives as well. As soon as people get their heads wrapped around that and stop listening to people like you that just pit one side against the other, the better we will be. I believe it is people like Kurt that are creating the Trumps. If Trumpism is the disease, then progressivism is at one of the causes of this disease.

  • Anthony

    In general populism stands in inherent tension with liberal democracy…Populism’s stridency and Manichaean worldview undermine the toleration and humility that are central to liberal democracy.” (Weyland & Madrid)

    “There is no set of features that exclusively define movements, parties, and people that are called populist.” There is no common ideology that defines populism but for sure it is conflictual – a relationship between the people (however defined) and the elites and others (also no exact referents). Nevertheless, populism ought to function as a societal warning sign of something astray perhaps in the body politics – circumstance when people see the prevailing political norms as being at odds with their own hopes, fears, and concerns, maybe.

    An observation: “The history of the United States hinges on the worth of a mission statement both laudable and demonstrably untrue: all men are created equal…Where America has succeeded, sometimes in world-changing ways, that success has always come as a result of slow, painful work – often conducted by men and women who paid their lives – to acknowledge these facts make the country’s mission statement a little less mythical….The election of Mr. Trump represents in its own way yet another great step backward, another moment where one segment of America seeks equality at a pace that another segment deems egregious. Both Trump’s motivation and that of many supporters are shaped by the undeniable sense of an America changing too fast and in the wrong direction….” (Donald Trump and America’s new civil war)

    So liberal democracy and U.S. institutional arrangements may be viewed as constraints on both Donald Trump and Populism, but they are also instruments (vehicles) obviating systemic inequities in American society that helped to facilitate this moment. Still, the authors provide a comparative (as well as a favorable estimation of America’s socio-legal institutional arrangements) look that benefits any readers not captured by partisan inclinations – confirmatory bias validation.

  • ვეფხისტყაოსანი

    Messrs Madrid and Weyland ignore what Trump isn’t doing: He is not ruling by executive order (except in that he has rescinded some of Obama’s arguably illegal orders). Were he the populist authoritarian fascist imagined by Weyland and Madrid (and the rest of the Left), he would certainly have capitalized on the precedents set by his predecessor.

    Now, it’s true that his accomplishments to date have been meager: a bit of welcome regulatory rollback and a number of worthwhile judicial appointments.

    I do wonder about his use of Twitter. I can’t tell whether he’s a genius in the mold of Roosevelt and Kennedy (radio and tv, respectively) — or a foul-mouthed Chauncey Gardiner whose random tweets so inflame the mainstream media, academia, and the Left (but I repeat myself) that they are unable to #Resist effectively — or at all.

  • Europa

    “Liberal Democracy Is Stronger Than Trump’s Populism”
    If the policies of Obama represent “Liberal Democracy” then Trump is winning.
    -Obama’s Open borders has been reversed. Illegals do not have a free pass into America. Amnesty Program ended. Wall will be built.
    -Obama’s “Global Warming” cooled off. Trump pulls us out of Paris Summit. Coal Industry is now flourishing,
    -New Justices to the Supreme Court will be Conservative. That has the potential of reversing rulings that favored liberal interpretations of our constitution.
    -Obama gutting the military budget and personnel has been reversed.
    List is long but this short list should make the point that Liberal Democracy is not favored as much as it once was.

    • CosmotKat

      “List is long but this short list should make the point that Liberal Democracy is not favored as much as it once was.”
      Sorry but what you are referring to is social democracy (that ain’t liberal, fella) that’s out of favor and classically liberal constitutional republic is what freedom loving Americans prefer and want. The United states, it bears repeating for people like you, is a constitutional republic based on classic liberal ideals.

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