Is America’s first populist president since Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) a threat to the foundations of liberal democracy in the United States? Donald Trump and his aides continue to undercut the independent counsel heading the investigation into his entourage’s secretive meetings with Russian operatives. And Trump has waged a stream of Twitter attacks against the media, an unusual practice for a U.S. president.
Good governance and an independent press have long offered a foundation for U.S. democracy. Therefore, Trump’s actions leave many observers concerned. But my research on the broader international experience with populism, especially in Latin America, suggests these worries may be unfounded. Here’s why: Trump faces four important obstacles to gaining the widespread support he would need to upend liberal democracy in the United States.
Populist leaders challenge the very nature of pluralist democracy
To be sure, there is an inherent tension between liberal, pluralist democracy and populism. Personalistic leaders like Hugo Chávez, Alberto Fujimori and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan win mass support by promising dramatic change. To impose this bold transformation, these populists claim the need for concentrated power and depict prevailing institutional constraints, such as an independent judiciary, as illegitimate obstacles. Using this strategy, overbearing populist leaders have undermined democracy in several Latin American countries — and have caused illiberal regressions in Eastern Europe, as well as Turkey.
These lessons from the many populist governments in Latin America and Europe are the topic for a September 2017 conference at the University of Texas at Austin. What can the United States learn from these experiences? To preview some findings, the global experience with populism suggests that only certain personalistic leaders were able to gain unchallenged predominance; others ran into serious obstacles.
Thus, while Venezuela’s Chávez (1999-2013) and Peru’s Fujimori (1990-2000) managed to overpower the opposition, dismantle institutional constraints and suffocate democracy, Brazil’s Fernando Collor (1990-1992) and Ecuador’s Abdalá Bucaram (1996-1997) failed, and were removed from office.
The four main barriers to the populist model in the United States
Compared to his “successful” Latin American counterparts, Trump faces great difficulties in asserting his populist leadership and concentrating power. These four important, interlocking obstacles will prove extremely difficult to overcome — and in all likelihood will protect liberal democracy in the United States from serious damage:
1) The Constitution mandated a separation of powers — Contrary to most Latin American and European countries, the U.S. system of government enshrines a strict system of checks and balances. These serious constraints on presidential leadership, though somewhat corroded by recent changes such as easier ways of ending filibusters, make it exceedingly difficult for any U.S. president to achieve the personal predominance of a Fujimori or Chávez.
The U.S. president is often called the most powerful man in the world — but this saying is not generally true inside the U.S. political system, given the enormous clout of Congress and the courts. In fact, by international comparison, the U.S. president is rather weak in his formal attributions and prerogatives. To date, both Congress and the judiciary have pushed back on important presidential initiatives such as travel bans and health-care reform, suggesting that Trump does not have the institutional latitude to get away with governing as he sees fit.
2) Trump is constrained by the Republican Party — While Trump garnered a good deal of direct mass support on the campaign trail, he can govern effectively only with strong backing from the Republican Party. Trump’s personal leadership thus faces an organizational constraint that populists Fujimori and Chávez, who took office without anything resembling a political party, did not confront. Contrary to these Latin American counterparts, Trump thus needs to maintain partisan support, which in traditional U.S. politics means employing persuasion and negotiation. As an outsider who has pledged to “disrupt” Washington politics, Trump has rejected the art of political compromise — which has limited his support.
3) U.S. presidents have limited patronage powers — The Trump administration won’t be able to follow a typical Latin American model, in which populist presidents who have had to govern with established parties, such as Carlos Menem of the Argentine Peronists (1989-1999), simply “buy” support. After all, a plum job with generous perks in the public administration can go a long way toward pacifying powerful politicians who may pose a threat. By contrast, a small government in the United States gives Trump relatively few chances to hand out such perks. A vigilant media and a vibrant civil society further limit such opportunistic, often nepotistic use of patronage.
4) The U.S. isn’t suffering an acute crisis — Somewhat unusual for a populist victory, Trump won the election despite the fact that the U.S. economy was in relatively good shape. In contrast, runaway hyperinflation catapulted both Fujimori and Menem into office.
Paradoxically, what’s good for the U.S. population isn’t very helpful for a populist president like Trump. After all, populist leaders often gain credibility as “saviors” of the country by quickly resolving a terrible crisis. Fujimori and Menem each enacted drastic economic reforms, including budget austerity and trade liberalization. The renewed stability and economic growth then boosted their popular support and helped them win reelection.
In contrast, the absence of an open economic crisis in the United States keeps Trump from using the old alchemist trick of turning adversity into advantage — one main reason why his popular support has remained low for a U.S. president and a populist leader.
In sum, Trump’s populism is facing enormous difficulties, just six months into his term, and these obstacles lower his chances for political success over the longer term. On balance, his weak political position seems to be good news for U.S. democracy, a time-honored institutional framework that may yet emerge unscathed from its latest test.
Kurt Weyland is the Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts and Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.