Why Donald Trump Poses a Unique Threat to America
Understanding the populist right: a conversation with writer Damon Linker
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Reactionary Minds is a project of The UnPopulist. Hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Produced by Landry Ayres.
The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with writer Damon Linker, founder of Eyes on the Right, a Substack newsletter. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: I'm Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. The mainstream of the American right, as well as the Republican Party, looks quite a bit different today than it did 10 years ago. Trumpism's rise and its near-total take over the GOP has fundamentally changed our political landscape.
To talk through what's going on and to explore the best ways to approach understanding the evolution of the liberal right, I'm joined today by Damon Linker, author of the Substack Eyes on the Right. He's also a senior fellow with the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center and a weekly participant on the Beg to Differ podcast at The Bulwark.
Both of our projects, Eyes on the Right, and then this podcast Reactionary Minds, are about understanding the forces of illiberalism that appear to be more threatening today than they seem to have been in the recent past. What's your approach to getting at that deeper understanding?
Damon Linker: First of all, thanks for having me on the podcast. I value quite a lot what you're trying to do and do think it's a shared project that we have here, and the more the merrier, the more the better for our politics. I guess what I try to bring to the discussion and analysis, it was something I talk about in my inaugural post for Eyes on the Right, which is a kind of empathy for what is driving people to embrace the populist right.
Now, by that, I do not mean making the case for them. What I mean is trying to think our way into the minds of people who will find these messages appealing. What is it about the liberal order that has them feeling discontented? What has them receptive to these severe critiques of the liberal order? The method behind the madness, the goal of this approach is to construct a more effective response, to actually try to meet the populist right where it is and speak on the basis of its premises, rather than always begin from liberal premises where what you end up with is just talking past each other and rejecting each other's starting points without ever actually engaging with them directly.
I guess the rationale would be, you have to move the two parties a little bit closer together before they can really duke it out over what's really at stake. That's, in abstract terms at least, what I'm trying to accomplish.
Aaron: In that opening essay for Eyes on the Right, I had underlined that part about empathy because it sometimes feels hard for—I have a lot of friends who are deeply involved in gay rights and trans rights, for example, and to say to them, you should approach with empathy, understanding of people who are labeling you groomers and saying you can't have pictures of your same-sex spouse on your desk if you're a school teacher, or people who want to institute a Catholic theocracy over the country, these are really threatening things and really immediately dangerous things; Proud Boys showing up at pride events. It can be hard to say, if you're in that situation, just to think I should be trying to understand at an empathetic level, the people who are calling me groomers.
Why Empathize With Extremists?
Damon: Yes, I totally understand that, and it's a natural human response. In that respect, what I'm advocating is difficult. It's a challenge, and it works against the instincts that are provoked by our politics where both sides—I am guilty of often using the formulation "both sides", but I don't usually mean a kind of moral equivalency. It's a formal mirroring that tends to happen in partisan politics. What I mean is that both sides in our politics have an activist sensibility these days where the goal is not simply to really persuade the persuadable. It's also to provoke your enemy.
You try to say the most outrageous, insulting thing, the most caricatured version of your opponent in the hopes that they will then lash out against what you are saying in an extreme way which will then help you in your own position. You see this a lot obviously in the entire right-wing media edifice that is out there constantly. Part of it involves something else I talked about in my inaugural post about the fallacy of composition, where the fallacy involves you take one part of a whole that is particularly provocative or outrageous or insulting, and you direct huge amounts of attention to that and treat it as if it is exemplary of the whole.
Is it true that professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences on the whole lean to the left? Absolutely true, indisputably the case. Is it true that all professors or nearly all professors are left-wing activists who have contempt for conservatives and centrists and want to humiliate students who come from those ideological starting points in the classroom? No, not at all.
Yet, we now have a whole infrastructure on the right where a series of websites are out there trolling, asking for young conservative students to send examples of particularly outrageous left-wing professorial, pedagogical transgressions, which then get promoted on those websites, that then get picked up by Tucker Carlson, who then runs a 15-minute segment on prime time for 4 million viewers on Fox News, the premise of which is, "Look at how terrible all these left-wing professors are. Don't send your kids to college because they're going to be brainwashed to be leftist authoritarians." That's the process in a nutshell.
There is a way in which it also works in reverse where the left will fasten on to the most egregious, fascistic statement of someone on the right and then try to make it seem as if everyone from Liz Cheney on over to Trump and then past Trump to Proud Boy, neo-fascist like this guy Nick Fuentes. Everything between them is all equally terrible.
Now, why would someone who's a Democrat or another kind of progressive want to say that? Well, because you want to win the election. You don't want anyone anywhere to vote for the other side. You try to collapse the distinctions and assimilate everyone who's your opponent in an election to the worst example of the other side. It's a temptation that I think does need to be resisted. Maybe not always at the level of political contestation where this can be a very effective tactic, but at the level of intellectual reflection. For understanding's sake, we need to try to not let ourselves be triggered in the way that our political opponents very much would like us to be for their own benefit.
