For years, we debated whether Donald Trump would topple democracy. But the threat continues to come from the system itself.
Before the storming of the Capitol, it seemed as if Donald Trump might leave the White House the way he had come in—tweeting an average of thirty-five times a day and promising the world, “see you in court.” But that Trump, the Trump of litigation and bluster, lawsuits and tweets, disappeared on January 6th.
In a democratic election, candidates must will their way to victory or accept defeat. Trump could do neither, leaving him with the option that observers had long feared he would take: a violent assault on democracy itself. That the assault failed, and probably had nowhere to go had it succeeded, is important. That it was tried at all is also important.
The attack on the Capitol was the latest, and most significant, data point supporting the claim that Trump has practiced strongman politics, variously described as authoritarian, fascist, or tyrannical. The strongman thesis was supposed to capture something novel on the right: not its cruelty or racism, which had long been observed by scholars and journalists, but its potential to end democracy itself. For many liberals and leftists, Trump threatened the people’s power to determine their future. While this idea provoked much debate during the Trump years, January 6th seemed to settle it. Even the sharpest critics of the thesis were shaken from their skepticism.
Yet if the fear behind the strongman thesis was the eclipse of democracy, we still have reason for concern—less because of a tyrant looming on the right than because of a paralysis of political agency across the board. The signal quality of Trump’s Presidency was not how unusual it was but how emblematic it was. In all likelihood, the first two years of the Biden Administration will see little transformative legislation and a lot of executive orders. (The stimulus bill may augur fundamental changes down the road, but its most redistributive provisions are temporary and will face major challenges upon their expiration.) It will look, in other words, like Trump’s Presidency and all but the first two years of Obama’s. It will mark twelve years of an era in which the call of the voters is answered by the palsy of our institutions.
The possibility of this convergence across three Presidencies—where a flurry of executive orders masks the failure of legislative will, and the absence of legislative will belies the presence of a majority will—offers a novel twist on the strongman thesis. In retrospect, the theory appears useful not for what it helped us to see but for what it prevented us from seeing. Behind its shadows is a reality we’ve been facing for some time: not the concentration of power in the hands of one person, but the dispersal of power across the polity; not the conversion of popular preferences into partisan will, but the inability of parties to legislate those preferences; not the threat of a tyrannical white majority to the Constitution, but the way in which a minority of mostly white voters depends upon the Constitution to stop the multiracial majority.
Strongman Trump was supposed to rule in one of two ways: either he would gather the force of white voters to impose his will on the G.O.P. and, from there, the American state, or he would use the rhetorical power of his office, the brutality of his words, to transform American political culture.
Behind each fear lay a vision of democratic power that we only wish were true. One vision depicts the President, as the leader of a political party, translating the voters’ will into a legislative program. That long had been the dream of American political observers, who envied the parliamentary systems of mid-century Europe, where unified parties offered clear alternatives to the voters, voters cast their ballots for parties, and parties controlled the state. The other vision idealizes a democracy in which words matter and leaders use them to rouse the citizenry. Language becomes an instrument of power.
With Trump, the democratic wish returned as a liberal nightmare. The responsible party leader appeared as a cruel tyrant, the inspiring rhetorician as a vicious demagogue. The wish didn’t generate the reality of Trump. But, like all frustrated desires, its traces remain in our distorted vision of that reality.
The belief that Trump mastered the Republican Party, and that he and the G.O.P. dominated the American polity, was shared by Trump’s defenders and critics alike. That belief was lent added credence when more than half the Republican members of Congress refused to certify Biden’s election, and the overwhelming majority of Republican senators voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial.
Yet whenever Republicans wanted to oppose Trump on matters of policy or political importance to them, they did. Before the pandemic, thirteen Senate Republicans joined the Democrats to defeat Trump’s immigration bill. Republicans refused to pay for his wall. In July, 2020, the same month that Vox criticized “Trump’s authoritarian impulses and near-total control of the Republican Party,” the G.O.P. forced Trump to back down on cutting payroll taxes; his Defense Secretary banned the Confederate flag at military bases; and Senate Republicans, in defiance of a threatened veto, passed a bill requiring the Pentagon to rename military bases honoring Confederate generals.
