In a notorious January tweet, Donald Trump told us,

I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius … and a very stable genius at that!

In this article I offer a better explanation of his success. I put the question rather differently: looking at postwar leaders in comparable Western “old” democracies, only in America does a person so manifestly unfit manage to attain the highest executive office. Why, and why now? In so doing, I seek to answer a question that Americans, who seldom view their country in comparative perspective, don’t ask, while outside observers of the United States simply throw up their hands in incredulity.

In comparing Trump’s success to the unsuccessful efforts of populists in other “old” Western democracies, I am following up what I wrote in the Winter/Spring issue of Inroads about the Trumpites, the more than a third of Americans (constituting roughly 40 per cent of likely voters and 84 per cent of Republicans)1 who support Trump thick or thin. The Trumpites are not Trump’s creation, I noted, but rather a subculture in American politics that he (and Steve Bannon)2 brought to the surface. They constitute the American version of the populists who have emerged as important political forces in a number of European countries.3 Figure 1 shows the proportion of Americans with positive and negative views of Trump. As we can see, the proportion with positive views began to drop after the election, only to stabilize six months later.

In the past few years, the question of whether European liberal democracies will succumb to populism has been answered in the negative. Where they have arisen, populist leaders in the “old” democracies of western Europe, North America and Oceania have, as a rule, been relegated back to the margins of politics. Where they have entered government, as in Austria, they do so as junior partners.4 It is only in countries where democracy is fragile that populists like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have come to power.

And then there is the United States. Long a model consensual old democracy, the United States is now the exception. Riding on a populist wave, a demagogue has ascended to the summit of the “shining city on the hill.” Note that I am not claiming that Trump himself is a populist5 (or a conservative or, indeed, anything else). To give him any kind of ideological label – even “racist” – would be to bestow upon him a consistency and political sophistication he lacks. The only isms that apply to him are opportunism and narcissism, the latter often impeding his effectiveness in the former.

Looking back on the emergence of his candidacy, it becomes clear that without any clearly formed views or knowledge of the relevant issues, he came to realize, as he sought support for the GOP nomination, that there was a constituency for nativist, anti-immigration populism,6 and he made it his cause. And since his election he has thrown enough meat in that direction to keep the support of the Trumpites, his base, and thus indirectly to keep the Republican Party in his corner.

In the process, any remaining illusions about the man have been shattered. Almost daily reports from Washington highlight other examples of his unfitness for office, a portrait fleshed out in Michael Wolff’s best-selling book.7 Any hope that, realizing his ignorance, and with his ego having been salved by winning the most important job in the world and with his party in control of Congress, Trump would seek out, listen to and learn from knowledgeable people proved futile. Trump the President’s false assertions have, if anything, grown in frequency: two thousand in his first year in office, according to the Washington Post’s fact checkers.

As Wolff describes in agonizing detail, Trump assumes that he knows all that he needs to know, listens only to flatterers and impulsively reacts to the last thing he heard on an issue (on Fox News most frequently), oblivious to his previous statements, let alone the facts. But when his lies are exposed in the mainstream media, it simply reinforces the support of his base. As one Trump fan quoted on Meet the Press on February 4 put it, “When they attack Trump, they attack me.” Of those 40 per cent who approve of Trump, 63 per cent believe the media are “an enemy of the people.” Only 16 per cent of people outside that group believe the same thing.8

The Trumping of American political institutions

We hear so much about Trump that we think we know how it all came about. Innumerable journalistic reports provided an explanation combining Trump the celebrity candidate winning the attention of the media, Russian meddling, James Comey’s intervention regarding Clinton emails and weaknesses of the Clinton campaign, all combined with a rejection of politics-as-usual by poorly educated whites fearful of downward mobility. But these are immediate or proximate factors. They do not address the wider question: Given that other countries in the advanced democratic world face similar emerging concerns, why has populism not triumphed there as well?

The answer to this question has two dimensions. The first lies in well-known recent developments that have gone furthest in the United States. These include the rise in income inequality and class stratification, as portrayed in detail by Thomas Piketty and his colleagues. Related to this is a parallel decline in civic engagement, a development I link to diminishing civic literacy.9

These developments, as noted, are not unique to the United States, but they have progressed (sic) further there. The most important related development is the fragmentation of sources of information in the form of the cocooning Cass Sunstein continues to warn us of10 – of Americans living in echo chambers that filter out unwelcome political viewpoints. The stability of the Trumpite Third reflects the fact that while some conservative commentators have soured on Trump, their views typically do not find their way to Fox News, let alone Breitbart and the various right-wing and alt-right talk radio hosts and bloggers.

