When Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidential election of 2016, many observers worried that the new President’s populist proclivities would do serious damage to American democracy. International experiences as much as Trump’s domineering personality and autocratic style inspired these concerns. After all, hosts of populists over many decades—from Juan Perón in Argentina to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and dozens of others in-between—have pushed their states toward illiberal or even authoritarian rule.
In general, populism stands in inherent tension with liberal democracy. 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. Therefore, successful populism tends to hollow out, if not strangle, democracy.
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. Populist leaders use confrontation and polarization to attack “enemies” and incite conflict in hopes of energizing their followers and solidifying their backing. Populists demonize critics and treat their political opponents as foes to be destroyed. By turning politics into a war of “us vs. them,” populism de-legitimates fair competition and weakens free and open public debate, both of which are crucial for democracy. Populism’s stridency and Manichaean worldview undermine the toleration and humility that are central to liberal democracy.
One year into the Trump presidency, how have these threats played out to date? And what can we expect in the years ahead? Because this country has not had a populist leader occupy the presidency in 180 years, initial expectations varied. Some thought President Trump would be able to grab political power, infringe on institutional rules, and undermine democratic competition. Others believed that independent parties, a robust civil society, and a strong checks-and-balances framework would contain his populist assault and forestall damage to democracy. What does the record show so far and what is likely to occur in the future?
One way to get at this question is to employ a comparative perspective. In recent years, many democratic countries in Europe and Latin America have seen the rise—and sometimes fall—of populist leaders. These experiences provide lessons on how contemporary populists operate, and how liberal-democratic forces might respond. From them we can learn much about the conditions under which populist strategies and tactics tend to succeed and those that more often portend failure.
Four Obstacles in Trump’s Path
While populists in Europe and Latin America bear many similarities to Donald Trump, they have operated in different political contexts that need to be taken into account when drawing comparisons. The main differences concern aspects of the institutional framework, the party system, the cleavage structure, and the state of the economy when the populists take power. These four factors augur well for liberal democracy in the United States, making it difficult for President Trump’s putative populist machinations to triumph.
First, the United States has a presidential system of government with a clear separation of power between the chief executive, the two houses of Congress, and the courts. These institutional checks and balances hinder the populist quest for concentrating personal power. The parliamentary systems prevailing in Europe offer less resistance to would-be populist autocrats. A party that wins a majority in the legislature elects the Prime Minister (such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary), who heads the Executive Branch. This adds up to a great deal of concentrated power, which facilitates attempts to strangle liberal democracy.
Not only is the distinction between legislative and executive branches blurred in such systems, but in most continental countries the judiciary has less sway over politics than in the United States. Not even a politically appointed Attorney General can readily obstruct this separation of authority: Indeed, under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, Congress can impeach an Attorney General found guilty of criminal behavior, whether the President who appointed him objects or not.
In practice, Latin America’s systems of government also diverge from U.S. presidentialism. While the continent’s constitutions prescribe a clear separation of powers, Presidents in the region typically enjoy much greater formal or informal authority than their counterpart in the United States does. Moreover, some chief executives in Latin America accrue more power through various machinations that override formal strictures. In Europe and Latin America, therefore, populist leaders who command majority support can often establish political hegemony—which enables them to undermine democracy as they deem desirable. Due to the institutional framework of the United States, it is much harder for President Trump to do so.
Second, populist leaders usually rise to power in countries where party systems are weak or are collapsing. Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, became Prime Minister after a massive corruption scandal devastated Italy’s postwar party system. Similarly, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez won the presidency when established parties were crumbling. In such fluid settings, populist leaders can create and dominate their own flimsy, unorganized mass movements. By contrast, Donald Trump has needed to deal with an existing party that he does not control and that did not want him to win its presidential nomination. The new President commands fervent support among the Republican mass base, but faces at least the residual distrust and aversion of the GOP establishment.
Because he has to deal with leaders and legislators of an established party, no matter how hollow and weak compared to earlier times, Trump is in a comparatively poor position. In this sense, he resembles Carlos Menem, the Argentine populist who won the presidential candidacy of the Peronist Party through a primary election in 1988, but who never managed to dominate his venerable party during his ten years as President (1989–99). In fact, another Peronist leader eventually blocked Menem’s attempt to perpetuate himself in power.
