Trump in global perspective: Bizarre, yet not unexpected

Trump is a freakish anomaly, says Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, but also a symptom of global backlash

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published September 24, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Getty/imaginima/Salon)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster/Getty/imaginima/Salon)


“Bewildered scientists scratching their heads” may be a perennial newsroom favorite, but that doesn't make it true. It's not true of climate change — though many important questions remain to be settled — and it's not true of Donald Trump, either. Trump is erratic as a leader, and he's unusual within American political history, but he's not actually anomalous in terms of broad international modernizing trends that have been unfolding for decades. Rather, he's part of a recent widespread backlash against those trends that has been intensified in America by our specific political institutions.

This data-driven picture, first explored by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in his 1977 book, "The Silent Revolution," will be fully fleshed out next year in "Cultural Backlash and the Rise of Populist Authoritarianism," the fourth collaboration between Inglehart and Harvard's Pippa Norris, whose comparative cross-national research spans gender politics, communications, elections, democratic governance, radical right parties and more.

A presentation of their work in progress at the recent annual conference of the American Political Science Association was completely misrepresented by Politico as providing an economic explanation for Trump's electoral success, in contrast to explanations involving white identity. To the contrary, the data Inglehart and Norris draw on shows that economics plays an important role in cultural processes only at certain times and places, usually in very mediated ways. Meaning-making is far more central than money-making to the story their data tells.

What threw Politico off was the term “materialistic,” since the researchers found that “pure materialists” were almost four times as likely to support Trump as Hillary Clinton, while “pure post-materialists” were 14 times more likely to support Clinton. But those terms refer to sets of values, which paint a very different picture from what Politico supposed. (“The least well-off — those with incomes below $50,000 — were Hillary Clinton supporters, not Trump supporters,” Norris told Salon, for example.) What's more, Inglehart and Norris also clearly distinguish between populism and authoritarianism, with a coherent picture of how the two are sometimes related (and sometimes not), as well as explaining where other sorts of populists fit in, from progressives like Bernie Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to centrists like French President Emmanuel Macron.

In short, a great deal more is known about why and how we ended up with Trump in the White House than most popular accounts suggest. More is also known about the ongoing threats that lie ahead, and the deeper conditions that need to be addressed. To help clarify what we do know, Salon recently spoke to Pippa Norris about their presentation, and larger body of work it draws on.

Politico set up your work by citing motivation "materialistic" concerns, in opposition to Lynn Vavreck speaking of Trump activating a sense of white identity. But the story you tell about "values orientation shifts" over a period of decades is much broader than one electoral cycle. Sketch that story out -- what are materialist and post-materialist values? And how do the two relate?

This is a theory developed by Ron Ingelhart, right back in 1977, in "The Silent Revolution." The idea was that there was a shift that was going on in the '70s — particularly between young and old, but also between the less educated and the more educated — in terms of people's concerns, and priorities. Values are about what you think is important to you and your community and your country. Are you most concerned about basic bread-and-butter issues — jobs, unemployment, economic growth, security, defense, those sorts of materialistic concerns — or, as he argued in the 70s, is it the case that post-materialist concerns are arising among the more affluent younger generation, who did not grow up in conditions of scarcity, and who've had a strong welfare state and grown up under periods where they can kind of take cradle-to-grave welfare for granted?

Post-materialist concerns change our notion of what government should do -- for example environmental climate change and protection of the environment, protection of humanities and the arts, concerns about direct democracy, ways in which people can engage in issues of gender equality, issues of more fluid sexual identities and gender identities, ways in which we can express ourselves, and social tolerance for diversity. 

Many countries around the world continue to have basically materialist values, and the focus is on security, it's on religion, it's on traditional sex roles, not on egalitarian sex roles, and a variety of other forms of national identity, because those countries haven't yet had the conditions of security that would allow them to expand into post-materialist values.

So that's the core theory. A tremendous amount of research has been done since the first book was published. It's not an inevitable process, but it's a kind of a broad trajectory where we think values are changing, and that change is not just the values of society, but also things like political parties, what issues they stand for, what policies they have.

