Democracy, “democracy,” and Trump’s Faithful Followers

Democracy is in trouble in the U.S. “Illiberal democracies” exist in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. Why is democracy dying? How to save it? Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democracies don’t die from outside forces such as coup d’états. “We must prevent it [democracy] from dying within,” they write at the conclusion of How Democracies Die, their comparative analysis of how democracies have died and how to save them. “Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves,” they warn, with obvious reference to Donald J. Trump and his past and potential future presidency. But what they miss is that “elected governments” were chosen by citizens. Despite all the brouhaha about Trump’s legal difficulties and his attacks on democratic institutions, Trump remains extremely popular among Republicans; he is neck-and-neck with President Biden in a potential 2024 contest.

So while a Democracy can die as a formal political system, democracies die because of a failing civic culture. In that sense, Levitsky and Ziblatt are wrong. Democracies don’t die because of elected governments; it is citizens who choose the elected governments. It is citizens who cause democracies to live or die.

75 million American citizens voted for Trump in 2020, and his popularity continues. Despite indictments – Trump faces 91 criminal charges across four cases – Trump dominates all Republican challengers by widening margins in national polls. A Quinnipiac University poll — conducted after Trump’s Aug. 1 federal indictment but before his indictment in Georgia — had Trump with a 39-point lead over Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis for the Republican nomination. Trump got support from 57% of Republican registered voters, DeSantis 18%. No other Republican candidate got more than 3% in the Quinnipiac poll.

In terms of a 2024 rematch of the 2020 presidential election between Trump and Biden, Trump trailed Biden by one percentage point in the latest Quinnipiac poll, 47 to 46 percent. A one percentage point difference is a small number between a sitting president and someone historically twice impeached and currently facing four major indictments.

As the indictments continue, Trump’s fundraising improves as well. He raised about $12 million in the first three months of this year. Seven days after the first indictment, he raised $13 million. As he quipped after one of his indictments: “I need one more indictment to ensure my election!” he joked.

So whereas Levitsky and Ziblatt focus on a systemic analysis of guardrails for democracy such as institutions and the power of following unwritten rules, they fail to touch on Trump’s emotional strength with his supporters. We know about his followers’ distrust of government. We know how they identify with Trump as marginalized outsiders since America has become more diversified. We know their disdain for elites and bicoastal woke-ism. We know their nostalgia for the United States in the 1950s and their yearning for a return to American global domination. We know Trump is successful with non-college educated males.

Intellectually, we know how Trump’s supporters feel and who they are, but no formal institutional guardrails will suffice to change their positions. No institutional tweaks will repair their feelings of alienation. No systemic changes will return a democratic civic culture.

A small example: Many of my expat friends are anxious about visiting family in the U.S. What can cosmopolitan internationalists say to relatives who have donned MAGA hats and sneer at “globalists” who are no longer all-in for Uncle Sam? How to maintain family ties with those who consider living outside the U.S. a lack of loyalty to “the indispensable nation” that is “bound to lead”? How to reconcile someone working for a rules-based international institution or a transnational non-governmental organization with a flag-waving July 4 fanatic?

The continuing Trump success at the polls shows a deeper polarization that is neither logical nor intellectual. It is emotional. Trump’s supporters have become a cult in which no objective presentation will change their belief in him. Indictments will not shake their faith. He, like other demagogues, has touched a chord that reverberates beyond rational arguments, legal indictments or judicial decisions. His followers believe in him as a matter of faith, not as a matter of facts or science.

Who are his followers? According to Hillary Clinton, some Trump supporters belong in “a basket of deplorables,” she said toward the end of her 2016 presidential campaign. She lost the election to Trump exactly because of the votes of his “basket of deplorables.” It could turn out that those she described as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” — her “basket of deplorables” – could decide the next presidential election. They could determine the fate of democracy in the United States.

So while many mock Trump’s vulgarity, his long red ties and primitive speech, it is helpful to remember that vulgar means “lacking sophistication and good taste” as well as “characteristic or belonging to ordinary people”. While Trump may be vulgar, he appeals to ordinary citizens who vote. Ordinary, vulgar citizens maintain democracies or cause them to die. No legal or political guardrails can ignore that. Trump has transformed politics into a cult-like belief system that, so far, has upended rational deliberation, with democracy hanging in the balance.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.