The political constraints that influential GOP barons still impose on President Trump are also similar to those facing some populist leaders in European multiparty systems. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for instance, never achieved a parliamentary majority on its own. Instead, the Italian populist needed coalition partners to win and maintain his premiership. For this purpose, he had to negotiate with powerful politicians whom he did not control. This is one important reason why Berlusconi never achieved unchallengeable political hegemony, and so did not do lasting damage to Italy’s liberal democracy.
Third, Donald Trump won the chief executive office in a country that suffers from an unusual degree of political and ideological polarization, which offers him some political opportunities, but also imposes important constraints on his populist designs. Populist leaders usually emerge when mainstream parties have converged in their policy programs and ideological positions.1 Because “the political establishment” leaves voters few real choices, many citizens flock to populist outsiders who promise to raise neglected issues. Venezuela’s Chávez, for instance, addressed widespread social problems that previous governments had failed to resolve; in this way, he won the backing of 65-70 percent of the citizenry. In the United States, by contrast, the Republican and Democratic parties have engaged in significant ideological and cultural sorting from the civil rights era onward. As a result, their party delegations in Congress vote in ever more distinct ways. The mass bases of the two parties have also moved further apart in recent years; in particular, fervent right-wing movements have pulled the GOP away from the moderate center.
The polarization prevailing in the United States makes it very difficult for Donald Trump to win majority support, despite the significant appeal of populist entreaties across the political spectrum. Indeed, his presidential approval ratings have since May 2017 hovered below 40 percent. How can this U.S. populist credibly claim to represent “the people” when a majority disapproves of his job performance and expresses its aversion to his personal leadership? Latin American populists, like Chávez and to a lesser extent Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández Kirchner in Argentina, have used landslide victories in plebiscites and elections to cement their political hegemony and dismantle or weaken democracy, but the new U.S. leader’s middling level of support makes such a strategy unfeasible. Americans are unlikely to coalesce into a broad mass base of support for Trump’s populism as long as ideological and cultural polarization offers real choices that divide “the people.”
Fourth, Donald Trump faces a paradox, because President Obama left the U.S. economy in good shape as measured by conventional standards, such as growth, inflation, and unemployment. When Trump ran for and subsequently took office, the country was not suffering from a perceived severe or acute crisis. In comparative perspective, the absence of pressing problems is unusual. Right-wing populists often emerge when their country is sliding toward the abyss. By claiming the mantle of the providential savior, these political outsiders can benefit from dramatic crises as long as they seemingly or actually manage to pull the nation away from the brink. Peru’s Fujimori and Argentina’s Menem, for example, faced hyperinflation of four to six thousand percent per year. When these populist presidents boldly defeated the scourge of inflation, large majorities felt enormous relief. As a result, Fujimori and Menem won sky-high popularity ratings of up to 70-80 percent, which subsequently allowed them to dominate politics, change the constitution, and engineer their own reelection.
The United States, however, did not suffer from a crisis in 2016 comparable to, say, the Great Depression of the 2007–09 period. Therefore, President Trump has lacked an opportunity to boost his backing dramatically. The structural problems that helped to fuel Trump’s rise, such as de-industrialization and the loss of well-paying jobs, are not amenable to quick fixes. A bold adjustment plan can stop hyperinflation from one day to the next, but there is no rapid way, especially in a market economy like that of the United States, to bring back millions of industrial jobs. Even a determined populist leader like Donald Trump cannot turn the Rust Belt into a string of shining, modern factories, or magically resuscitate demand for coal when market factors decidedly point in the opposite direction. The absence of an acute but resolvable crisis deprives President Trump of the chance to win over masses of new followers from the ranks of independents or Democrats. And a populist who is not very popular is not very powerful.
In sum, international experiences suggest that President Trump lacks important preconditions that would allow him to win overwhelming support, relentlessly concentrate power, and undermine liberal democracy. Populist leaders like Berlusconi and Orbán, Fujimori and Chávez encountered open doors and unusual opportunities. By contrast, the U.S. President faces four sets of interlocking obstacles. Firm checks and balances limit his power. The unreliable backing of his own party prevents him from overriding these institutional and political constraints. Ideological polarization and the absence of an acute crisis restrict his mass support. For these reasons, he cannot make an end run, grab power, and weaken checks and balances, as Fujimori and Chávez did by convoking government-controlled constituent assemblies. By international comparison, President Trump confronts an unfavorable environment for establishing populist hegemony.
