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The Rise of Authoritarian Populism: Understanding Donald Trump’s Election Win

Timothy Seul
Professor at Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

There are many entry points into understanding Trump's election as the 45th president of the United States. Perhaps the most salient is within the context of the failure of neoliberal economic policies, deregulation and fiscal austerity to name two, over the past several decades to sufficiently spread the wealth beyond the circle of those touting such policies. Many of us have seen the statistics about the concentration of wealth in the hands of a minority; the fact that, for example, eight billionaires account for as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population. In short, the hype around globalization under the umbrella of neoliberal economic policies hid the fact that there would be winners and losers. And it was only a matter of time before the losers would look to a strongman to channel their discontent. Although his prescriptions for change missed the mark, Marx's diagnosis of capitalism's inability to sustain people's loyalty because of the continual crises it generates still resonates today. This opens the door to leaders claiming they'll use the political apparatus to mop up the messes created by capitalism.

In addition to Hillary Clinton’s numerous other problems, the fact that she embodied the neoliberal worldview was probably her biggest obstacle to a successful candidacy. It’s impossible to say whether Bernie Sanders would have beat Trump, but his progressive populist message certainly fired up supporters much more than Clinton’s claims that things were generally good. In this sense, the Democratic National Committee’s derailing of the Sanders campaign was a fatal error. Caught up in cultural and economic elitism, the DNC appeared disinterested in the suffering of large segments of the population. The good news for supporters is that if the Democratic Party can free itself from the corporate-friendly neoliberals, the Sanders campaign has taught us there’s significant support for progressive policies aimed at, for example, promoting better distribution of wealth.

It's unfortunate, though not surprising, that the rise of authoritarian populism reflected in events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump has come hand-in-hand with the scapegoating of immigrant and refugee populations. These groups often do not have a platform from which to represent their interests, thereby providing an easy target for leaders wishing to capitalize on insecurities caused by economic and demographic changes. The irony, of course, is that workers in places like the U.S. have not, at least not primarily, lost their jobs because of NAFTA and the influx of immigrants. Rather, technological advances and people like Trump searching for cheap labor and resources abroad go a lot further in explaining the loss of jobs for many at home. Likewise, people in the U.S. are not made any less safe by immigrant and refugee populations being assimilated into their neighborhoods. People like Trump recognize that it's always easier to scapegoat an “outside” other rather than to do the hard work of dealing with, for example, the fact that someone in the U.S. is roughly 70 times more likely to be killed by routine gun violence than by a terrorist hidden amongst immigrant and refugee populations.

It is undeniable that Trump's rise is linked to demographic shifts in the U.S. By now it is common knowledge that his entry onto the political stage came with the so-called Birther Movement, claiming Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore was not a legitimate president. Trump’s cabinet picks have only echoed his hostility to the interests of women and minorities. As has been reported, during the election Trump also successfully played on the urban-rural divide in the United States. Whites in rural America are traditionally suspicious of the centralization of power in federal institutions. Most of these institutions, of course, are located in urban centers where immigrant populations are largest. Many white people in rural areas have been isolated politically and economically, so when Trump started talking directly to them they listened. Statistics point to the fact that Trump won rural America’s vote over Clinton with ease. Mixed in with Trump’s racism and misogyny, then, are legitimate cries for help from people worried about their future and the future of their children. Unfortunately for them, Trump’s policies are unlikely to relieve their suffering.

Yet another interesting entry point into understanding the rise of Trump is our saturated media environment: the mediascape. Sure, Trump benefitted from the fact that, given the large field of presidential contenders in the Republican primary process, it was difficult to get into policy discussions with any depth, hiding his lack of knowledge in that area. Those who can shout the loudest in this kind of environment often win out. Combine that with his familiarity with TV and other media mechanisms, and the timing was right for his rise. A media-saturated environment serves to amplify the demagogue's shouting amidst people's fears, and furthers the dissolution of a factual basis for assessing claims supposedly addressing those fears. The tendency for democracy to devolve into demagoguery is, of course, a concern traceable back to thinkers like Socrates and Plato. In an environment where speed and sound bites rule the day, it was only a matter of time before a country like the U.S. would elect a Reality TV President. His stage has simply moved from Trump Tower, where Celebrity Apprentice was filmed, to the Oval Office. The news media, aimed today largely at entertainment, made it easy for Trump to command their airwaves. The antidote to speed and sound bites is the kind of intensive thinking associated with philosophy, something most don’t have time for or interest in today.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead taught that in order to grasp the world when bombarded by a vast array of information we needed a sense of importance and priority. Herein lies an indispensable role for the media within democratic societies, not only holding politicians accountable for their positions but also focusing discussion around issues that matter. We need media agents who are independent of partisan adversaries and willing to focus our discussions. Otherwise, they simply amplify the chaos of the complexities surrounding us. It is in this environment that Trump got a free ride on the media airwaves.

Media-baiting, or politicians accusing the media of bias and distortion to fashion themselves as underdogs, further erodes the ability of the media to fulfill its vital role in the democratic process. In the U.S., intense media-baiting has become commonplace. Trump played into this with his incessant attacks on the media, successfully identifying himself as the underdog under attack from all sides. The unfortunate result of this, as pointed out by political theorists like Michael A. Weinstein, is that members of the media will take less initiative and responsibility in focusing our discussions around issues that matter. Again, though, this tendency had been in motion long before Trump’s candidacy began.

Early on in the semester, I teach my first-year students the important difference between ridicule and criticism in the context of our classroom discussions. Ridicule entails making fun of someone so as to make oneself feel superior, while criticism means challenging ideas in a substantive way so as to further the discussion. Clearly, we need more criticism and less ridicule in the context of our public debates, as echoed by thinkers like Hannah Arendt. I also teach my students that an important aspect of good politics lies in creating compromise out of conflict. Politics will always be associated with conflict in the sense that it reflects the absence of mutuality. This is why thinkers like Plato and Marx thought creating a society without politics was ideal. Absent such ideals, however, we’re left with the search for common ground in a complex environment. Where are the leaders and media agents who can help us identify this common ground, and are we willing to listen and engage in the discussion so fundamental to the democratic process?

Timothy Seul
Professor at Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Timothy Seul was born outside Chicago, and grew up in Colorado. He did his graduate work at Purdue University, completing his Ph.D. in political philosophy in 1997. His first teaching job was at a small liberal arts college in Colorado, and in 2001 he was hired into Waseda University’s School of Political Science and Economics. He moved to the School of International Liberal Studies in 2004. Recent publications include: Understanding Global Political Economy through English: Concepts and Approaches (Yuhikaku Press) and Nietzsche’s Intimacy: The Free Spirit and Its Voice (Waseda Global Forum).