The free world is in shock and awe. Europe’s leading media outlets, whether left or right of center, progressive or conservative, are deeply frightened by the prospect of Donald Trump leading the world’s only superpower. Even prominent conservative thinkers in the United States see Trump as a menace to American democracy and possibly to the world at large.
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But even if Trump had lost the election, the painful and frightening question would have been how roughly half the voters in the world’s leading democracy could back a man so unqualified to be the world’s most powerful leader.
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What does this tell us about the state of liberal democracy? After all, Trump is only one example albeit the most prominent of the surge of populist leaders in the Western world from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders to Nigel Farage and Germany’s Frauke Petry. But now Trump’s victory is bound to give these populist movements a tremendous boost.
What is populism?
“Populism” can easily be misused as merely a derogatory term, so let me refer to the definition provided by Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller: Populist leaders oppose the alienated elites, who have lost touch with true peoplehood and are accused of being cosmopolitan rather than patriotic. These elites claim to have expertise that they use to take care of all the citizens, but they actually talk down to the “real people,” claiming to be taking care of them while really serving their own interests. Populist leaders claim to know “real people’s” desires and beliefs, and promise to represent them and toss out the alienated elites.
Often the term “real people” thinly masks a particular racial, ethnic or religious group. For more than a year commentators noted that Trump was really rallying both white Americans against minorities and male voters who felt disempowered by the feminist revolution. When Le Pen says France belongs to the French, she means white French people, presumably Christian families with a long history in France, similar to Petry, the leader of the extreme right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, when she talks about the German Volk.
Populist leaders instill profound distrust in the complex institutions of liberal democracy, whether it’s the judiciary’s oversight of parliament or the quality press’ investigation of political power and its abuses. Populism thrives on praising the “people’s” common sense and gut feelings, and disparages expert knowledge used in fact-checking and policy proposals. Trump has been a grandmaster in this tactic and has mobilized Americans who have felt disempowered and alienated by the liberal elites on the coasts; these Americans feel deprived of the right to make their opinions count by accusing elites and minorities for the decline of the American white middle class.
How populism endangers liberal democracy
There is an ideal picture of what liberal democracies should be: All citizens have the right and duty to make up their minds about key political issues by carefully weighing the facts and applying their beliefs about what a good society should be. The public space should be a space of deliberation where citizens argue with each other, trying to convince others by argument rather than by whipping up fear and hatred.
Of course, this idealized picture has never been quite true anywhere at any time. But most politicians in liberal democracies at least feel obliged to appear that they’re providing arguments for good policies, not just trying to manipulate emotions.
Trump is so unsettling because he doesn’t even try to maintain this modicum of liberal democratic décor. He made no attempt to formulate coherent policies or show that he had done the slightest necessary homework on the facts – whether about the U.S. economy or Islamic radicalism. Nor did he try to show a semblance of respect for large minorities in the United States or the actual majority of U.S. citizens: women.
Trump’s victory sends a huge warning signal to the free world: Our democracies are in deep danger. If elected leaders don’t even have to make believe they’re competent and morally decent, they reshape public norms by proving that anything goes. Lies are as good as the truth, and fanning hatred is a legitimate tool to mobilize your constituency. Thus political leadership no longer requires wisdom but depends on the ability to manipulate the electorate’s passions – mostly the baser ones like xenophobia and racism.
A long history under Bibi
Liberal democracy is the ideal that has held together what is often called the West, but it would better be called the free world: the countries committed to universal human rights and institutions that would enforce them.
Trump has already announced that he has no interest in these ideals and will do business with autocrats like Vladimir Putin – who was indeed one of the first to congratulate him for his victory. Trump has said he no longer wants the United States to play a central role in defending the free world.
This is bound to have strong repercussions for Israeli politics. My brief description of populist tactics has probably reminded Israeli readers of phenomena we’ve known for a long time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has built his career on fanning hatred for Israel’s liberals and delegitimizing “the elites,” whom he accused of “having forgotten what it is to be Jewish.” He started his political career in the 1990s by getting Likud conventions to chant “They’re afraid! They’re afraid!” – referring to leftists. He has kept to this populist tactic; for example, by creating panic on the right last Election Day by announcing that Israeli Arabs were “going to the polls in droves.”
But Netanyahu knows Israel must maintain a modicum of liberal democratic décor to be able to claim it’s the Middle East’s only democracy, so he has generally stopped short of legislation too blatantly antidemocratic. Trump’s victory is bound to give him more leeway; after all, if the world’s leading democracy and Israel’s staunchest and most important ally can trample the semblance of respect for rational thought and minority rights, why should Israel be holier than the United States?
Israel’s political right has already declared war on major liberal democratic institutions like the Supreme Court and a free and critical press. Trump’s victory is bound to intensify these attacks on liberal politicians, journalists, academics and all Israelis critical of the right wing. We must brace for hard times indeed.