So can the current upsurge of authoritarian populist politics be understood as a reaction growing out of that process?

What we now think is happening is essentially a backlash. The population who grew up and came to fruition in the 1950s and '60s, they grew up under certain conditions, when they assumed that America was No. 1 in the world. They grew up with certain values about religion and the importance of church, about marriage and the importance of the traditional family, the nuclear family, and a certain role of prosperity and growth during that era when in particular the white population, and the white working-class population, could assume that there were factories that would produce economic stability.

What's happened recently is a tipping point, as generations have changed over time, and the values have changed -- so much so that traditional values from the 1940s, '50s and '60s are no longer the majority values in America, nor in other societies.

When [members of that older population] look around at society, at the media, at other forms of cultural transmission, they see that those values have become out of step, so attitudes towards race, attitudes towards gender, attitudes towards sex, have shifted remarkably. But there's still a large enough group in the electorate to matter — we're talking about 40-45 percent or so — and then you also have to remember that older people vote much more than young people, so they can still pack a punch when it comes to turning out in elections. And they're activated. Their values and attitudes, they feel, are under threat, and that makes them angry, and makes them feel that they can no longer say the sort of things which they believe in. That basically means that there's a base for Trump, as there is a base in European countries for similar types of leaders and parties who can express traditional values and a nostalgic view of what the past was. That's what "make America great again" means, even if values have changed in the majority of the population.

You point out that authoritarianism and populism are not the same thing, and also that there's been an increase in left-liberal, progressive populism as well. So let's explore each of those. First, what differentiates authoritarianism and populism and what connects them?

Populism has two essential aspects, two core things. One of which is anti-establishment, so they're against elected politicians, they're against government-defined knowledge, they're against parliaments and congresses, but they're also against the established media, mainstream media, mainstream commentators, academic elites, scholars, experts, things like that.

The second element is basically one which says "power to the people." So if the mainstream institutions are not seen as legitimate, through Congress or through the White House, then people say we need direct ways in which people can express themselves, through community politics or other forms of direct elections, or referendums or rallies or protests, or a variety of other forms of popular demonstration. So it's not necessarily on the left or the right, in the conventional economic sense, it cross-cuts across those two things.

Populism has been around for years and years, it's nothing new. Indeed in some instances it's innocuous and can be called positive. If the system is corrupt, if politicians are lining their pockets, if the system is not responsive, then of course we should be critical and say that that's the case, that the elites are not behaving in appropriate ways for liberal democracy.

So how does this sometimes connect with authoritarianism?

The danger is that if you undermine the legitimacy of the established institutions of representation, then of course there's very little to take its place. Referendums are very erratic and not necessarily binding. There aren't that many channels where people can actually have a direct say, and so it opens the door to strong leaders. So that's where authoritarianism comes in.

And what defines authoritarianism, exactly?

Authoritarianism has three sets of core values. One of which is the belief in order and stability, so a strong emphasis on the police force, and the military, and respect for that form of maintaining traditions rather than anarchy. Secondly, there's this deference, deference towards leaders — which you might think goes against populism, but it doesn't necessarily. Because populism basically says that the establishment is not our leaders. And so if there's a single individual or party can express traditional views — like Donald Trump or like Marine Le Pen or like any of the other leaders immersed in this movement — those can be seen as basically the leader for your movement, speaking for you. So it's a mass movement, dominated by a leader, and sometimes just the individual.

So you have security, and you have deference and then you also have a kind of social conservatism where you don't want things to be changed. It's about conformity to establish social mores and social norms. And again, that taps into the idea of materialistic values and traditional forms of marriage and family and religion, and the ideas that you want people to conform and you are intolerant of outsiders.

