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ON THE FLIP SIDE

An Oxford professor explains why Trump losing the presidential election will be bad for American democracy

Donald Trump in front of American flag
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Making democracy great again?
  • Dr. Nic Cheesman
By Dr. Nic Cheesman

Associate professor, Oxford University

This article is more than 2 years old.

Following the FBI’s decision to make public its decision to re-open the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails, the presidential race has narrowed. Fearing that Donald Trump might yet snatch an unlikely victory, some media critics and commentators have been falling over themselves to set out the negative consequences of a Trump presidency.

It has been claimed that a Trump victory would be bad for the economy, sending the markets into a spiral, and that it would be bad for domestic race relations, given his comments about Hispanics, Muslims, and black Americans. Some have speculated that his leadership could result in fresh and damaging conflicts with foreign governments in places like Iran and North Korea. Others have taken a different tack, alleging that the independence of key democratic institutions and the image of democracy would be compromised by Trump’s determination to put outcomes before process.

But what all of these arguments overlook is that a Clinton victory would do little to safeguard American democracy; instead, the long-term implications of a Clinton triumph could be just as serious.

To understand why this is the case, it is important to first recognize that for many Trump supporters, electoral defeat will not prove their leader wrong. Instead, it will only serve to demonstrate that he was telling the truth about the compromised and biased nature of the country’s political institutions. In this sense, Trump can’t lose. Within the worldview that he has deliberately fostered, both electoral outcomes would demonstrate the validity of one or other of his pronouncements: On the one hand, a Trump victory will be taken as evidence of his genius and the greatness of the American people; on the other hand, a Trump defeat will be interpreted as evidence that the will of the people has somehow been perverted, and that the establishment is incapable of recognizing the need for change.

A Clinton victory will not breathe fresh life and confidence into mainstream politics.

Among the voters who see politics from this perspective—which, lest we forget, represent between a third and a half of the population, depending on which poll you look at—a Clinton victory will not breathe fresh life and confidence into mainstream politics. Instead, it will lead to political disenchantment and the sense that the system doesn’t work. The long-term consequences of these trends will not be a Republican Party shift back towards the center, but the rise of a fresh cohort of rabble-rousing leaders in the Trump mold, determined to promote their own profile by challenging the status quo.

The roots of America’s crisis of democracy run deep. Much as in the UK, where the vote to leave the European Union was driven in part by the desire of some voters to give the political elite a bloody nose, a significant component of American society has come to see its interests as running counter to those in power. This has contributed to a chronic pessimism about the country’s prospects.

In part, this scepticism is rooted in the fact that some of the more isolated parts of the country suffer from particularly high unemployment and low-class mobility, and so feel that they have been left behind by the growth of the cities that are the home of the “elite.” But it is also rooted in the assumption that America should be doing much better than it is, and that the blame for this lies squarely—and, in some versions of the argument, solely—with the government in Washington.

Whatever one thinks about the validity of this perspective, the impact of these beliefs should not be underestimated. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Republican voters believe that “life is worse today than it was 50 years ago for people like them.” Sensing the public mood, Trump has expertly pitched himself as an outsider, adopting a classic populist approach to political mobilization. Railing against elites and technocratic expertise, his main aim has been to position himself as the defender of the American people—or at least, of white American people.

Part of this strategy involves calling into question the capacity of Washington institutions to solve the country’s problems (and calling out the lack of desire from Washington insiders to try). In the Trump worldview, Congress and the Federal Reserve are not part of the solution but part of the problem, and Hillary Clinton is out of touch and only running to advance the interests of an isolated elite. It is no coincidence that a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that blocking Clinton was one of the most important factors motivating Trump supporters.

The Trump campaign is actively informing and reshaping the beliefs and attitudes of his most loyal followers. As a result, Trump supporters are considerably more negative about the US government and other communities than either Democrats or traditional Republican voters. According to the Pew poll, a remarkable 83% of Trump supporters believe that “the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient,” compared to just 31% of Clinton supporters. In addition to viewing their political system as largely ineffective, these Americans also hold out little hope for the future, with 38% agreeing with the statement “the country can’t solve many of its problems.”