Less than a week before they abased themselves on January 6th, Republicans in Congress voted, overwhelmingly, to override Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is the annual military-spending bill. That vote alone was unprecedented. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama vetoed the N.D.A.A. Each time, Congress was forced to back down and revise its position. Not only did Congress, under Trump, not back down but it also imposed restrictions on Presidential power that any strongman would bridle at. It limited the President’s ability to use emergency declarations to divert military funds, as Trump had done with the border wall. It constrained the Pentagon’s ability to transfer military weapons to local police, as critics of the police have long demanded. And, in response to Trump’s handling of the Black Lives Matters protests, the bill required federal law-enforcement officers and members of the armed services, when responding to civil disorders, to wear insignia identifying themselves.
Even when Trump and the Republicans controlled all the elected branches of government, they were routinely unable to exercise the power that they had. They failed to repeal Obamacare, to ban federal funds for abortion, and to ban abortion after twenty weeks. Nor were they able to expand the death penalty; change immigration law; or enact other items on their legislative agenda. Their one major legislative achievement was tax cuts.
On the heels of those cuts, the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, said that he was coming for Medicare and Social Security; Trump promised something he called “welfare reform.” What the two men, along with the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, delivered instead was “a domestic budget to make Barack Obama proud.” Rather than slash liberal programs, Trump, McConnell, and Ryan were forced to pass a budget that included $1.3 trillion in increased funding for Pell grants, Head Start, Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Education, renewable energies, and the National Science Foundation, and made no cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency or Planned Parenthood. All this before Nancy Pelosi recovered her Speaker’s gavel, in January, 2019.
The consequences of Trump’s rhetoric were also more contradictory than Trump and his critics supposed. Trump certainly aggravated the racism and violence of his base, preparing the mob for the actions it took on January 6th. But the underlying fear that he would transform the broader political culture through the mere fact of his words turned out to be a kind of inverted democratic wish. In the face of Trump’s bully pulpit, the public fled in the opposite direction.
“On nearly every major policy issue,” Catherine Rampell reported in the Washington Post, in October, Trump “has pushed the country to the left.” That was certainly true of trade, immigration, and Obamacare. As four researchers noted, in March, 2020, “the ACA is now more popular than at any other point in its ten-year history.” Reversing a public-opinion trend under Obama, this rise in popularity owed less to the increasing number of people helped by the A.C.A. than it did to Trump’s attack on the law, which inspired Democrats and independents to support it.
As we descend from the higher sphere of policy to the viscera of race, the true realm of Trump’s reign, the effect is even stronger. Two of the lowest polling moments of Trump’s Presidency came in August, 2017, just after his “both sides” remarks on the white-supremacist rally at Charlottesville, and in June, 2020, amid his crackdown on the Black Lives Matter protests. (His lowest moment was the week that followed January 6th.) As support for Trump plummeted last summer, support for Black Lives Matter peaked, with a record number of Americans claiming in July that the criminal-justice system discriminated against African-Americans and other people of color. Support for Black Lives Matter would then begin to drop, prompting anticipation, across the spectrum, of a Trump-led white backlash à la Richard Nixon, centered in the suburbs. But instead of riding to power on the spectre of Black criminality, Trump lost support among white and suburban voters, leading to his defeat. It was 1968 in reverse.
Although Trump never dominated the American state, and never transformed the G.O.P.’s economic or social agenda, he did intensify the right’s long-standing hostility to democracy. Like most American Presidents, in other words, he had an impact on his party. Whether that portends a Trump 2.0 in the next election, more savvy and skilled than the first, or recalls the ultra-left’s violent turn in the nineteen-seventies, when a diminished cadre of radicals sought to push politics leftward as the ground beneath it shifted right, remains to be seen.
