Democracy vs populism
As Aristotle observed in the Poetics, the end of a drama should be surprising yet inevitable. If that is true, then Donald Trump’s four years as President of the United States have just drawn to a fitting conclusion.
The Capitol is the most imposing building in Washington, D.C. When tourists first arrive in the city, they often mistake it for the White House because it looms so large. And though American democracy has experienced many turbulent days, the country’s Congressmen and Senators have safely been able to go about their business in its august halls for over two centuries. The last time the enemies of democracy managed to storm the Capitol was in 1814, when British troops marched through the streets of Washington.
This helps to explain why Wednesday’s events will, unlike so many other sordid tales of the past four years, be remembered for decades. For the first time in living memory, a popular insurrection put the deliberations of America’s freely elected representatives on pause. And the person who was responsible for assembling that mob, and calling it to action, was not a fanatical terrorist or the leader of an odd religious cult; it was the President of the United States.
After Trump lost his bid for reelection by seven million votes, he started to spread increasingly desperate conspiracy theories about voter fraud. In a jaw-dropping break with precedent, he still remains unwilling to acknowledge that Joe Biden beat him in a free and fair election.
On Wednesday, that sordid spectacle was finally about to come to an end. Congress was set to certify the results of the election. Nothing would stand in the way of Joe Biden becoming the 46th President of the United States.
To lend his last-ditch effort to subvert the outcome of a free election a superficial veneer of broad support, Trump incited his supporters to descend on Washington. Addressing them on Wednesday morning, he said that “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol … You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.”
Encouraged by these inflammatory words—and the lamentable weakness of the local police—some protestors breached the flimsy barriers that were meant to cordon off the heart chamber of American democracy. Congressmen and Senators were forced to stop their important business, and flee for safety. Hundreds of Trump’s supporters entered the building and started to ransack the place.
In the House of Representatives, armed security guards, their guns drawn, desperately attempted to stop a swelling stream of protesters from entering the chamber. A few hundred yards away, the last barriers had already been breached. A topless man wearing a giant fur hat and artificial horns climbed the dais of the Senate, facing the chamber as he flexed his muscles in a gesture of triumph.
In the end, the most surreal insurrection since Woody Allen’s Bananas did not amount to much. The police finally managed to take possession of the Capitol. The sheer extent of the day’s embarrassments seemed to shame a few of Trump’s longtime hostages, including Vice President Mike Pence, into distancing themselves from their longtime captor. Both the House and the Senate voted with clear majorities to certify the outcome of the election.
Even after four years in which Donald Trump attacked America’s democratic institutions in a thousand ways, the pictures of this insurrection retain the power to shock and surprise. Over the course of the day, I received about a dozen messages from friends around the world who could not believe the images reaching their screens from Washington, D.C. And yet, to scholars of authoritarian populism, these events also feel inevitable.
Since he first entered politics, Donald Trump has always made clear that he, and he alone, truly represents the American people. It is this conviction that has, at every turn, set him up for conflict with any democratic institution that constrained his capricious exercise of power. In Trump’s view, neither judges nor elected representatives had the right to subvert the will of the American people—as interpreted by his own narcissistic mind.
This core conviction also helps to explain why Trump has proven incapable of accepting the outcome of the vote as legitimate. Since he knows that he himself is the true voice of the people, any election that seems to demonstrate the opposite cannot possibly be free or fair. For anyone who buys into his populist premise, abstruse conspiracy theories about stolen votes are the most logical explanation for an otherwise impossible fact.
All of this is ugly and embarrassing. But among all of this ugliness, we should not forget that American democracy has, over the past four years, passed a tough test that many other countries have tragically failed.
The American press reported on Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions. Civil society groups defended them in imaginative ways. Tens of millions of Americans cast their vote to oust Trump from power. Local election officials stood up to intense efforts at intimidation with remarkable bravery. And, yes, a good number of Republican Congressmen and Senators ultimately supported the certification of the election.
America’s institutions are seriously damaged. Even in the most optimistic case, it will take decades for them to recover their former trust and prestige. Yesterday’s pictures will haunt us for many years to come.
But in countless other countries, from Europe to Asia, and from Africa to South America, authoritarian populists have managed to take full control of the political system. And many others are waiting in the wings, hoping to implement that same playbook.
The victory of the populists is not inevitable. But after witnessing the terrible damage that a narcissistic reality star has been able to inflict on the oldest democracy in the world, nobody should be surprised if they succeed in many other countries as well. The epochal conflict between democracy and populism has only just begun.
* Yascha Mounk is Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Founder of Persuasion, Contributing Editor at The Atlantic, and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.