A week after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead and 14 injured, Donald Trump publicly scolded members of his own party: “They have great power over you people,” he said to a room filled with shell-shocked Republicans. “Some of you are petrified by the NRA.”
The president’s willingness to follow public opinion, rather than the orthodoxy of his own party, on a highly emotional issue with mass support opened the door for a major political win. If Trump actually decided to use his vast powers to push through a historic compromise on gun control, he would finally be able to cash in on the claim he has made since he declared his candidacy: that he is a deal-maker who can deliver for the people because he isn’t beholden to the political class.
Voters who are very liberal or highly politically engaged would likely dismiss such a move as an uncharacteristic aberration. But there are few of those. The bulk of Americans—those who don’t pay much attention to politics or have ideologically muddled views—would probably start to temper their negative opinion of the president. And if that result then served as a blueprint for similar bargains on other issues, average Americans might just start to like him.
From Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland and from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, many populists around the world have remained sufficiently popular for a long enough span of time to concentrate vast powers in their own hands. Trump has some important commonalities with them. Like them, for example, he is a master at riling up his base with lofty promises of big improvements and urgent warnings about imminent dangers.
But the ways in which Trump differs from his populist peers are even more important: So far, he has been far less interested than them in rewarding his base with tangible material improvements. He has been far less strategic about abolishing independent institutions. And he has also been far less effective at hammering home a consistent worldview that recasts any harm to him as a threat to the whole nation.
This is heartening: Unless Trump suddenly starts to learn on the job—something he has stubbornly resisted doing for the past 18 months—he is unlikely to emulate the successes of Chávez, Kaczyński, and cohorts.
But it is also scary: If American institutions have, so far, stood up to Donald Trump, the reason for this seems to have at least as much to do with his personal failings as it does with the structural differences between the United States and countries like Poland or Venezuela. If Trump, or one of his successors, should learn to emulate the playbook developed by authoritarian populists around the world, he too could concentrate enormous powers in his own hands.
The appeal of populist leaders is nearly always based on the idea that they have little in common with the traditional elite. By conventional measures, this is simply untrue: Trump, as we know, grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and golden draperies in his crib. He’s not alone. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s xenophobic prime minister, for example, studied at Oxford University thanks to a scholarship from George Soros, a man he has done more than just about anybody else to vilify.
But despite their relative privilege, there is one thing that really does distinguish Trump and Orbán from other elites: their willingness to say things that are considered utterly unacceptable by other people in their social circles.
It is a mistake to think that Trump is committing an unintentional gaffe when he calls Mexicans “rapists,” or that Orbán is slipping up when he calls migrants “poison.” But nor do they express such ugly sentiments because they expect a majority of the population to agree with them. Rather, they are setting out to shock their fellow elites because they know that the opprobrium which they thereby provoke serves to demonstrate that they truly stand apart from the political class.
Trump is a master at this art of verbal provocation, and it is impossible to explain his success without understanding that. When his willingness to refer to “shithole countries” doesn’t lead his supporters to abandon him, many commentators conclude that Americans must secretly share his racist views. This is undoubtedly true of a certain part of his base. But the fact of the matter is that even many people who disagree with the sentiment, and would never say something similar themselves, see it as proof that Trump is for real.
This manufactured sense of authenticity is Trump’s biggest strength; indeed, he may be even better at exploiting it than his populist peers. But in other ways he has, thankfully, fallen far short of their performance.
If fortune favors the bold, as Niccolò Machiavelli famously quipped, then the sorry cast of populist imposters who have risen to power over the past years must be bold indeed.
Indeed, Lady Luck has been unusually kind to most of the populist leaders who have managed to capture a large amount of power in recent years: Chávez was able to ride high during his early years in office because of a temporary boom in oil prices. Erdogan came to power just as Turkey was starting to attract vast foreign investments. And Kaczyński—who as leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party is widely regarded as the most powerful man in Poland, even though he doesn’t officially have a role in the government—has, in recent years, been buffeted by a strong global recovery that is hardly of his own making.
But if successful populist leaders got lucky by presiding over favorable economic circumstances, they were also shrewd in doing what they could to claim credit for them. Chávez used the vast revenues from Venezuelan oil sales to raise pensions, increase unemployment benefits, and invest in the country’s public services. Erdogan massively expanded the country’s infrastructure, doubling the number of airports in the country and tripling the length of its double-carriage roadways. Kaczyński quickly introduced a generous child benefit that sends a monthly payment of 500 Zloty to millions of Poles. Other strongman leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Narendra Modi, have introduced similarly generous programs.
On the campaign trail, Trump gave the impression of following in their vein by promising to deliver tangible benefits for down-and-out Americans: Unlike other Republicans, for example, he went to great lengths to sound serious about ending special treatment for big businesses, claimed to favor universal health insurance, and waxed lyrical about huge investments in infrastructure.
