Something odd is happening in the United States. President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are edging up and, as the crucial November 6 midterm elections approach, the prospects of the Republicans seem to be improving.
How can this be? How can a president who constantly lies, who threatens to lock up his political opponents, who uses overtly racist language, who applauds the use of violence against journalists, who admires dictators and routinely offends the leaders of America’s democratic allies be gaining ground? How is it that his party is not facing a devastating electoral defeat?
The answer relates both to the content and the form of the political showdown in the US. Already before Trump, the Democrats had tied themselves too closely to identity politics – the support of every kind of demand from every type of minority, and the concomitant adoption of the increasingly rigid vocabulary of political correctness. Trump won in significant part because, alongside globalization, he rejected the strictures of political correctness. Even white voters who despise his bigoted tweets are equally, if not more, disturbed by the progressivist line, which considers any deviation from political correctness as a sign of sexism, racism etc. In the current climate of extreme polarization, the Democrats have been pushed even more firmly into the embrace of this illiberal logic.
Secondly, Trump’s opponents have adopted confrontational tactics, ranging from the harassment of Republican officials in public places to the threats of impeachment against the newly appointed Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. This extreme behavior allows Trump to justify his own rhetorical and institutional violations, and move the game closer to his own terrain, where he has proven invincible.
It is a situation with important lessons for our own politics. How does one deal with demagogues who change the rules of the game? First, by recognizing in practice the mistakes of the past that allowed them to gain power in the first place, and, secondly, by not aping their norm-breaking behavior. An electoral victory won by mimicking the populists will be a defeat for the country.