Economic inequality finds its way into politics through election spending amounts and limitations. There is now far more private money available for election spending in the United States, especially on television advertising, than there is elsewhere, or than there was in the United States before the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Trumpites, who are less educated and live in less diverse communities, are especially susceptible to the exaggerated negative advertising invoking fears of opposing candidates that colours the various screens Americans watch during campaigns.

But this is only the most visible part of the American institutional iceberg as it has evolved, making it uniquely vulnerable to placing and maintaining an unfit person appealing to populist sentiments in the highest office in the land. The institutional explanation for the triumph of Trumpism takes the form of a series of layers, of which the influence of private money is the first. Some are well known in and of themselves, but it is how they interweave that constitutes the missing key dimension to our understanding.

When institutions are brought up in this context, we hear about the constitutional separation of power and federalism, under which the U.S. Congress, judiciary and state governments act as checks on the power of the chief executive. And, indeed, one shudders at the thought of Trump as chief executive of a unitary country with no separation of powers. But there is another side to this. Much of the separation of powers lies in conventions that have not really been tested under circumstances when one party controls the presidency, the Congress and the majority of the states, and names the majority of the top judges.

We can see this with a second institutional aspect that makes the United States exceptional and contributes to the success of Trumpism/populism. Given the distribution of supporters of the two parties into red states and blue states, the Republicans have a distinct advantage in presidential elections, since the electoral college system favours the smaller states. Even the least populous states are guaranteed three votes, giving them more weight than their population warrants (see figure 2). In close elections this can make the difference, allowing the candidate who has fewer votes (2.9 million fewer in the case of Trump) to nonetheless win.

Then there is the advantage Republicans have in Congress (see table 1). In the Senate, overrepresentation is due to there being two senators from each state, big or small. In the House of Representatives, where the number of voters in each district is the same, overrepresentation is achieved through gerrymandering.

Under American federalism, unlike elsewhere, House of Representatives district boundaries are set at the state level. In the last 25 years a concerted effort by Republicans has enabled GOP state legislators to consolidate their power in more conservative states by carving out state electoral boundaries in their favour, while doing the same with the districts of the representatives sent to Washington. In North Carolina, the electoral map (see figure 3), now before the courts, allowed Republicans to win 10 of the 13 congressional seats though the two parties were close to equal in the popular vote.

The combination of gerrymandering and access to money explains the extraordinary lack of turnover in Congress, where incumbents have more to fear from being defeated in their own party primaries than in elections. Primaries, also unique to the United States, contribute by inviting outsiders with resources to invest them inside the existing parties. Their main effect has been to strengthen polarization by favouring the chances of candidates appealing to ideologically based activists rather than, as is the case elsewhere, party stalwarts.

Less well known about primaries is that – combined with another unique institution, the states’ responsibility for setting the rules of eligibility for elections at all levels – they result in the rigid two-party system, also unique to the United States. This is because many states make it difficult to get on the ballot, so that it becomes prohibitively expensive in money and resources for a third party to mount a national campaign. Given the alternative of seeking nomination via primaries in one of the two parties, the choice becomes obvious.

These are the most visible layers of the institutional iceberg. Beneath them are the role of powerful lobbies with lots of cash and the presidential system itself. In the other old democracies, all of which, with the partial exception of France,11 are closer to British- or Canadian-style parliamentary democracies, there are far fewer obstacles to third party formation. Because of this, there is a real possibility of minority or coalition government, even in the relatively few countries that do not have proportional representation. Where there is proportional representation, under which ruling parties must make a win-win deal (not a Trumpian zero-sum one) with other parties, the chief executive will necessarily be a consensual leader.

Moreover, since nominations are limited to party members, aspiring leaders typically have first to climb party ranks and thus gain some political experience. It is hard to imagine a Trump in any other old democracy making it to the top of a party that could win an election, and unimaginable that he could stay in power. In a parliamentary system, unlike in the United States, the ceremonial head of state is separate from the executive head of government. Hence, as we have frequently seen, a party can replace its leader, even when he or she is the head of government, without causing the kind of national trauma that occurs with efforts to impeach a U.S. president.