But as president, Trump has spectacularly failed to deliver on all three counts. His tax bill has been full of flagrant handouts to special interests. Ever since he proved incapable of repealing Obamacare, in good part because he didn’t have any real plan for what to replace it with, his policy on health care seems to consist solely in sabotaging the existing system to the best of his meager abilities. Even his ideas for rebuilding America’s roads and bridges are so vague and lacking in ambition that the phrase “infrastructure week” has become a shorthand for the administration’s inability to focus on the actual business of getting anything done.
Trump, of course, also does what he can to claim credit for a strong economic recovery, regularly tweeting about record low unemployment figures and record-high stock prices. And though most economists don’t think that his tax bill will actually boost growth, recent polls do suggest he has managed to convince many Americans that his administration’s economic policies are making a real contribution.
But though Trump would like to take credit for the strong economy he has inherited, he has nothing nearly as concrete as Erdogan’s expanded welfare state or Kaczyński’s monthly child care payments to offer up as evidence of his magnificence. By the standards of the illiberal international, he is simply not doing enough to exploit his good economic fortune.
Populists like Chávez, Orbán, and Kaczyński have all recognized one key rule from their first day in office: To vanquish the institutions that were meant to hold them in check, they needed to “reform” independent power centers because of purported “inefficiencies” in a seemingly “nonpartisan” manner.
Within a few months of becoming president of Venezuela, Chávez called an assembly that was tasked with rewriting the constitution; it ended up granting him vastly expanded powers. Well before there had been accusations of impropriety at the ballot, Orbán “reformed” Hungary’s electoral commission; it is now staffed with cronies who have levied huge fines against opposition parties while declining to investigate his own. And long before it had even had the opportunity to censor the government, Kaczyński took control of Poland’s Supreme Court; he has since succeeded in flooding it with his own appointees and politicizing the process by which particular cases are assigned to particular judges.
On this count, too, Trump has been kindred in spirit but chaotic in execution.
His rhetoric leaves little doubt about the fact that, like other populist strongmen around the world, he desires to make state institutions that have a long history of independence subservient to his whim. He has made clear that he expects personal loyalty from the leading law enforcement officers in the country. He has attacked the press as an “enemy of the American people” and maligned his main political adversaries as “traitors.” And he has openly expressed his admiration for a dozen dictators around the world, congratulating Xi Jinping of China for becoming “president for life” and suggesting, as recently as last week, that “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
But because Trump has pursued the destruction of democratic institutions in a tactical and reactive manner, rather than a strategic and proactive one, he has wrought a lot less damage than he might have otherwise.
If Trump had pursued an effective strategy of institutional co-optation, he would have tried to wrest control of independent agencies before he seemed to have an ulterior motive for doing so. This is one reason why I was so worried about his casual request during the State of the Union for Congress to “empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Like other populists who had broken the independence of the civil service, this seemed to pave the path for him to purge state institutions while preserving the plausible fiction that he was merely holding lazy or incompetent bureaucrats to account.
Indeed, it is astounding to what extent Trump’s attacks on independent institutions are already bearing fruit in the one area in that he is waging them in a consistent manner. In his short time in office, he has effectively turned the House Intelligence Committee into his accomplice, rendered the Senate Intelligence Committee toothless, fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and pushed key personnel in the Department of Justice into premature retirement. Only a few embattled officials, like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, now stand between Trump and his goal of a deeply politicized law enforcement apparatus.
If he puts even more pressure on those career officials whose first commitments are to the Constitution rather than to the president, and fills top vacancies with his own loyalists, he may well succeed in doing to the FBI and the Department of Justice what he has already done to the congressional committees that were supposed to investigate his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. That would not only mean that his own crimes could no longer be fully investigated—but also raise the possibility of a politically motivated prosecution of his main adversary in 2020.
As the investigation by Robert Mueller starts to inch ever closer to Trump’s family and friends, his incentive to fire the special counsel, and provoke a massive constitutional crisis, will only keep on rising. The threat he poses to the separation of powers remains all too real, then. But because these measures are so clearly bound up with Trump’s immediate self-interest, they have also provoked much more fervent pushback than they would have done under different circumstances. As in so many other areas, Trump’s attack on the core institutions of the American republic is being constrained as much by his own incompetence as it is by the Constitution or the political opposition.
Trump’s rhetoric is undoubtedly his strongest suit. But even in the one area in which he is capable of real strokes of terrifying genius, he often fails to take advantage of his own talents.