President Trump’s Populist Strategy
Given these four obstacles, what are the prospects of populism in the United States? International experiences can shed light on President Trump’s political options for dealing with the institutional and political limitations he faces. These experiences suggest that his limited mass support makes his strategy of relentless confrontation likely to fail. Comparative insights also elucidate the strategic dilemmas confronting the opposition, which can choose between a direct counterattack against the brash populist or pragmatic efforts to entrap this inexperienced chief executive in a web of constraints.
What emerges from the following discussion is a sanguine conclusion: Liberal democracy in the United States will survive the challenges and risks that populist leadership poses. Certainly, Trump will continue to transgress norms of accountability and civility during his term, but he is unlikely to effect lasting changes, enshrine them in institutional reforms, and thus do more than temporary damage to liberal democracy. The U.S. system, sustained by a pluralist civil society, has great resilience. In fact, there is a good chance that the new President’s norm violations may generate a liberal-democratic backlash that will reaffirm these principles after Trump’s departure, and perhaps even strengthen their institutional protection.
How can Donald Trump advance his agenda? Populist leaders commonly employ confrontation and foment polarization. To prove their boldness and charisma, they act like attack dogs. They deliberately seek enemies in order to induce their followers to offer intense support. As is evident in his Twitter barrages, President Trump has consistently used this contentious strategy. This approach has its advantages. Because Trump cannot easily expand his backing, given the high levels of partisan polarization in the United States and the absence of an acute economic crisis, it makes sense for him to solidify the support he does have by attacking enemies.
But this confrontational approach also has substantial downsides. After all, the system of checks and balances puts a large premium on negotiation and compromise if a President wants to get his measures approved by Congress and to survive challenges in the courts. The cost of confrontation is especially high because President Trump does not fully control the GOP delegation in Congress. By turning his ire not only against Democrats, but against the Republican leadership as well, he risks antagonizing legislators whose support he needs. No wonder that, so far, Trump has established a very meager legislative record. Moreover, this legislative weakness may set him up for political failure. His problems in steering his bills through Congress not only generate a sensation of government paralysis, they also limit his ability to provide benefits to his supporters, for instance via substantial tax cuts for middle- and lower-middle class people.
Of course, some populist leaders manage to turn adversity to advantage. They parlay legislative stalemate and gridlock into radical institutional reform, which weakens checks and balances and boosts presidential powers. Peru’s Fujimori, for example, closed Congress and then convoked a constituent assembly that strengthened his institutional armor and facilitated his political hegemony, which persisted for years. Hugo Chávez achieved even longer-lasting predominance by calling elections for a constituent assembly, which he used to rewrite the constitution, strengthen his hold on power, and ultimately suffocate Venezuelan democracy. Will Donald Trump be tempted to bend, if not break liberal democracy as well? The party polarization prevailing in the United States could facilitate such machinations. Hostility to the opposition could induce the GOP to use its majorities in Congress to impose illiberal reforms and to allow Trump to skew democratic competition.2
But while such a slippery slope toward soft authoritarianism is imaginable, the obstacles described above make this risk remote. The interlocking nature of the checks and balances system makes serious erosion of democracy unlikely, and open infringements highly improbable. For instance, even a Republican-dominated Supreme Court would forestall a descent into authoritarianism. Moreover, it is doubtful that the GOP would want to empower Trump, whose unpredictable, arbitrary leadership many party barons distrust. Indeed, they have incentives to keep the new President fairly weak so they can extract concessions and keep him under control.
Another big obstacle arises from Trump’s limited mass support – the flipside of partisan polarization and of the absence of an acute crisis. A President with 55 percent disapproval rates is exceedingly unlikely to get away with a serious assault on democracy. Even limited restrictions, such as a further tightening of voting rights, will draw a determined response from the vibrant U.S. civil society, which can challenge his policies through the courts. Thus, the four interlocking limitations that Trump’s populism faces offer a great deal of protection for liberal democracy.
By definition, the political strength of populist leaders depends on their popularity. What are the chances that President Trump can augment his mass support? Contrary to the Latin American populist leaders who confronted hyperinflation, for example, Trump lacks an opportunity to rescue the country from a severe challenge and thus win sky-high approval. Consequently, Trump has focused on solidifying his limited but fervently committed base with controversial measures and polemical symbolic steps, such as his travel bans and proclamations on white-nationalist violence.
