Trump's challenge to the results of the electoral process is his latest act of delegitimization of democracy. Months ago, he announced that he would accept the validity of the elections only if he was victorious. Such statements, articulated by the president of the United States, undermine the democratic system in his country and worldwide. As Susan B. Glasser wrote in The New Yorker, “Trump’s incessant questioning of the basic institutions of our government and electoral system has now produced his desired result, even if he may not be back for another four years: a superpower torn apart from within, no longer trusting of its own democracy.”
Since his electoral campaign in 2016, Trump has established ways of dealing towards political opponents (mockery and defamation) and towards the journalistic media (treated as biased political adversaries) that broke both with the norms of respect between adversaries and of freedom of expression.
His distortions of reality (such as talk about “success” against the pandemic the day US infections reached 11 million and 251,000 deaths) were cited by many political analysts as anecdotes or eccentricities. The result is that the very concept of fake news and "alternative realities" has almost become normal.
But in the meantime, Trump and his team of collaborators and ideologues (including the authoritarian prosecutor William Barr, extremist migration adviser Stephen Miller, and far-right international alliance promoter Steve Bannon) were capturing the state from within, trying to destroy its institutions and tamper with the federal system.
A frame of reference for authoritarianism
For four years it has been repeatedly argued that Trump is a self-centered pragmatist without a consistent ideology. According to New York Times commentator David Brooks, for example, Trump did not divide the world into right and left but into winners and losers. His past if fleeting adherence to the Democratic Party and frivolous lifestyle helped to generate the misunderstanding, leading to expectations of an aimless presidency.
But this was a widespread error of analysis. Coming from two strong pillars of American popular culture, self-made-man individualism and television, Trump found his place, acting steadfastly as a far-right authoritarian politician in the context of the multi-dimensional crisis ravaging America. Professor Christopher Browning has written that he created "a coalition of discontents" like Adolf Hitler.
Trump found his place, acting steadfastly as a far-right authoritarian politician in the context of the multi-dimensional crisis ravaging America.
There have been four years of academic debate over whether Trump is a fascist leader. Experts agree that his career does not have all the characteristics, but that it has morphed into the pursuit of dangerous policies that are highly authoritarian, undemocratic and that promote violence.
Regardless of whether Trump is a fascist or a makeshift upstart, his presidency has combined pragmatism with creating ideology. Benito Mussolini wrote in 1933 that fascism “was not a child of a doctrine developed in advance in a very detailed way; it was born out of the need to act, and from the beginning it was in itself something more practical than theoretical”. The philosopher Enzo Traverso suggests that “in our days, politics no longer derives from ideology; instead, the latter is improvised, a posteriori, in search of legitimizing a policy”. Trump has not elaborated an ideology, but with his policies he has generated a paradigm, a far-right ideological frame of reference that, at the same time, is part of a global authoritarian trend in the discrediting of democracy and attack on inclusive societies.
Creating the social base
Given the lack of credibility of politicians in general and taking advantage of the fact that only 17% of US citizens have confidence in their government, Trump presented himself as the anti-politician. To rural and industrial workers who due to the internationalization of production and robotization carried out since the 1990s, had lost their jobs – he emerged as a saviour whose entrepreneurial skills and willingness to fight against state rules would retrieve their jobs for them.
On the other hand, he gained ground as an instrumental leader in a Republican Party that for decades had abandoned liberal conservatism in order to carry out an economic, political and cultural revolution of the extreme right. Now most Republican Congress members are apparently torn between conceding that Trump lost the election and pleasing the 72 million voters who believe he won. But perhaps this is a false dilemma, and what is happening is that the Republican Party is becoming part of a far-right social movement in the making.
For the business and financial sectors that promote less State, Trump promised the reduction of taxes and deregulation of environmental measures such as those against the exploitation of protected natural areas. He swore to the big beneficiaries of private healthcare that he would end President Barack Obama's health care reform.
In The fifth risk, Michael Lewis explains that during the Trump Administration millions of data that the State had on climate change, animal abuse or violent crimes have simply been eliminated. The beneficiaries are coal companies, large meat producers and arms dealers. At the same time, state institutions have been corroded and partially emptied of content, while dozens of progressive laws and measures have been reversed in fields as varied as the environment, education and the integration of different sexual identities.
Since the 1970s the far right and assorted ideologues have been promoting the need for a strong presidency to confront the progressive agenda in such fields as race, civil liberties and gender. To the sector of jurists ambitious to secure for the United States an almost monarchical authoritarian presidential system with a weak legislative power, Trump, with his popularity gained in various worlds of entertainment, has promised his support.