Now, outsiders is a social construct, it's "us and them." Who is us and them is an artificial notion, but clearly there are cleavages around the notions of race and ethnicity — Islamophobia and racism, are clear examples, neo-Nazi groups are authoritarian by definition — and then other groups who might be seen as not traditional, so feminists for example, or environmentalists, or immigrants, or any other group seen as not conforming to traditional social mores.

So the two things don't have to go hand-in-hand. The linkage is basically that populists throw over the reins of the ancien régime — they don't trust politicians, they don't trust parties, they don't test the media, "fake media," they don't trust the judiciary and the courts. They put their faith in the leader of their movement. And the leader is one who reflects authoritarian values of conformity and order and security.

That brings us back to Donald Trump. 

When you have a Trump rally, it's not about an interactive process, it's about Trump going out and telling them his latest ideas on building the wall, or cutting taxes or whatever the issue is. Much of his core values reflect this idea of order. Think about the number of military he's got in his cabinet, and his reliance on military solutions, not diplomacy and the State Department. It certainly reflects traditional social norms: Think about what is actually done on issues of homosexuality and gay rights, for example. declaring those who are transgender can't serve in the military, and also, obviously, his role in terms of trying to keep out people from certain Muslim countries, and his ambiguous role in criticizing the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. All that very much speaks to authoritarian value.

What about the distinction between authoritarian populists and libertarian or progressive populism — not just individual figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, but mass populist movements like we've seen in Spain and Greece in recent years?

That's right, Podemos, and so on. The way to image this is to say basically, you've got your left-right dimension, the horizontal axis, and then you've got the vertical cleavage which is cultural. And when we look at our parties — I have a map of this to classify all the European parties — you find as many populists on the left conventionally as on the right, and you get groups who are distributed based on traditional authoritarian values at one pole, or socially liberal and libertarian values at the other. So populism is a form of rhetoric. It's a form of speech.

Those on the left and right will attract different groups obviously, but whether you attack corporate America, or whether you attack other groups in America, like feminists, etc., populism as such is essentially neutral in its contents. It's basically saying, we're going to criticize those who are in power and the structures of power, and then what matters is the ideology. So it's a qualifier. You can talk about populist authoritarianism, you can talk about populist socialism, you can talk about populist progressivism. Basically there's a wide variety of populism, it's not one type.

Your paper also points out that Emmanuel Macron can be seen as a centrist populist. While American elites seem to equate populism with "extremes of the right and left," Macron is hardly the only example -- remember Ross Perot? What can we learn from such examples?

That's right. Macron thought of himself as a new kind of politician, and he attacked both Socialist Party on the left, and Les Républicains on the right, and just carved a line straight through them. On his economic policies he wants to reform the welfare state which has been very strong and very difficult to reform in France. At the same time he's going to be pro-business and also support effective social policies in a variety of areas. So there's no consistency in being a centrist populist.

Often what happens is outsiders use the language until they get into power because it's a natural thing. Think about the classic way: How do you run for Congress? You run against Congress. That's true of anybody who's non-incumbent. So if you want to tap into public dissatisfaction with government, public dissatisfaction with corruption of established politics, then you run as a populist. It doesn't mean necessarily that you have any policy stance. Of course Macron is now really dropping in the polls, partly because of that, because he used the language, and be seemed to come from nowhere, and suddenly take over both the chamber of deputies as well as the presidency, but because he didn't have very clear ideological preference. What goes up can go down.

Populists in government in general have real challenges in being effective.It's not just Trump and it's not just his particular personality or the people he's appointed or anything like that. Generally, if you can come in and you have a discipline party, and you work out those policies over time -- many, many years -- then you've got enough to bind you together, and you know what you're trying to do.

But on issue after issue, Trump, whether it's on health care which he wants to reform but doesn't know what he wants to champion, or whether it's tax reform or many other basic bread-and-butter issues, the failures have been a failure of vision as much as a failure of knowing how to pull the levers in D.C. And, of course, there's the failure to unite his own party. There is no "Trumpist" faction, there's Trump and there are the Republicans, but each member of the Senate and each member of the House can say, “I got elected in my local district on these issues,” and so you have total inconsistency.