But this narrowly targeted strategy has serious downsides. With his politics of resentment, Trump further cements ideological divisions and thus precludes any effort to broaden his support. As a result, he has clearly failed to win the sweeping backing that allowed his Latin American counterparts, such as Chávez and Fujimori, to establish political hegemony and strangle democracy. Indeed, Trump may be setting the GOP up for failure in the upcoming midterm elections. Given that the Republican leadership has always disliked him, a disaster in 2018 may be the beginning of Trump’s political end—and a big victory for liberal democracy.
Strategic Options for the Opposition
While Trump’s populism confronts important challenges, the opposition, especially the Democratic Party, faces a dilemma as well: Should it frontally combat the imperious chief executive, go on the counterattack, and carry out mass protests? Or should it primarily work through institutions, especially Congress and the courts, to block Trump’s political agenda? A decision on priorities is required. It would be self-defeating for a party to approach its political adversaries for the sake of negotiation and compromise and at the same time mobilize its more militant supporters for street demonstrations. Given the weakness of party organizations in the United States, a mobilizational strategy requires clear ideological appeals, which then make it much harder to reach across the partisan divide and seek support within the Republican Party in defending the basic rules and norms of liberal democracy.
International experiences with populism show that extra-institutional strategies of protest and contention have low chances of political success; indeed, they hold considerable risks. Demonstrations work only when they proceed in an orderly fashion and when focused on fundamental values, as in Poland in mid-2017, where they induced the President to veto illiberal measures adopted by a parliamentary majority from his own party. In this case, however, an additional constraint was probably crucial as well, namely supranational scrutiny from the European Union, which monitors the quality of liberal democracy in its member states. Given the unique position of the United States as a global superpower, President Trump does not face any serious external pressure.
Moreover, a protest strategy risks backfiring and fueling the polarization between the populists’ supporters and the opposition parties that populist leaders deliberately foment. In Venezuela, for instance, an escalating sequence of mass demonstrations and extra-institutional challenges ended up playing into Chávez’s hands. Assailed by powerful enemies, this populist firebrand redoubled his appeals to the masses and fought back with all means, trampling on liberal rights and strangling competitive democracy.
Given the political risks of a protest strategy, the strength of institutional checks and balances in the United States, and the lingering animosity between President Trump and the Republican leadership, an institutional and electoral strategy looks far more promising. Democrats in Congress can peel off some GOP support on specific measures, as the repeated failure of the efforts to repeal “Obamacare” show. Moreover, in upcoming electoral contests, they should be able to benefit from divisions in the Republican camp. Besides the disagreements at the top, the party is pulled in different directions by zealous but divergent movements among its bases. Moreover, Trump’s populist strategy to target his core supporters with hardcore appeals should open up political-electoral space in the center. As hostility to the President guarantees the Democrats support from their more militant constituents, they can afford to employ a centrist strategy designed to win over independents and swing voters.
Certainly, however, charting this promising path may require some adjustment in the Democrats’ programmatic appeal. One reason why the party lost the presidency in 2016 was that an extravagant, flashy multi-billionaire managed to capture voters among the white working class that the Democrats used to claim as a core constituency. These people, many of whom live in the Rust Belt, felt neglected by a party that has put less emphasis on socioeconomic issues while stressing progressive cultural values. If the Democratic Party wants to re-gain support among these sectors, it will need to focus more on the basic economic and social problems facing most people. By winning back some of the white working classes, the Democrats can weaken Trump’s hold on power in the 2018 elections and end it in 2020.
The Resilience of Liberal Democracy
Contrary to the widespread pessimism among academics, this comparative analysis arrives at an optimistic conclusion. President Trump is caught in a web of limitations and constraints. The venerable U.S. system of checks and balances prevents him from exercising power in an arbitrary fashion and governing as he sees fit. His lack of control over his own party and his problematic relationship with the Republican establishment further undermine his capacity for determined action. Ideological polarization confines Trump’s popular support, and the absence of an acute crisis nullifies any opportunity for him to become a proverbial “savior of the country.” He cannot simply override these constraints and impose his will, as Peru’s Fujimori and Venezuela’s Chávez did.
For these reasons, one can venture a prediction: Trump’s passage through the presidency will not do lasting damage to democratic institutions in the United States. But might he nevertheless weaken liberal-democratic norms? Trump has already committed numerous violations that are typical of populist leaders. 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. 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. 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. Fourth, he has flouted long-held traditions of releasing tax returns and avoiding financial conflicts of interest. Finally, he has aggressively sought to block investigations of his Administration by firing the Director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, among other actions.