Trump’s Unique Dangerousness
Aaron: When we're approaching that task, should we be distinguishing—let's just stick to assessing the right, although I think this argument applies, as you said, to looking at ideologies more broadly, but should we be distinguishing, say, conservatism generally as a political ideology from the base of people who think of themselves or ordinary voters who think of themselves as conservatives, but may hold as we know from political science data, people's self-described labels often affixed to wildly diverse viewpoints that are often in direct conflict with other people affixing the same label to themselves, versus the people actually in power: the ones who are controlling or have access to the levers of the state and how it directs its coercive forces.
Because it seems like one response to what you've just said is yes, of course, we shouldn't pick out the most extreme examples of bad stuff on the right and say that's representative of everyone, just like we shouldn't do that for the left or any other group, but it does seem like one thing that's happened in the last say six years is that the most extreme parts of the right have gained control of the levers of power. They're the ones who are setting the broader agenda for what happens when the right is in control, even if the base is much more moderate.
Damon: Yes. I take the point and I'm glad you brought up the topic of distinction making because that's yet another thing that I’m impressing in the Substack and in my writing lately. I'd love to talk through that. I'm actually working right now on a relatively short post in response to an op-ed that the writer and columnist Max Boot published in the Washington Post today, which is Wednesday, July 6th, in which he says, in effect, looks like Trump might not be the nominee in 2024 after all. It could be Ron DeSantis, and actually, he's worse because he's more disciplined and smarter, and so forth. He's a bigger threat than Trump.
I'm pushing back on that on the basis of distinction-making. Let's walk this through and it touches on a lot of what you raised in your question. I don't think there is anything written in stone that what conservatism or right of center politics in a liberal democracy, what its policy matrix has to be. From Ronald Reagan through, say, the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012 in the United States, what did conservatism mean?
Well, it pretty much meant suspicion of big government, support for cutting taxes whenever possible, generally in favor of free trade, in favor of pretty much open immigration policy, a muscular foreign policy directed towards spreading democracy around the world, and opposing authoritarianism, and then finally, a principled moral traditionalism on social issues that ranged from appointing judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, which has recently been a success after 49 years of trying, to opposition to the series of reforms that have come up on the progressive left from racial issues through to women's rights, gay rights, trans rights, and so forth.
That's what it meant to be a conservative until pretty recently now with Trump—it became with Trump and is now becoming the broader consensus among conservatives, that actually what it means is, yes, cutting taxes in government, on the whole, is good, but if those things can be used to help working-class Americans, then maybe those things aren't so bad.
For similar reasons, free trade is often not good because it hurts working-class people supposedly. Similarly, immigration isn't usually good because that's also not good for that economic consideration, but also for broader identity reasons. The ethnic and racial makeup of the country changes in ways a lot of Americans don't like, at least conservative Americans don't like, and then a much more—well, also suspicion on foreign policy using American power for moral goals is suspicious now.
Finally, the moral traditionalist argument on social issues hasn't really changed, but it's more aggressive and it's metastasized, and touched more areas of policy. Is there anything illegitimate about that latter group of policies in and of itself? Should that not be permitted within liberal democratic politics to have the right side of the spectrum be defined that way?
I actually don't think there is any principled reason to think that that should not be allowed to be the right-leaning contesting party's position. Now, the problem is that some of those positions brush up against moral commitments that put into question some of American principles, but those principles themselves evolve over time. So I would prefer that those policy questions get debated in the political arena as has always been the case. I do think it's okay for the right-leaning party to change what it cares about.
Where things get really dicey is when those policy shifts get combined with what we see, actually, I think in the United States more acutely than any other country contending with this shift, is that the right-leaning party that has shifted in this way can barely win elections because those positions aren't that popular, and the way they are interacting with America's peculiar electoral system with multiple levers and all kinds of counter-majoritarian trip wires leads us to a situation in which we get January 6th and everything that led up to it.
People talk about Viktor Orbán and Hungary a lot as an exemplar of how dangerous he's at the leading edge of where this is going. I don't like Orbán. I would never vote for him. I think he's pernicious, he's done all kinds of negative things, but I think Trump is actually much more dangerous than Orbán. Orbán actually, even if he puts his thumb on the scale a little bit in various ways to give him and his party, the Fidesz party, an edge in an electoral contest, he actually does, and his party does, win votes.
His party won in 2010 before he became a full-on populist and made a lot of those reforms. His share of the vote and his party's share of the vote hasn't changed markedly between then and now. He doesn't win 90% of the vote like Saddam Hussein or another dictator or Soviet dictator would've in the old days or even Putin today. He wins a little more than half. Then there are all these jiggered things within the electoral system that then enhances that slight edge into a much stronger majority within the legislature, but that's common. It happens in the UK, where in the last election, the conservatives won a bit more than labor, but they won way more seats than labor because you get amplification.
Whereas in this country, not only is the Trumpist populist impulse a little troubling because it does push the policy matrix a little bit away from the consensus liberalism that preceded it, but that is combined by the fact that Trump and the Republicans can barely win power given that their position isn't overwhelmingly popular and has a huge, very strong opposition. They then combine that marginal ability to win with contempt for the very institutions that would freeze them out of power if they lose.