From the White House, he has advanced the destruction of the monopoly of the use of force by the democratic State by encouraging the actions of far-right groups, pro-Nazis, militias and paramilitary groups, while refusing to make urgent reforms to combat police brutality against African American citizens. He reassured the powerful National Rifle Association that he would obstruct any measure taken by Congress against the possession of weapons of war by civilians. And if chaos is required, these militias are his armed vanguard to be deployed at any given moment.
With the support of God
He has also given assurances to right-wing nationalist evangelicals that he would embrace their agenda. Despite presenting themselves as confessional movements, these promote strong presidentialism as well as a hyper-conservative revolution against the legal recognition of homosexual marriage, the diversity of gender identities, or the right to abortion and against the Supreme Court having jurisdiction in disputes regarding labor rights. Likewise, they oppose the equality of women and claim male dominance in the private and public sphere.
Several evangelical pastors believe that Trump became president thanks to "the hand of God." Evangelical leaders, explains researcher Katherine Stewart, "have declared a new holy war against ethnically and religiously diverse democracy" both in the United States and globally. Trump has also appointed two hyper-conservative justices to the powerful Supreme Court and more than a hundred conservative judges in various states as well, to hinder the more progressive measures that the Joe Biden government may want to adopt.
The social fracture present in American society has been thoroughly exploited by Trump and his ideologues. First, on the racial question in two regards. On the one hand, the lack of recognition by much of the white population that slavery and African Americans are a constitutive part of the history of the United States. On the other, the growing demographic weight of citizens of Latin American origin.
The Trump Administration has been openly racist in responding to the mobilizations of African Americans (and the whites who support them) and strongly opposed to immigration, with measures such as separating immigrant parents from their children, expelling descendants of immigrants born in the United States, and prohibiting the entry of Muslim citizens.
Thus, Trump leaves several dangerous legacies for democracy behind him in the United States and the rest of the world.
Trump leaves several dangerous legacies for democracy behind him in the United States and the rest of the world.
First, he has shown that it´s possible to come to power by democratic electoral means and then subvert the state from within, as other rulers in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland), Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines and Russia are doing. At the same time, he has demonstrated that in order to remain in power, elections can be delegitimized through lies, fake news, the uses of loyal social networks, while blaming mainstream journalism for bias, and mobilizing paramilitary forces on the streets.
Second, he has promoted the idea that in order to succeed economically (following his example), all state regulations must be eliminated, and those that exist sidestepped, going so far in fact as to decriminalize corruption.
Third, Trumpism has normalized racism, sexism, and contempt for the left, environmental defenders and all those who represent the liberal agenda of diversity and human rights that has developed since the 1960s. It has articulated in public the rejection of immigrants and refugee claimants that people previously refrained from expressing. Trump spoke out and denigrated these claimants openly. As George Packer wrote, “not because he couldn’t control his impulses, but intentionally, even systematically, in order to demolish the norms that would otherwise have constrained his power. To his supporters, his shamelessness became a badge of honesty and strength”.
Fourth, it has reaffirmed the legitimacy of pro-Nazi groups, extremist militias, and conspiratorial groups armed and organized against the state. His adherence to conspiracy theories further fueled these groups in their fervor for rising up in arms to defend their idea of America.
Fifth, since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Trump has consistently discredited science, promoting instead conspiratorial and dangerously superstitious interpretations.
Sixth, Trumpism captures the idea of the nation for sectarian, anti-democratic and exclusive purposes.
Seventh, Trump has promoted a political and nationalist conception of religion, through his alliance with evangelicals. In this way he has successfully regressed by centuries the separation between the state and religion.
And eighth, he has indicated that in foreign policy each country must defend its interests with transactional methods, moving away from any cooperative policy, despising and weakening the multilateral system, starting with the agreements and resolutions of the United Nations.
Authoritarian rulers, as well as aspiring to govern and mobilize sectors of their societies, have taken inspiration from the current president of the United States, who will foreseeably continue to use his influence (and the weight of the many millions of people who have voted for him).
Trump may not be running in the 2024 election, but some political personalities are already looming as potential candidates, notably Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who holds very tough positions on migration, the Black Lives Matter protests, China, and in favor of maintaining the Guantanamo base prison open. Other names include Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Vice President Mike Pence (who has serious business sector backing), and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. According to speculation, Trump’s daughter Ivanka or his son Donald Trump Jr. might also aspire to the role.
Whoever his political heir is, if democracy is to be preserved and improved, if the progressive agenda is to be defended in the United States and elsewhere, it will be necessary to reflect and politically work on all the fields in which Trumpism has stamped his legacy. Because the world is no longer the same after Donald Trump was president.
A previous Spanish version of this article was published by https://www.esglobal.org/el-trumpismo-despues-de-trump-una-ideologia-practica-para-la-ultraderecha/