The main problem for liberal democracy is that such violations can create a precedent and stimulate a process of escalation and polarization as opponents resort to transgressive tactics as well. In these ways, Trump’s defiant words and actions could embolden future politicians and Presidents to employ similarly coarse and polarizing rhetoric, to question the integrity of democratic institutions, to protect themselves and their allies from prosecution, and to ignore principles of transparency and probity. If the liberal norms that underpin U.S. democracy erode, rules and institutions may also become vulnerable in time to attacks or politically self-serving changes. Office holders may abuse their power and pass regulations that dismantle checks and balances, skew democratic competition, and disadvantage the opposition. With these means, incumbents may unfairly try to perpetuate their stranglehold on the government.
Yet this doomsday scenario is unlikely to transpire as long as a majority of citizens continue to view Donald Trump’s populist strategy as a failure. Success breeds imitation, but failure rarely does. Clearly, the new President’s approach to governing has registered few successes to date. His plans to repeal Obamacare have foundered in the legislature, his strident rhetoric and impulsive behavior have alienated opponents and allies alike, and his approval ratings are the lowest any recent U.S. President has attained at this stage of their terms. Nor are Trump’s populist strategies likely to yield many governing achievements in the years ahead, given the web of constraints and limitations that hamper him. As a result, this confrontational, transgressive approach is unlikely to spawn imitators. Future candidates for the Republican nomination may well copy his campaign, which was surprisingly successful; but there is a low risk that future Presidents will copy a populist governing style that has yielded so few benefits.
Indeed, it seems more likely that Trump’s violations of democratic norms will prompt a pro-democratic backlash. The current pulse of populism may well serve as a warning—and end up inducing a wide range of political forces in the United States to prevent a repeat experience. Such a salutary reaction occurred in several Latin American countries. Peru, for example, experienced a democratic resurgence after Fujimori was forced to resign in a monumental corruption scandal. His successor, Valentín Paniagua (2000–01), decisively foreswore populism. The new President scrupulously respected the norms of liberal democracy, guaranteed press freedom, and helped congress and the courts regain their independence. A similar democratic recovery occurred in Brazil after the downfall of populist Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992. Once this imperious outsider was impeached on corruption charges, mainstream parties and civil society stabilized the country’s fragile democracy and instituted rule by broad-based, pragmatic coalitions. Respect for liberal-democratic rules and norms gradually increased. For instance, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did not follow his leftist counterpart Hugo Chávez and overhaul the institutional framework through a constituent assembly.
Violations of democratic norms by past U.S. Presidents have also triggered a liberal-democratic backlash. In particular, Richard Nixon’s abuses of power led to a wave of reforms that reined in the Central Intelligence Agency through the creation of oversight committees; asserted a greater role for Congress in the use of military force abroad; imposed restrictions on the President’s ability to remove a special prosecutor; attempted to regulate campaign finance more closely; required members of Congress to disclose their personal finances; and restricted lobbying by former members of Congress and their staff. These measures helped strengthen democracy in the United States and restore faith in its political system.
As these comparative lessons from Latin America as well as the U.S. experience in the 1970s suggest, norm erosion does not inevitably continue once set in motion. The path does not always point downhill. Instead, deterioration can prompt recovery. As the risks of further decay become obvious, a growing range of political forces may deliberately try to restore civility. Perhaps the shock of President Trump’s populism can exert this salutary effect.
Interestingly, Donald Trump’s election has already had such a pro-democratic impact—namely in Western Europe. His victory arguably drove voters away from Dutch populist Geert Wilders and from French populist Marine Le Pen, who lost elections in early 2017. As Trump has exerted a deterrent effect on Europe, his problem-ridden government may have the same impact in the United States. Indeed, Trump’s actions have already prompted some legislative responses, including bipartisan bills to make it more difficult for the President to remove a special counsel. According to the New York Times, Senator Lindsey Graham (R–SC) issued the following warning in introducing one of these bills: “I want the President to know that there is a process in place and there are checks and balances long before you got here, and they will be here long after you’re gone.” A comparative analysis suggests that he is correct.
1Kenneth Roberts, “Parties, Populism, and Democratic Decay: American Democracy in Comparative Perspective,” to appear in, Does Trump’s Populism Endanger U.S. Democracy? Lessons from Europe and Latin America, edited by Raúl Madrid and Kurt Weyland.
2This is the risk of democratic backsliding that Mickey, Levitsky, and Way highlight in their Foreign Affairs essay of May 2017.