Other polls have generated similar findings with regards to foreign policy and the role of non-white communities within the US. For example, research by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that, compared to other Republican voters, Trump supporters were 10% less likely to think that globalization was a good idea, 24% more likely to favor decreasing legal immigration, and 12% more likely to link terrorist threats with migrants and refugees.

The campaign has been trapped in a momentum of its own making; Trump dare not stand still for fear of his own critique catching up with him.

As with many populists before him, Trump’s billionaire status has required him to make increasingly outlandish attacks on his rivals in order to distance himself from his own elite background. In other words, the campaign has been trapped in a momentum of its own making; Trump dare not stand still for fear of his own critique catching up with him.

Seen in this way, Trump’s allegations of election rigging do not represent a radical new development, but are better understood as the natural consequence of a continual process of escalation. The claim that the election result is being manipulated was also a savvy one, for it insulates him from the negative implications of falling public support and fits neatly into his broader attacks against the political establishment.

Of course, exactly who is to blame for this alleged rigging is often left ambiguous: at times the campaign blames the media, at other times local polling stations, and in some cases the statement is made with no elaboration or supporting evidence at all. This vagueness is deliberate, as it avoids the need to specify any concrete issues that can be shown to be false. One of the by-products of this approach is to tarnish the whole electoral process in the minds of Trump supporters.

Indeed, while claims of political manipulation have been derided in the mainstream media due to their lack of evidence, it is clear they have hit home with some of the most fervent believers in Trump’s cause. Reuters/IPSOS has already found strong evidence that his claims are “resonating with his party.”

If Hillary Clinton or even a mainstream Republican candidate had made similar comments, they would not only have been laughed out of court, but would have also lost significant support among their core voters. In this way, Trump’s refusal to play the role of a traditional politician has shielded him from having to be held accountable like one. The difference with Trump is that his supporters have already been primed to be responsive to criticism of the country’s political institutions. The combination of a voter base already suspicious of the national government and a campaign that has deliberately sought to play upon and intensify popular distrust of the political system has pushed many Trump voters to believe that a conspiracy has been enacted against their candidate.

Against this backdrop, a Trump defeat will not resolve the deep divide at the heart of American politics, but exacerbate it. Core Trump voters will feel that their deepest fears have been realized and will be doubly angry, first because of the intensity of their support for him and dislike of Clinton, and second because they will interpret his failure as a deep injustice. This is unlikely to result in post-electoral violence as some have feared, although isolated incidents are possible. Post-electoral fallouts are more likely to take the form of the more deeply held anti-system sentiments among Trump’s most ardent followers.

A significant proportion of [Trump’s] base will become more likely to support Trump-like candidates next time around.

In turn, a significant proportion of his base will become more likely to support Trump-like candidates next time around. This may not involve backing Trump himself, but it is likely to involve throwing their weight behind those who are likely to follow in his footsteps. Some of these candidates will fuse his radical appeal with a more mainstream background, and some will seek to outflank him by going even further in a bid to capture public attention.

Taken together, these trends suggest that the next Republican candidate is unlikely to cleave close to the middle ground. Instead, Trump’s campaign has exacerbated the party’s tendency—well demonstrated by the rise of the Tea Party—to look for radical solutions to the country’s problems. This is not good news for those who fear that party politics need to become more conciliatory to avoid political deadlock and restore a sense of national unity. Moreover, this is not just an issue for the Republican party: It also has significant implications for the presidency. A candidate that espoused Trumpesque views without exhibiting his flaws and alienating women would have won this election—and could well win the next one, especially given four more years to build support.

Democracy relies on the support of both elites and the wider population for a shared set of key principles, such as mutual respect, rule following, and the willingness to keep defending the political systems, even after defeat. There is nothing about a Trump defeat that would strengthen any of these values. The focus of much analysis of the negative impact of a Trump presidency therefore misses the point: American democracy is likely to take a beating on Nov. 8, no matter who wins.

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