While other populists also like to stir the pot with outrageous claims, the bulk of their rhetoric is focused on one goal and one goal only: to cast themselves as the only legitimate spokesmen of the people—and portray their nation as being under siege from both internal and external enemies. This is what Erdogan is consciously doing when he calls all critical journalists terrorists, what Orbán is doing when he claims that Soros has hatched a plot to make Hungary subservient, and what Kaczyński is trying to achieve when he insinuates that Jews are telling lies to use the Holocaust as a weapon against Poles.
Trump, of course, is fully capable of using strikingly similar language. And whenever he sticks to a speech written by his advisers, he mounts a very effective expression of this basic worldview. In the imagery of the State of the Union, for example, Trump’s America is a country of patriotic boys who embrace the flag and of heroic cops who adopt needy children. Democrats, meanwhile, mostly care about making life easy for the violent criminals of MS-13.
But while Trump regularly hits these points, he rarely does so in a disciplined manner. Rather than propagating a carefully composed worldview in which it is America that is under siege—with Trump coming to his nation’s rescue—he offers up a succession of disconnected ramblings that leave no doubt about the fact that his main concern is for his own political survival. For every sentence in which he manages to focus his mind on the threats that are supposedly befalling his most loyal followers, he seems to utter four or five in which he nurses the perceived slights that he has personally suffered throughout his life.
This is enough to keep a large minority of the American population loyal to him: As has become depressingly evident over the past months, Trump’s appeal among his longtime faithful is undiminished, and his grip over the Republican Party is only continuing to grow more deathly. But it is not enough to grow his base: Unlike his peers around the world, Trump has proved preternaturally inept at winning over undecided or ideologically moderate voters.
By last December, America had seemingly made up its mind about Donald Trump. According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, 20 percent fewer Americans approved of the president’s job performance than disapproved of it. With his numbers gradually continuing to drop, he seemed headed for an unprecedented rout in the midterm elections. It was increasingly difficult to imagine how he could win re-election.
Two months later, Trump’s approval ratings had rebounded to an astonishing degree. Though he was still unpopular, the gap between Trump approvers and Trump disapprovers had effectively halved, standing at just over 10 percent. For a terrifying moment, it looked as though he might be on the verge of a real comeback.
At first glance, this reversal in fortunes was deeply puzzling. After all, the headlines of the major newspapers and television networks were hardly favorable to Trump between the middle of December and the middle of February: There was the publication of Fire and Fury and the revelation about his lawyer’s payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, his reference to African nations as “shithole countries,” and the indictment of Russian hackers accused of interfering with the 2016 election.
What could possibly explain Trump’s temporary resurgence?
At a time when the news feels like a rapid succession of knock-out blows, it is difficult to know which hit packed the biggest punch. But two important events do seem to stand out over those months: Tax reform gave Trump the first real legislative achievement of his presidency. And the State of the Union address gave him an opportunity to hammer home the worldview of far-right populists in a far more disciplined manner than his early morning tweets. By following, however partially, the two key parts of the populist playbook that he usually neglects, he was able to improve his standing to an astounding degree in a scarily short span of time.
Thankfully, it does not look as though Trump is learning from those successes. He has so little interest in public policy, and so little patience for the grueling work involved in bipartisan negotiation, that he is unlikely to broker an agreement on gun control. (Indeed, he has already beat a humiliating retreat on the issue, welcoming an NRA lobbyist into the Oval Office and gushing about the meeting on social media.) He is so narcissistic that he will likely prove incapable of holding his tweets even if a moment of silence might be needed for his divisive worldview to resonate all the more powerfully. And unlike many other authoritarian leaders, he seems to be too shortsighted even to reward those cronies who have proven to be unfailingly loyal to him—which makes it all the more difficult to build up a deep bench of subordinates willing to do his bidding.
Trump may be the one populist leader in world history who is too narcissistic to succeed at the narcissist’s game of turning himself into a beloved people’s tribune.
If Trump really does depart the White House in shame a little less than three years from now, it will be tempting to interpret his demise as final proof of the resilience of the American political system. Even in the face of an uncouth barbarian intent on breaking every single rule and norm of liberal democracy, some commentators will then pronounce, the American republic has proven to be unassailable. There was never anything to worry about in the first place.
That would be a grave mistake. For the truth of the matter is that even though he has proven astoundingly incompetent at following the authoritarian playbook, Trump has already had a remarkably corrosive impact—from undermining the independence of the FBI to consolidating his hold over the Republican Party.
Far from showcasing the strengths of American institutions, the past years have demonstrated that a rank amateur can push them close to the breaking point. This implies that a would-be authoritarian with a much greater dose of professionalism could prove depressingly popular and dangerously effective. And so the true task for those of us who are worried about the threat populism poses to the survival of liberal democracy goes well beyond beating Donald Trump: It is to make sure that he is never succeeded by the kind of strongman leader who has the discipline and the intelligence to enact the populist playbook here in America.
Yascha Mounk’s new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, is available now from Harvard University Press.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.