Here we go again. For the third consecutive presidential election, US voters are likely to face a choice between a moderate career politician and an angry demagogue for whom lying and gaslighting are not just nasty political tactics but governing principles and reflexive personal traits. The result, the polls tell us, could go either way. How, reasonable people ask, could anyone with a shred of civic responsibility vote once for Donald Trump, never mind a third time? What is his hold on half the voting population? And what kind of political culture allows a would-be dictator and the cowed party he controls to exert such widespread influence, especially after the tragedy of January 6th?
After last month’s convincing primary victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump appears to have the Republican nomination secured – despite courtroom battles in several states to keep his name on the ballot and his historically unprecedented legal jeopardy: over ninety criminal charges in four jurisdictions for election interference, misuse of national security information, and paying hush money to a porn star. The primary season has barely started, and it’s overwhelmingly clear: Republicans want Trump.
President Biden will be the Democratic nominee (sitting presidents never face serious primary opposition), but his hold on his base feels as weak as Trump’s does strong. And the polls have not been kind to him. Nationally, he and Trump run dead even. If we drill down to the swing states that made the difference for him in 2020, they are either up for grabs (Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) or trending Trump’s way (Georgia and Arizona). Everywhere, the demographic constituencies that vaulted Biden to victory are vulnerable: his support among Black voters has slipped 20 per cent, and he trails Trump among Hispanic voters and, amazingly, voters under the age of thirty-five.
How is this possible? Trump is more authoritarian than ever, and the Biden presidency has a reasonably solid checklist of first-term achievements: inflation under control, unemployment low and significant progress improving the country’s infrastructure, reducing healthcare costs and passing modest but important climate initiatives – all in the teeth of a Republican-controlled House and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate. Yet Biden’s approval rate hovers around 35 per cent – lower than it ever was for Trump during his presidency. Even accounting for the reservations many voters have about Biden’s mental sharpness and advanced age, how can anyone see Trump as a viable alternative? Yet so many millions do.
We know that the American democratic process has, for the most part, been unifying and resilient. We know it can also be divisive, paranoid and vulnerable to corrosive populism. But this current bad patch raises the question: is the persistent drift to the right since the Reagan years a pendulum swing or an irreversible slide into despotism? Is the country in a salvageable downturn of animosity and stagnation comparable to the 1850s and 1920s, or has the great game of democracy begun to run its course?
Trump is certainly the focal point of this slide. But his ongoing popularity, as puzzling as it seems to a European audience, should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with American history. Economic and cultural populism has deep roots in the United States, going back, at the executive level, to Andrew Jackson. Over the last hundred years, populist demagogues, from Father Charles Coughlin to Senator Joseph McCarthy to Governor George Wallace, have consistently commanded significant followings. Coughlin’s antisemitic, anti-democratic radio rants in the 1930s were listened to weekly by a third of the nation. Ten million people voted for Wallace’s segregationist platform in the 1968 presidential election. And in the early 1950s, the great red-baiter Joe McCarthy (Donald Trump’s spiritual father) had such a grip on the national consciousness that Republican deference to his lies and rumour-mongering lasted until long after he had leveraged his congressional immunity to poison the political landscape with conspiracy theories and ruin the careers of scores of public servants and ordinary citizens.
The critic Louis Menand recently compiled a list of Tail Gunner Joe’s salient political traits:
McCarthy lied all the time. He lied even when he didn’t need to lie.
• When he didn’t have any facts to embellish, he made them up. He found that, if he just kept on repeating himself, people would figure that he must be onto something.
• He was incapable of sticking to a script.
• He loved chaos. He knew that he had a much higher tolerance for it than most human beings do, and he used it to confuse, to distract, and to disrupt.
Who does he sound like? Trump’s style and strategy owe much to McCarthy. He operates using the same playbook. And the link between the two is more than virtual. McCarthy’s right-hand man on the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, the principal vehicle of his anti-communist, anti-gay witch hunt, was the future mafia lawyer and political fixer Roy Cohn. In the 1970s, Cohn became a friend and close adviser to Trump, teaching him how to use lies, obfuscation, bullying, and transactional power to achieve his business and political ends.
But wait a minute. McCarthy wielded great power for a few years, but he was never president. As his lies were revealed, the public saw through him, and own party called him out – right? What’s the difference with Trump? How has he flourished when other demagogues, after a few years of pernicious but limited influence, have faded into political irrelevance?
Well let’s consider the populist math. By the middle of 1954, when McCarthy had been thoroughly discredited, condemned by the Senate, stripped of his committee assignments and left without any power and credibility, his approval rating among the American public, though lower than ever, still stood at 34 per cent. The week after the January 6th debacle, Trump’s approval also fell, but held at 39 per cent. Most Americans blamed him for the January 6th riots, yes, but, like McCarthy, he maintained a solid following after doing his worst. What was true seventy years ago remains true today: about a third of Americans will support a nativist, populist, grievance-laced leader, no matter how reckless, no matter how dishonest, even when every organ of the establishment has turned against him – perhaps because the establishment has turned against him.
