Democrats, demagogues and despots

Fear and rage must not be used as an excuse to destroy America’s core institutions

by: Martin Wolf

Are the political upheavals of 2016 — Brexit and America’s election of Donald Trump — a triumph of democracy or a threat to it? Democracies must respond to legitimate grievances.

Indeed, their ability to do so peacefully is among their strengths. But the demagogue’s exploitation of such grievances threatens democracy. This has happened elsewhere. It would be foolish to assume western democracies are immune.

In 2016, fear and anger became dominant political emotions in the UK and the US — two of the most important, stable and enduring democracies. The fear was over downward mobility and cultural changes; the anger was against immigrants and indifferent elites. They came together in resurgent nationalism and xenophobia. Some Brexiters and Republicans believe in the ideal of absolutely free markets. But that idea did not bring Brexit to the UK or Mr Trump to Washington. The emotions were far more visceral and less attractive.

For democrats, the outburst of such primal emotions is disturbing because they are so hard to contain. Democracy is at bottom a civilised form of civil war. It is a struggle for power contained by understandings and institutions.
The understandings are that winners never take all. Opposition is legitimate, opinion free and power curbed. The values of the citizenry are a democracy’s most important asset. They must understand in their bones that it is illegitimate to make temporary power permanent by rigging elections, suppressing contrary opinions or harassing the opposition. There exists no such thing as “the people”; this is an imaginary entity. There are merely citizens whose choices not only may, but surely will, change. While a way must be found to aggregate those views, it will always be defective. Ultimately, democracy, or a democratic republic, provides a way for people with different views and even cultures to live side by side in reasonable harmony.

Yet institutions matter, too, because they set the rules of the game. Institutions may also fail.

The US electoral college has failed doubly. Its selection of Mr Trump neither accords with the votes cast in the election nor reflects judgment of the candidate’s merits, as desired by Alexander Hamilton. This founding father argued that the college would both guard against “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” and ensure “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. The charges of Russian hacking and Mr Trump’s evident defects of experience, judgment and character show that the college has not proved the bulwark Mr Hamilton hoped for. It is up to other institutions — notably, Congress, courts and media — and the citizens at large now to do so.

The more powerful the passions and the more uncontained the ambitions, the more likely the democratic system will collapse into despotism. Demagogues are the Achilles heel of democracy.

There is even is a standard demagogic playbook. Demagogues, whether of left or right, present themselves as representatives of the common people against elites and unworthy outsiders; make a visceral connection with followers as charismatic leaders; manipulate that connection for their own advancement, frequently by lying egregiously; and threaten established rules of conduct and constraining institutions as enemies of the popular will that they embody. Mr Trump is almost a textbook demagogue. Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence party, has not advanced so far because it has proved harder to capture the UK’s party-based institutions than it is the US presidency.

Yet there are similarities between the demagogic elements of the Brexit campaign and the rise of Mr Trump. For both, opponents are enemies rather than fellow citizens who think differently. Both claim to represent the people against foreigners and traitors.

The demagogue’s campaign leads naturally to despotism — the tyranny of the majority that is a mask on the tyranny of one. As institutions are brought under dictatorial control, the opposition is driven into rebellion or acquiescence. Despots use the former as an excuse for repression and the latter to demand absolute obedience. A host of examples of the demagogic route to power exists, in both past and present. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler are case studies of demagogues turned into despots. It is not hard to think of recent examples, from Hugo Chávez to Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin.

Might this be the path some of the most important western democracies are now on — above all the US, standard bearer of democracy in the 20th century? The answer is yes. It could happen even there.

The core institutions of democracy do not protect themselves. They are protected by people who understand and cherish the values they embody. Politics must respond to the fear and rage that brought Mr Trump to power. But it must not surrender to them. They must not be an excuse to destroy the republic.
The presidency, particularly if supported by Congress and the Supreme Court, as might happen, is powerful enough to do much damage at home. Virtually on his own, the president may also start devastating wars. A rightwing demagogue in charge of the world’s most influential repository of democratic values is a devastating fact. The question still to be answered is whether the world we have known will survive it.

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