Trump and the populist earthquake in American politics


Prof Pippa Norris

Paul McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, Professor of Government and International Relations at Sydney University, and founding Director of the Electoral Integrity Project.



US2016 - Section 8

Section 8: Result and Beyond

Election night in America has been stunning. The outcome may be catastrophic and transformative for America and the world. The pundits and pollsters consistently reported throughout the long, long US campaign that Hillary Clinton was consistently in the lead in the popular vote estimated across the average of most national polls. The projection of a Clinton victory had seemed widely plausible. By all accounts the Democrats had a unified convention, a well-funded campaign, an experienced, well qualified and knowledgeable candidate, the overwhelming endorsement of the mainstream press, the support of a team of heavy-hitters including POTUS and FLOTUS, a popular President, a low economic misery index, a well-organized get out the vote ground game, and a consistently winning debate performance. 

By contrast, the Republican leadership has been deeply divided with lukewarm support for their own standard-bearer. Donald Trump offered himself as a candidate emphasizing a toxic brew of racist, ill-informed, misogynist, nationalistic and vulgar rhetoric, offending women, Hispanics, and many minorities, with only a loose association with the truth, no substantive detailed policy platform, no experience of government or the military, less funds than his opponent, and minimal advertising and polling. And yet, still the Republicans ended up holding both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

What explains the populist earthquake in American politics?

Some factors are clearly specific to this election campaign. The way that the Republican primaries turned into a circular firing squad for the moderate candidates. The lack of effective new blood competing in the Democratic contests, allowing all the bag and baggage of the Clinton haters to be reignited. Events such as the Russian-hacking of the DNC and the Wikileaks endless recycling of the Clinton email story. And so on.

But the populist earthquake is also part of a far broader picture.

Like Donald Trump, leaders such as Marine Le Pen, Norbert Hoffer, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders are prominent today in many countries, altering established patterns of party competition in contemporary Western societies. These parties have gained votes and seats in many countries, and entered government coalitions in eleven Western democracies, including in Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Across Europe, their average share of the vote in national and European parliamentary elections has more than doubled since the 1960s, from around 5.1% to 13.2%, at the expense of center parties. During the same era, their share of seats has tripled, from 3.8% to 12.8%. Even in countries without many elected populist representatives, these parties can still exert tremendous ‘blackmail’ pressure on mainstream parties, public discourse, and the policy agenda, as is illustrated by UKIP’s role in catalyzing the British exit from the European Union, with massive consequences. 

The electoral fortunes of populist parties are open to multiple explanations which can be grouped into accounts focused upon (1) the demand-side of public opinion, (2) the supply-side of party strategies, and (3) constitutional arrangements governing the rules of the electoral game.

Applying these explanations to the Trump phenomenon, the demand side concerns the cultural backlash concentrated among older white men who want to ‘Make America Great Again’, meaning a vision of an older small-town America, reflecting traditional values common decades ago over more progressive, cosmopolitan and multicultural values. The supply-side concerns how parties compete and the way that the Tea Party wing of the Republican party advocated and laid the foundation for many of the populist themes which Trump subsequently echoed, including anti-establishment and anti-government, birtherism, climate change denial, and know-nothingness. The institutional context concerns the weakness of party control over the selection process and the path that provides for an outsider candidacy.

But the explanation of the populist revolution is less important than the consequences of a President Trump. This is not just the choice of another leader like any other, where there are genuine party differences on public policies and debate about alternative ways to manage the country. The authoritarian tendencies of his leadership, his attack on basic democratic principles, and the isolationist withdrawal of America from the world, are likely to be deeply damaging, to human rights at home and abroad. Brexit was a disaster for Britain – and Europe. But it was just a seismic tremor presaging a far bigger tsunami. President Trump will be a catastrophe for America and the world.