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Donald Trump’s lasting impact on U.S. democracy

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges supporters while

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges supporters while leaving Trump Tower in New York on April 24, 2016. Credit: AP / Julio Cortez

The rise of Republican candidate Donald Trump has confounded scores of media pundits, think-tanks and members of the U.S. political establishment — all of whom repeatedly predicted the demise billionaire’s presidential ambitions.

As Trump pronounced during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Ohio this summer, “Who would have believed that when we started this journey on June 16th last year we would have received almost 14 million votes, the most in the history of the Republican Party, and that the Republican Party would get 60 percent more votes than it received eight years ago”?

The answer is: Very few people.

Yet, for researchers of public opinion trends, the ascendancy of candidate Trump — now consumed by crisis over vulgar comments about women — should not have been such a surprise. For several decades, researchers have noticed a growing share of Americans expressing disillusionment with the state of the country’s democratic institutions, underscored by falling party identification, decreasing voter turnout and diminishing trust in Congress as well as the media.

Concurrent with this loss of faith in America’s political institutions, a rising number of voters have more strongly questioned the effectiveness, not only of particular politicians and institutions but also of the democratic system as a whole.

In my research work with Yascha Mounk, lecturer on political theory at Harvard University, we have shown that the proportion of Americans expressing approval for having “army rule” — a patently undemocratic viewpoint — has risen from 1 in 16 in 1995, to 1 in 6 in a most recent polling. Half of Americans now say that “experts,” rather than government, should “take decisions” for the country.

Such sentiments flagrantly violate America’s founding ideals, including the rule of law, limited government, and the separation of powers.

Even today, with Trump neck-and-neck with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in several polls, some commentators think Trump and his political style — anti-establishment, aggressive, authoritarian — is a temporary aberration. But it works because it taps into a sentiment that has built over several decades, and shows no signs of abating.

At its core is a feeling that America’s political and economic institutions are rigged, and that hard work no longer brings a better life. Thus when Trump claims — as he has claimed — to be the “voice” of the “forgotten men and women of our country,” he is not wrong. In his caustic attacks upon journalists, his fellow businessmen, and other politicians and celebrities, his tweets and speeches give voice to a rage and contempt that is widely felt, yet has been filtered from public discourse. That is why, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 46 percent of Trump supporters are “very enthusiastic” about their candidate, compared with 33 percent of those who support Clinton.

“Trumpism,” therefore, is something much bigger than Trump. Regardless of the election results, it will outlast his campaign.

Countries that also have experienced their “Trump moments” underscore this well:

  • For France, it was in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, made it to the second round of the presidential election. On that occasion, he was roundly defeated. Yet today his daughter, Marine Le Pen, is a strong contender for the 2017 election, and would even win in a runoff vote against incumbent President François Hollande, according to recent polls.
  • In the Netherlands, it was 15 years ago when Pim Fortuyn, a charismatic former professor, founded a new party based on opposition to Islamic immigration that won 17 percent of seats in parliament. Today, his successor Geert Wilders leads the most popular party in the country.
  • In Austria, the far-right FPÖ first entered government in a coalition in 2000. Today, The Freedom Party of Austria’s presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, is the favorite to win the country’s December election.

Trumpism is likely to define U.S. politics for a generation — and future Trumps may learn from his mistakes. Had Trump not alienated large groups of voters early in his campaign (above all, women and Hispanics) and instead stuck to easier scapegoats (such as Muslims or America’s political elites) he could easily now dominate all polling. And a more charismatic figure might gather more widespread support. Trump’s personal unfavorability ratings have consistently been very high — hovering around 60 percent.

Meanwhile, individual polls have shown large numbers of the American public favor some of Trump’s more outlandish proposals, such as a ban of Muslim migration to the United States.

Like a good businessman, Trump simply identified a market to which others refused to cater.

Roberto Stefan Foa is lecturer in politics at the University of Melbourne, and a principal investigator of the World Values Survey, a global research project.