But the question remains: how has Trump turned ignominy into a steady position of national leadership? The answer is partly because of his political instincts but mostly because of the current political landscape. I have been following US politics for more than fifty years, and I have never seen such levels of cynicism, polarisation and savage rhetoric. I explore some of the historical and social reasons for this stagnation below, but even a superficial review of the current scene makes it obvious that faith in the establishment – in Congress, Wall Street and the mainstream media – has diminished, and that national politics has become intensely tribal. Such an environment makes it easier for a Republican or independent who dislikes or even distrusts Trump to vote for him. If all politicians are liars, the reasoning goes, and if Democrats are bent on creating a socialist state, I may as well support the liar who will uphold conservative values. And so that populist third of the country becomes easy to leverage. It is a fascist formula: take the MAGA base who will vote for Trump no matter what, add those voters who are conservative in viewpoint and willing to hold their nose and vote for him, and the possibility of a Trump majority becomes real.
Trump knows how to negotiate this fragmented, dysfunctional terrain. He knows how to appeal to those who know he is lying. His bluster has become a kind of shield, a persona so based on falsehood that people simply accept he is devious and pretend that the act of voting for him is about endorsing a certain conservative vision rather than what it actually is – supporting a threat to democracy. Even his appeal to greatness – the core of the MAGA message – is wreathed in contradiction. Trump’s version of American exceptionalism no longer has anything to do with global influence or working with traditional allies to oppose dictatorships abroad. Quite the opposite; it is about admiring authoritarianism and abandoning democratic allies. As the historian Philip Gorski has put it, Trumpian nostalgia ‘severs the traditional connection between greatness and virtue’. It is a hollow message with a white-nationalist, isolationist subtext. Republican leaders and national office-holders are not unaware of this message, and many certainly don’t agree with it, but they find it politically expedient to try to co-opt rather than oppose. They fear the base. The political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt call this strategy (or lack of one) ‘ideological collusion’. Such ‘fateful alliances’, they argue, have a dangerous end point: establishment politicians collaborate with the demagogue not just on policy but ultimately on the authoritarian desire to dismantle political institutions.
The US primary system encourages this weakness. For members of the House of Representatives (who must run for re-election every two years) and senators (who run every six years), holding their seat starts with winning their state’s or district’s primary, in which members of each political party vie for its nomination to the general election. Most states allow only registered Republicans or Democrats to vote in their respective primaries (in some states, independents can choose to vote in either). So winning a Republican nomination means winning a majority of Republican votes, a challenge in almost every district as the MAGA base is so strong and the party’s infrastructure has become so reactionary. Congressional Republicans who buck the populist base, like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, don’t have a chance against a Trump-supported opponent and easily lose their seats.
This populist wave has its roots in the Reagan revolution. In 1981, in his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan presented a radical vision of an America unfettered by federal regulation. ‘Government is not the solution to our problem,’ he declaimed, ‘government is the problem.’ Behind the aw-shucks demeanour and patriotic rhetoric was a cold determination to reduce federal spending and oversight and return as much power as possible to the states. By now we know well his legacy: an ever-broadening gap between rich and poor, Kulturkampf, massive military spending, the gutting of government programmes and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. Yet Reagan wasn’t without the check of political opposition. To his credit, he maintained while in office a cordial relationship with Democrats and worked well with the Democratic House of Representatives, led by Tip O’Neill. But when the heady days of the Reagan-Bush years were over and Bill Clinton won the presidency, conservatives dug in their heels. They became absolutist.
The 1990s saw the rise of hate speech in Congress and the decline of democratic norms. Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House in 1994, when Republicans won a Congressional majority for the first time in forty years, consistently questioned the patriotism of Democrats, accusing them of corruption and of wanting to destroy the country. He challenged the conventional American political belief that, in a two-party system, electoral success is made more likely by moving closer to the ideological centre. The spirit of bipartisanship that led to significant reform in the past – Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen working to pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s; O’Neill and Reagan agreeing on a common approach to tax reform in the 1980s – was replaced by finger-pointing and loss of even the semblance of the idea that the majority and minority in Congress are there to conduct the business of the nation rather than the business of the party in power.
This change in political spirit was toxic. The American system works best when adversaries work together. The structures and processes mandated by the US constitution – including the role of the electoral college, the lack of proportional representation in the allocation of Senate seats, and the separation of federal powers – were carefully crafted to guard against both majoritarianism and autocracy. These checks and balances fragment political authority and make institutional change difficult. They are guardrails, designed to make change challenging, as painful as that can be. And they encourage political opponents to work together – in fact, without bipartisanship, the system simply doesn’t work.
Yet bipartisanship, at the federal level anyhow, is now all but dead. Look at the state of the place. The constant threat of government shutdown. A budget deficit in the tens of trillions. Paralysis in Congress. All that money, all that energy, all that power, and such bumbling. Gingrich’s aggressive, we’re-at-war-with-the-Democrats approach thirty years ago paved the way for twenty-first-century developments that drove conservatives into a defensive corner: shock radio, the politicisation of the evangelical right, the fervid advocacy of groups like the Tea Party movement and Citizens United. Within this maelstrom of antagonism, the Republican party suffered an identity crisis that eventually elevated Trump to the presidency. Though more moderately, Democrats also funnelled themselves into a narrower lane: dumbing down the rhetoric and retreating to identity and movement politics rather than working through established institutions. Cable news and social media have encouraged voters to hear only what makes them more suspicious of the other side. Congress has followed suit, becoming intractable and forcing presidents, on both sides, to resort increasingly to executive order rather than legislation to create policy – orders that can simply be undone by the next administration. And rippling down to the states are the nasty results of Congressional stasis and political polarisation: election denial, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and advertising and political tactics that have no respect for the truth.
The country seems to have lost the run of itself. Rational people are yielding to irrational beliefs and behaviours. Sixty years ago, the political scientist Richard Hofstadter defined this irrational strain in US politics as ‘the paranoid style’, a pathology that has been a recurring mode of expression in American life, from witch-hunting Puritans to the Ku Klux Klan to Joe McCarthy. He noted how much political leverage ‘can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority’. Well that minority is more powerful than ever. The paranoid style, boosted by culture wars, social media, the Balkanisation of political commentary, and fear of diversity, has entered the mainstream. And the style has found its leader. In his book The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno, who fled Naziism and took refuge in the US, defined what he called the ‘pseudo-conservative’: ‘A man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions, and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition’. Could there be a better definition of Donald Trump?
Trump is a symptom of the miasma of American paranoia, which infects the MAGA base and rises unfiltered to the Republican leadership. But he is uniquely gifted, if that’s the right word, in political instinct. He knows how to play a crowd. He knows how to dodge criticism and turn his worst actions into political capital. He is free of any kind of scruple. And he is skilled at diverting attention from what national politicians should be doing – solving the border crisis or working with allies to craft an ethical and effective foreign policy or addressing the needs of the poor – and instead fuelling differences and stoking grievance. And everyone knows it. In 2016, Republican senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, ‘If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.’ Since then, he has been one of his staunchest allies. After Trump’s primary victories in January, Republican leaders, from Tim Scott to Elise Stefanik to JD Vance, have lined up to support him: jumping on the bandwagon to secure the MAGA base for their own electoral clashes. Democrats call them out of course, but their opposition is explained away as inevitable political rhetoric.
It no longer feels accurate to call Trump anti-establishment. He has become the Republican establishment. Not only has he commanding leads in fund-raising and the polls, but his endorsement is coveted by any Republican running for national office. And they endorse him, acknowledging his leadership. In the past months, he has received endorsements from 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. Nikki Haley? She has received one. That’s right. One. And these politicians don’t stop at endorsement. They support Trump’s worst claims. According to The New York Times, ‘more than 80 percent of Republicans elected to the 118th House cast doubt on the 2020 results during the 2022 midterms, along with 17 of the 20 Republicans who won Senate seats and 13 of 18 Republicans elected to governorships’. It’s clear. Trump is the Republican establishment. The ideological collusion between Republican leadership and his authoritarian agenda – a bargain with the devil – is complete, and hangs above us all as November 2024 approaches.
Is there any good news? Well, Biden actually polls better against Trump than he does against Nikki Haley, Trump’s sole remaining opponent in the primaries. In recent weeks, he has secured the endorsement of the United Autoworkers Union, which will shore up the union vote in swing states. The Democratic establishment is solidly behind him, and his views on abortion and climate are closer than Trump’s to what most Americans believe. As for Trump, there are signs that a meaningful proportion of the 40-plus per cent who did not vote for him in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries were voting in protest. Typically, Republican primary voters throw their weight behind whoever wins, but in this case, there is hope that they will vote for Biden, or perhaps not vote at all.
And most American citizens continue to participate by voting, an indication that they continue to believe in the process. Some vote with notions that are mean and divisive, some with more difficulty than should be allowed, and many with a sense that their vote counts for little. But apathy is not the problem. Disinformation, failure of leadership, media bias and the culture wars have created an environment where it is harder than ever to know how your vote might affect policy. Yet informed public policy – on climate, immigration, military spending, gun ownership, civil rights, and so many other issues – is more necessary than ever, for the United States and for the world in which it exercises such influence. So let’s hope the people, if not their leaders, can rise above the paranoia and get it right. Before it is too late.
Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic and divides his time between Dublin and Cambridge, Massachusetts.