Polarization and party discipline

Before the arrival of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party, the American system normally operated on a relatively consensual basis: moderate Democrats and Republicans constituted a legislative majority able to work reasonably well with the president, effectively excluding the possibility that a Barry Goldwater on the right or a George McGovern on the left would get elected. Now, in the post-Communist era, while left and right in the other old democracies have moved closer to the centre, the opposite has been happening in the United States, especially on the right.

Figure 4 shows how the degree of polarization changed between 1994 and 2016. Using ten questions that have been posed continually since 1994, the Pew Research Center has traced the share of Americans with ideologically consistent (liberal or conservative) values and found that these have become more strongly associated with partisanship.12 As we can see, the proportion of Americans holding consistently conservative or liberal positions has increased significantly and the distance between the median position of Republicans on the reader’s right and Democrats on the left has widened considerably.

In the context of the pure two-party system, ideological polarization has in recent years been combined with another relatively new wrinkle: party discipline in congressional voting. This is surprising given what we were taught in political science 101: unlike in parliamentary systems, there is no question of loss of “confidence” in the United States, and the party in power can remain in office even if it loses the support of the majority in the legislature. However, legislative rules now make it difficult for the parties to cooperate, even if there is a possible majority for doing so, since all decisions can be initiated only by a majority of the majority party. Add this to the ideological polarization described above, and Congress today displays a rigid party discipline unknown in earlier days.

More Trumps down the road?

Despite all the advantages American political institutions currently give to the Republican Party and its presidential nominee, there is good reason to believe that the party will lose control in one or both houses of Congress this year, and that Trump will not continue beyond 2020. Indeed, given current attitudes, there is a reasonable chance that the next president will be more in the mould of Obama than Trump. One reason for this is that the millennials have far less confidence in Trump than all other age groups (see figure 5).

What lies further down the road? The millennials may see things differently as they age. And the Trumpites will not go away, and will not readily release their hold on the Republican Party. Hence there is good reason to expect that one day another unfit populist demagogue will ride America’s exceptional political institutions all the way to the summit of what was once democracy’s shining city on the hill.


1 YouGov weighted survey, based on interviews with 2,100 Americans, released on November 29, 2017.

2 According to Michael Wolff’s persuasive portrayal in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (New York: Henry Holt, 2018).

3 See our special section, The Populist Insurgency and its Russian Friends, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 38–82, and other articles in recent issues of Inroads.

4 In early May, it was still not clear just who would be in a position to govern Italy after its March 4 election.

5 A simple contemporary definition of populism would stress the direct relationship between the leader and the people. The people are identified with the nation, and the national interest is undermined by elites who serve the interests of outsiders.

6 Using survey data, Elisabeth Ivarsflaten (“What Unites Right-Wing Populists in Western Europe? Re-examining Grievance Mobilization Models in Seven Successful Cases,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3, 2008, pp. 3–23) found that anti-immigration positions are the one issue that seems to unite all right-populists in western Europe. As far as the United States is concerned, Kirk Hawkins and Scott Riding in “Populist Attitudes and their Correlates among Citizens: Survey Evidence from the Americas” (presented at the European Consortium for Political Research Joint Workshop, Münster, Germany, March 2010), using data from the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Elections Studies and the 2008 Utah Colleges Exit Poll, found that one of the strongest associations is between populism and position on immigration reform.

7 Wolff, Fire and Fury.

8 YouGov survey, November 29, 2017.

9 Thomas Piketty and his associates, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) argue persuasively that because of the disparity between the return on capital and the overall increase in wealth built into our economic system, inequality has risen throughout much of modern history – except in the years following a combination of wars and depressions when everyone was forced to rebuild from a more equal place, a period we lived through in part of the 20th century. For declining civic engagement, see Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001). In my book Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002), using comparative and longitudinal data, I found that a growing proportion of Americans lack the knowledge required to make an informed political choice.

10 Cass R. Sunstein, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

11 In France’s semi-presidential system, responsibility is divided between president and prime minister, with the prime minister responsible to the legislative majority. During periods when the president’s party has majority support in the National Assembly, his position is comparable to that of the U.S. president. When that is not the case the president is a largely ceremonial leader, while the prime minster functions as a consensual parliamentary-style chief executive.

12 Pew Research Center, Partisan Divides over Political Values Widen October 5, 2017