In his novel Seeing, Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago depicts an election in an anemic democratic nation, in which more than 70 percent of the voters submit blank ballots: a creative act of rebellion so threatening to the political elite that they announce a state of emergency and engage the security apparatus to find the ringleaders of the sabotaged election. In the ensuing investigation, violations of civil liberties become rampant and democratic principles are routinely ignored. The country’s political elites, determined to save democracy, end up destroying it, and a totalitarian state emerges from the destruction.
Saramago could have been writing about any number of illiberal democracies that have emerged over the last decade, such as Russia, Hungary, Turkey or Poland. Illiberal democracy is a variant of liberal democracy, in which free elections establish legitimacy for authoritarian-leaning political elites. Elections provide a smokescreen for the erosion of civil liberties and constitutional protections associated with an expanding executive branch power. Under the cloak of majoritarianism, illiberal democracies institute a political agenda based upon rampant nationalism, isolationism, xenophobic propaganda and economic statism.
Internationalism is viewed in the parabola of conspiracy. The state must retreat from threatening forces — the United Nations, the EU, NATO — that will undermine its sovereignty and weaken its nationalist agenda. As the illiberal state grows in significance, it rejects the norms and legal statutes of the international community. Ultimately, state power triumphs, political elites become increasingly dependent on a security apparatus to stifle dissent, and a form of “soft” authoritarianism associated with free elections emerges as the political status quo.
Leaders of illiberal states argue that Western liberal democracy has been ineffectual in providing promised economic prosperity and national security for the nation state. In Hungary, some believe the liberal democratic experience cannot ensure global competitiveness. Hungary has decided to seek other models and “break with liberal principles and methods of social organization.” In this view, liberal democracies have generated a passive response to the excesses of globalization: They surrender national sovereignty to multilateral trade and political agreements, and cross-border movement of migrants. Polarized legislative bodies create ideological gridlock, subverting the will of electoral majorities and empowering electoral minorities. Liberal democracies ignore growing economic inequality found in model states like the United States and the United Kingdom. In short, liberal democracy is viewed as incapable of addressing the complex problems confronting the nation state in the 21st century.
Fareed Zakaria has noted that the tension between illiberal democracies and liberal democracies revolves around the use of government authority. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia were elected through democratic means, but have violated individual civil liberties and repressed ethnic minority groups like the Kurds, Roma and Chechens. In the case of Turkey and Russia, military aggression has supported their domestic agendas. Sylvie Kauffmann has noted that the illiberal democracies of Hungary and Poland are characterized by the “legacy of communism, trouble with sharing power, conspiracy theories and exclusionary discourse toward opponents.” Insert “terrorism” in place of “communism” in Kauffmann’s description and you find an American variation of illiberal democracy in the political agenda of Donald Trump.
The prevailing patterns found in illiberal democracies of a strong authoritarian leader, nationalistic fervor, the demonization of immigrants and ethnic minorities, and withdrawal from the international community are consistent with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. In his run for president, Trump has normalized racial bigotry, reignited the nativist chauvinism of 19th century America, aroused the political disillusionment of the white working-class and channeled the ideological extremism of the Tea Party into a political movement perfectly suited to establish an illiberal regime should he win the presidency. Similar to European leaders of illiberal democracies, Trump’s political discourse resembles what British political scientist Colin Crouch has called “tightly controlled spectacle.” Trump’s unpredictable manner, idle threats and reliance on character assassination reflects George Orwell’s view that “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
Illiberal democracy is dependent on a “big lie.” For example, Putin’s claim that Russian troops did not enter Crimea or Viktor Orban’s comment, “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.” Trump fits this pattern through his empathy for the white working class and his commitment to end blue-collar disenfranchisement and economic malaise. In funneling their rage into political support, Trump has found the perfect rearguard that will provide electoral legitimacy for his illiberal agenda.
Much of the white working class, especially in the South, view Trump as the only candidate willing to temper the excesses of constitutional democracy. In their eyes, the rule of law, separation of powers, and check and balances have benefitted the very groups they feel have contributed to the downfall of the white working class: ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants and college-educated women.
Trump has perpetuated the myth that he alone is the only person capable of protecting American workers from the scourge of free-trade agreements and globalization. He will “tell it like it is” by standing up to corporate America’s penchant for chasing cheap labor markets at the expense of American manufacturing jobs. Trump states he will add 25 million jobs by 2026, the majority in the manufacturing sector, despite Congressional Budget Office demographic projections that employment will only increase 7.1 million by that date. His strategy to increase jobs through massive tax cuts and eliminating business regulations is unlikely to create many jobs.
Trump’s characterization as a populist reformer seeking the White House to fight for the interests of the working class is a chimera. Contrary to his populist appeal, Trump’s business dealings provide evidence of exploited blue-collar workers and discrimination against Black tenants in the housing complexes he owns. In his presidential campaign, Trump is engaging in the ultimate street hustle: a high-stakes game of three-card-monte with white blue-collar workers being the victims of the scam.
Trump’s political rhetoric conjures up a politics devoid of ideology, reason and vision. It is a discourse of emotion and reaction. Trump is pitting the white working class in a zero-sum game against racial minorities and economic elites. Rather than unity, Trump prefers dangerous identity politics profiling race, religion and gender. His preference for policies of exclusion risks the Balkanization of American society. Rather than mass prosperity for the working class, Trump, a plutocrat and master of self-promotion, will enrich himself and his cronies at the expense of the poor and downtrodden.
New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen has written that many voters in liberal democracies feel “they are being tossed hither and thither by forces beyond their control.” This certainly has been the case with the US working class. How a plutocratic opportunist has been able to create a populist political movement on the backs of blue-collar workers is one of the more perplexing aspects of an increasingly bizarre US presidential election. Trump’s electoral strategy has been to ignore complex domestic and global challenges, focusing instead on a circus-like cavalcade of name-calling, innuendo and calculated avoidance of the pressing issues facing working-class Americans. In essence, Trump has turned the election into a theater of the absurd, with the working class giving him a standing ovation for his detestable performance.