How does Trump fits into that international pattern, as opposed to what's specific to him or to the United States?

What's really different is you hardly ever get a populist authoritarian right in power in an established democracy with a minority vote. The simple answer is the combination of the electoral system plus the Electoral College, plus Trump's values. All that has been exceptional.

In most countries we get populist authoritarian parties or populist left parties or populist progressive parties. That's common in lots of places. They come up and they come down, but they're nearly always a minority. For example in the latest poll I looked at in Germany, the AFD, which is the main party representing these values in Germany, is currently at about 10 to 14 percent, depending on which poll you looked at. So that's above the threshold [to win seats] in the Bundestag, but they're not going to be a major player. The major parties are probably going to have a cordon sanitaire which they'll draw around that party — even if they have a coalition, most European coalitions try to exclude these populist parties. The same is true in the Netherlands, even though they're struggling.

What's different [with Trump] is that you got a minority president, with minority values — as I said, a large minority — but one which is out of track with public opinion, and social trends in America, and not just in urban America but across the United States. Think about the values in terms of tolerance of homosexuality, and the way that has been transformed to become mainstream. The tradition of America is an immigrant country, which is highly tolerant, even though it has its deep forms of racism. It's normally highly tolerant of minorities from the Hispanic community and European communities.

Yet he came to power because of a presidential system using the Electoral College — in other words the rules of the game — which led to this very unexpected outcome, and the disjunction between the president and his party and then between his party and public opinion more generally.

Where might we be headed, given the longer trajectory view your research provides? How did we get here, and what dangers lurk ahead?

Populists from the extreme are rare, and in that sense in American history Trump is largely unique. And that's what has caused the bitterness, and the polarization. But let's also emphasize that this isn't a brand new phenomenon. The polarization of parties has been going on for many decades, and in particular with basic issues like electoral administration -- that used to be seen as something we can agree to reform -- the rules of the game have now become highly partisan and polarized, which is really unfortunate for democracy.

Disagreeing on tax reform is fine, you can give a bit, take a bit. Disagreeing on the rules of the game is dangerous. Because we can think of all sorts of scenarios where the next election has problems, and nobody agrees on the outcome, if it's a tight race. And that's basically where things slip, and democracy itself is under threat. I'm not a Chicken Little, I don't go around saying "crisis of democracy" at every opportunity, but you can think of two or three events that could really make us barrel into a fundamental problem.

We can take the example of something happening in North Korea, something somehow threatens us. One small Muslim-related terror incident happens in New York, or somewhere in a major city — one person with a machete, or gun — and then comes the backlash. If there's an election which is very tight, and there are accusations of voter suppression or voter fraud, which as you know is going on with the ["voter fraud"] commission, that's a mix which can erode long-standing traditions and procedures and constraints.

Now against that, we have to say that so far the courts have been a real defense on democratic norms, and I hope that the Supreme Court is going to do the right thing on gerrymandering. We consider the media, the mainstream media, for all of its problems has done a tremendous job in really debating some of these issues. But there are these vulnerabilities in an open society, and when a leader like the Trump administration can't get its policies through, and you get this [potential] perfect storm of international event or domestic event and electoral contention -- it's not that improbable that something like that is going to happen between now and 2018 or 2020.

There has also been a surge of progressive populism — we see it in broad support for "Medicare for All," which Bernie Sanders just introduced with 16 co-sponsors. We see it in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, in demonstrations defending DACA, on multiple different fronts. How does all that fit into the picture?

Populist authoritarians and populist progressives draw on different groups, obviously. Social class doesn't really matter, even though everybody says it does. Economic indicators don't matter. But your values do. So the values of populist progressives, populist libertarians or populist liberals — that's clearly where the Democratic Party seems to be heading. When Congress has something like 12 percent support in the Gallup poll -- of course politicians the blow with the wind, and the way they think they can win the next election is to echo that rhetoric, and to run as those who are going to clean up politics.



By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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