Don Watson’s Tocquevillian journey through the United States is well suited to an election in which America seems a strange and foreign country, even to Americans. His explanation, which winds through the particularities of the present as well as the precedents of history, helps us better understand how, exactly, the wheels came off in 2016, and why so many Americans put their faith in a man so patently unqualified to be president.
To sharpen that picture, it would be useful to change the focus just a touch: to look at the present moment as one of historical change, and to find the roots not just of populism but of authoritarianism in America’s past.
The twin campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump point to a tectonic shift in American politics. For much of the twentieth century, the dividing lines were conservative versus liberal, right versus left. And those divisions remain: Sanders’ supporters did not flock to Trump, as some analysts predicted they might. Not all populisms are the same. The populism that knitted together a racially diverse coalition of millennial voters in the Democratic Party does not have a natural tie to the nativist, racist populism of Donald Trump.
But that left/right cleavage is being overrun by anxieties about globalisation, the economy, civil liberties and foreign policy. The Republican Party, in particular, has been splintered by these forces. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, party elites made immigration reform a central item; they were smacked down, brutally, by their base. Libertarianism blossomed briefly as a wave of non-interventionism rippled through the party; by the end of 2013, the rise of ISIS had shoved the pendulum back towards muscular militarism.
All the while an anti-establishment populism simmered. Opposition to the Obama presidency kept the anger directed at the Democrats, holding together a fracturing Republican Party. The Tea Party had plenty of anger at Wall Street, a traditional GOP stronghold, as well as at corporations and elites. Party leaders tried to corral that anger, but with no platform to bind the grassroots to the leadership, the party’s politics devolved into reckless obstructionism, shutting down the government, playing brinksmanship with the economy, and hobbling the Supreme Court.
The 2016 Republican primaries showed what happened when that obstructionist bond was removed. Carefully groomed candidates fell, one after the other, to an angry populist whose policy preferences had little to do with the conservative coalition that once provided the foundation of the Republican Party. Trump rejected free markets, neoconservatism, right-wing social issues, small-government orthodoxy. On issues of racism, he put down the dog whistle and picked up the bullhorn. In less than a year, he laid waste to the party of Reagan.
Bernie Sanders represented some of those same forces shuddering through the Democratic Party, but the Democrats have long been more a coalition of interests than a party of ideas. Hillary Clinton could absorb Sanders’ critiques, turning up the dial on regulation, backing off from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The party is shifting, but is managing the pivot more smoothly than the GOP, where Trump has gone to war with the party establishment. For Republicans, the enemy truly is within.
The United States is in the midst of a massive political transformation, one that has given rise to an unprecedented candidacy. Unprecedented in the most troubling ways: a candidate who threatens to jail his opponent, who argues the coming election is rigged and invalid, who is seen by the vast majority of Americans as unqualified for the presidency.
Yet while Trump’s breaks with precedent are vitally important, so too are the ways he echoes old tendencies. The history of populism that Watson sketches is critical to understanding the appeal of Trump’s message. But let’s add to that another history: a history of distrust in democracy, along with an American approval, from time to time, of authoritarianism.
The modern presidency, marked by candidate-driven campaigns, emerged at the start of the twentieth century with Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt wanted an expansive, muscular executive – he’s the one who christened the presidency “the bully pulpit” – and he readily seized opportunities to expand the scope of his power. So impressed was he with his abilities as president, and so unimpressed with his successor, that in 1912 he broke with tradition and ran for an unprecedented third term. His decision hinted at the ways personality and power were coalescing to strengthen the office of the presidency.
When the nation careened into economic crisis in the early 1930s, the danger of that growing power became visible. The crisis revealed a longing for an authoritarian, a single person who could fix what seemed so stubbornly resistant to fixing. Taking office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked for “broad executive power” and Congress granted it. The word “dictator” was used, and used approvingly. Walter Lippmann told Roosevelt, “You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” The New York Herald Tribune met his inauguration with the amenable headline, “For Dictatorship If Necessary.”
Roosevelt was no dictator, but he did believe he was specially suited to meet the crisis. And so he grabbed for unprecedented powers, including control of the economy and of the Supreme Court. He was granted the first and rebuffed on the second. And as the nation was drawn into war with Europe, he repeated his cousin’s big power play: he ran for – and won – a third term, and then a fourth.
Roosevelt played by the rules. He asked Congress for power and retreated when refused it. He did not seize the presidency; he asked the American people for their votes, which they granted. But his long tenure in office revealed that Americans in times of crisis hungered for an authority figure to tell them what to do. They longed for it. Those that didn’t favour Roosevelt turned to the anti-Semitic preacher Charles Coughlin or Louisiana’s Huey Long. They sought a strongman.
This was before the anti-authority turn in American culture. In a way, though, the trends of the past forty years have helped set the stage for a figure like Trump. Americans have lost faith in the institutions of civil society: government, media, school, court. They greet with suspicion the sort of authority that comes with the imprimatur of organisation – a sign that for many Americans, there is an open breach with their communitarian side.
Which is what makes Trump’s candidacy so interesting. He is an authoritarian figure whose power derives from a sort of radical individualism. Having lost trust in institutions, his supporters turn to a single man with no loyalty to any community or institution or party or nation.
There is an absence in American national culture that Trump fills like a malignant growth, a diminished civil society too stunted to counter the fear-based politics that Watson decries. The great task of the next generation is to rebuild a shared faith in – and commitment to – the institutions and ideas that are the special genius of the American system. In the course of that rebuilding process, the American people have a chance to recover not the country’s greatness, but its goodness.
Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and a research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics and a columnist for US News & World Report and the Age.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 64, The Australian Dream.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY