When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton take the debate stage on Monday night, the drama that plays out will be much deeper than the usual quadrennial bout between blue and red. Their differences reflect a dangerous struggle of forces within every democracy: populism over pluralism. And with her infamous “deplorables” remark, Clinton has given Trump, the populist, the upper hand in this debate.
That should be a scary prospect for more than just liberals; Trump’s rise and his rhetoric threaten the institution of American democracy. To understand why—and to grasp why Monday night is so critical to righting Clinton’s campaign—it helps to start by unraveling populism, the oft-discussed but little-understood source of Trump’s sweeping appeal.
It might sound like a good thing, in a power-to-the people kind of way. But populism isn’t good. It seeks to deny the very basis of democracy: that we’re all different, explains Jan-Werner Mueller, a Princeton University professor of political thought, in his new book What Is Populism?
Democracy lets people with diverse interests work out how to live together on terms that everyone will accept as fair, even if the outcomes almost always dissatisfy some group or another. When a group of people grows outraged by a government and culture that no longer reflect their interests, a skillful populist can claim to represent them, twisting the language and logic of representation to discredit democracy itself.
As a populist will tell it, there is no longer any difference—there is only one group of “real people” who share the same moral values. And those values are under attack by a corrupt, conniving elite that has let outsiders take natives’ jobs, pollute their culture, steal their hard-earned money, and make their neighborhoods unsafe. Since only the “real people” truly belong—and they have a single unified voice—anything their chosen leader says must be legitimate. Anyone who challenges this leader’s facts, logic, or policies is trying to harm and disrespect the “real people” he alone represents. By denying that citizens are inherently different, he changes the debate from one about interests to one about morality—there are only those who are right and those who are wrong.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because Trump is the most effective populist in modern American history. In his vision of America, he claims the “moral high ground” and stands for the “silent majority” against “Crooked Hillary.” He portrays her as a criminal who has deliberately weakened American laws and made “decent and patriotic citizens” the victims of depraved immigrants, Black Lives Matter rioters, and ISIL, which she co-founded. Trump claims that he alone speaks for the ”real” Americans. This is why fact-checking doesn’t matter. Debunk his statements, or prove his policies nonsensical, and you are attacking his ”silent majority,” trying to warp what America truly stands for.
How does anyone argue with this self-righteous non-logic? This is one thing that makes the debate—and the whole election, for that matter—so hard.
Whatever nasty things Trump might espouse, his popularity signals a real problem: that a big chunk of America feels their government doesn’t represent them. It’s important to take Trump’s supporters seriously and resist the paternalistic liberal attitude that dismisses them as angry and bigoted, says Mueller. Even if their views are undemocratic, their concerns still merit attention.
But when talking to populists, a leader must avoid talking like populists, argues Mueller. And this is where Clinton flopped miserably with her “basket of deplorables” comment.
“It’s a mistake to demonize the demonizers,” says Mueller. “It’s an even worse mistake to demonize the citizens supporting the demonizers.”
Clinton might well be right when she said that half of Trump’s supporters are “irredeemable” because they are racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic. That doesn’t matter, though. As a liberal, Clinton’s candidacy hinges on her case for pluralism—that she wants to represent all Americans. This is all the more true in this election, when she faces a populist who could genuinely maim American democracy. Clinton’s “deplorables” remark undermined her slogan “Stronger Together,” the basis for her candidacy.
She also gave Trump a huge opportunity, says Mueller. Trump has since seized on the chance to frame himself as a “great unifier,” by claiming recently that he’s the candidate campaigning for all votes. If Trump avoids saying anything divisive or offensive in this debate, he could cement this image of himself to millions of undecided voters.
Let’s be clear: not only is Trump not a great unifier, he’s a threat to democracy. He opposes the most fundamental part of democracy—the part where you agree to share decision-making with those you disagree with. When Trump says Clinton is a “criminal” who shouldn’t be allowed to run—when he insists the only way he can lose is if the election is “rigged”—he is telling his supporters that they are morally superior to other voters, and shouldn’t accept any popular vote that they don’t like. Democracy that isn’t working for them must not be working at all.
Unfortunately for Clinton, no amount of wonkery and political expertise will defeat this subtle logic in the debate. As Mueller explains in his book, a populist’s moral claim must be countered with a competing moral vision. Clinton has to explain why the system she represents—one that incorporates a multitude of voices—is worth preserving. That means admitting that even the “deplorables” have voices that should be heard.
That doesn’t mean Clinton should give Trump a pass.
“It’s important to call [Trump] out on what he actually says and does,” says Mueller, “but not make that the basis of permanently excluding parts of the citizenry.”
Symbolism is important here. Trump’s lying and his wacky policies don’t matter as long as people find he represents an identity that feels authentic to them. “But we should not overestimate this phenomenon,” says Mueller. “As a number of political scientists… have shown, the idea that large parts of the population vote against their economic interests because of cultural issues is not really tenable.”
And though facts might not speak for themselves, they are still important as long as they’re “made part of a story and presented by someone credible.”
Can she seize her credibility back from Trump? And as America watches on Monday evening, can she tell a positive, coherent story about the challenges many different groups face and why they actually are “stronger together”?
There will be other chances after Monday for Clinton to regain her footing, of course. But as the election approaches, it will become harder to disarm the trap Trump is setting. Even if he loses the election, he may still have convinced tens of millions of his supporters that American democracy is broken. In other words, Trumps still wins.