The strongman thesis did register a shift on the right, which had been gestating since the Presidency of George W. Bush but which got obscured by all the talk of fascism and right-wing populism. While that talk posits an unsettling affinity between master and masses, the right has been losing its popular touch for decades. In the last eight Presidential elections, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote just once. Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush all rode the wave of racial backlash, yet each wave was smaller than the last. Nixon was reëlected with sixty-one per cent of the vote, Reagan with fifty-nine per cent, and Bush with fifty-one per cent. Trump was forced to join that small, sad fraternity of losers who fail to win a second term at all.
The diminishing returns of right-wing populism can be seen in the decreasing potency of G.O.P. rule. The innovations that Nixon, Reagan, and Bush pioneered—the “silent majority,” law and order, the end of big government, the Department of Homeland Security—defined the political grammar of both parties and the common sense of the nation. Trump’s legacy is the rejection of his party’s premises by more than half the country. Where Reagan and Bush respectively got a hundred and sixty-eight and forty Democrats to vote for their tax cuts, Trump got none. Asked to name her most significant achievement, Margaret Thatcher replied, “Tony Blair.” Trump’s will be Arizona, Georgia, and A.O.C.
Seeking to counter their waning position, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have come to depend upon three pillars of counter-majoritarian rule: the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. These institutions are not authoritarian or fascist—indeed, they are eminently constitutional—but they are antidemocratic. They are also mainstays of the right. In a remarkable statement, now forgotten, issued three days before January 6th, seven conservative members of the House warned their Republicans colleagues that G.O.P. Presidential candidates have
depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes—based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election—we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.
This is the reality that the strongman thesis, in all its guises, mischaracterizes yet records. Fascism’s most resonant image—of a triumphant will bending the nation to its vision—was born in the long shadow of the French Revolution. Against the mass movements of the left and the constitutional state of the center, fascism called the young to the cause of novelty and creation. Today’s right is nothing like that. It is an artifact of the world’s most ancient and extant legal order, holding on to the Constitution, and the institutions it authorizes, for dear life.
If these institutions promise life to the right, they spell death for the left. A majority of the voters cast their ballots for Biden and for the Democrats in the House. Yet their preferences will be largely ignored, thanks to the parties’ 50–50 standoff in the Senate. That margin hardly reflects the popular will; according to statistics compiled by Jacobin’s executive editor, Seth Ackerman, the Senate’s Democratic bloc represents fifty-six per cent of the population. But that is the design of our institutions, which privilege the interests of states with small populations, often white and rural, that can block the will of the majority.
The current moment is less reminiscent of the last days of Weimar than of Britain in the years before the Reform Act of 1832. With a scheme of representation dating back to the twelfth century, Parliament was the playground of grandees from rural and sparsely populated regions of the South. Growing cities in the Midlands and the North had no representation at all.
Standing atop this “aristocracy of mere locality,” in the words of the historian and Whig politician Thomas Macaulay, were the Tories. For six decades, virtually without interruption, they leveraged this Senate-like system of rotten boroughs to keep the Whigs out of power, enabling an increasingly isolated group of aristocrats and gentry to maintain their privileges. While “the natural growth of society went on” among the middle classes and in the cities, Macaulay said, “the artificial polity continued unchanged.”
Other features of this system will sound familiar. Polling places were few and far between; one of the leading items on the reform agenda was to increase their number. Electoral laws were so byzantine, and generated results so murky, that an army of well-paid lawyers was on the payroll for years, sorting out the returns and arguing over their validity. The “artificial polity” kept politics frozen in time, discouraging both parties from taking up vital economic questions of the day, and preventing new social forces and the partisan realignment that was eventually to come.
This is the situation we now find ourselves in. One party, representing the popular majority, remains on the outskirts of power, thanks to the Constitution. The other party, representing the minority, cannot wield power when it has it but finds its position protected nonetheless by the very same Constitution.
We are not witnesses to Prometheus unbound. We are seeing the sufferings of Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock—immigration reform, new infrastructure, green jobs—up a hill. It’s no wonder everyone saw an authoritarian at the top of that hill. When no one can act, any performance of power, no matter how empty, can seem real.