That institutional attack, I think, is more profound than what even someone like Victor Orbán is attempting in Hungary, and we need to distinguish between all of these things. The last point before I stop blathering, to go back to my original statement about the Max Boot column, I think Max is wrong on this, that actually as bad as DeSantis would be, and again, I would not vote for the guy, I would be a critic of his from beginning to end if he actually became president, but would he do what Trump did on January 6th? I doubt it. Maybe he would. I guess we don't have a huge track record on the guy, but in general, I don't fear that with him in the same way that I do with Trump.
That means that Trump shows and displays a contempt for the rule of law and instinctual authoritarianism that is sui generis to him, and he's spreading it to his most devoted followers and supporters. But it is so far still relatively contained to that sub-segment of the right. If we could run various scenarios about 2024 in which the Democrats can't win again because of inflation and other problems, I would vastly prefer DeSantis, Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, any number of the mini-Trumps that are out there on the right over Trump himself again. Trump himself again is a toxin to liberal democracy that makes him a unique threat. All of these distinctions, I think, are important to make between bad, worse, and worst of all.
Aaron: Well, let me pick up on that then because it is the case that, at least as of right now, Trumpism is the dominant force on the right and within the GOP. There's this constant cycle of hopeful articles from centrist and left political commentators saying, "Ah, it looks like his hold on the party is slipping. This is a handful of candidates he picked out, didn't win, his hold is slipping," but they always seem more wishful thinking than reality.
Going into 2024, it seems like Trumpism will be the dominant thing whether he's the candidate or not. Certainly, people like DeSantis continue to present themselves as Trumpists or inheritors of the Trumpist mantle, but there's long been this question of whether Trump discovered his audience or created it, discovered his base or created it.
What I've wondered and I'm curious for your thoughts on is how much of Trumpism, however we define that, and it could be hard to pin down what the ideological characteristics of Trumpism are, but how much of Trumpism as a movement within the GOP is an ideological movement that can be inherited, say, by someone like DeSantis or that it is effectively a cult of personality, that it is just this fealty to this man, this investment in the Trumpists or whatever it is about Trump they really like, and it doesn't really matter what the ideas are behind it, it's more of just his personality such that if Trump disappears from the stage, so he chooses not to run again, he's indicted, whatever the case is, that this older style GOP, the Reaganite GOP that you talked about earlier, can reestablish itself. Does Trumpism disappear when Trump disappears or is this a fundamental ideological characteristic now of the right?
Damon: Great, great question. There's so much in there, so much that could be said. It's obviously a very complicated [chuckles] situation. All right. At one level, clearly, if you know the history of the American right, you know that the general dispensation that Trump represents ideologically has been there for a long time. There's one story you can tell about the right that had been told for many decades by people in the National Review circle.
I think an heir to that would be Matt Continetti's new book The Right which is a new history of the right in America. That version goes something like this, that the right prior to, say, World War II was paleocon. It was suspicious of alliances and trade and very knee-jerk traditionalists about morals and suspicious of Washington and government. It was a folk libertarianism to quote my former colleague Bonnie Kristian who is now writing as an independent author and had a Times op-ed about this recently. So that was the right.
Then after the end of World War II with Buckley founding National Review, you have the attempt to found a more internationalist right. It ends up taking a side in the cold war very hawkishly in favor of the United States and democratic capitalism against Soviet communism.
It sort of cosmopolitanized the right a little bit. Now, the original paleocon instinct remained there and it remained there all along. Buckley tried to police the margins of it, tried to excommunicate the Birchers and other small groups that were more rooted in that more conspiratorial folk libertarian attitude, the kind of people who thought that Eisenhower was a communist, the great general who won World War II in Europe, who was president and a Republican, he was a communist plant. This kind of an attitude.
That Buckley-ite policing of the boundaries and then expanding what conservatism could appeal to and the electorate reached its greatest apotheosis in the victory of Ronald Reagan, and from Reagan, once again through, say, Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, you have—conservatism is that. The paleocon stuff's still there, still showing up usually on election day to vote for the head of the party and to vote for local offices for the Republicans, but yet a little disgruntled, not very happy, going along. You get moments of populist rebellion, like 1992, Pat Buchanan challenges George H. W. Bush in his reelection campaign and gives this blood-thirsty speech at the Republican Convention.
That's the narrative that leads to a conclusion that Trump didn't make this. He saw that establishment Republicanism that had governed the party and the country often starting with Reagan had weakened and was ripe for being toppled. He tapped into the increasingly angry rest of paleocons who had been there all along for about the last 90 years, grumbling in the background, and became their champion, and what we've seen over the last six years is a revolution in which that base of paleocons over through the Reaganite elites, and they're now in charge. A lot of that is tied up with the policy matrix that I mentioned earlier, the shift on trade and immigration and foreign policy, and all those things.
There's another argument too, another tendency, which you also mentioned and talked about, which is just Trump as a person embodying a populist impulse, which is not limited to the American scene, but is a perpetual threat to liberal democracies everywhere. Which is a demagogue who comes up and gains power through deploying very hostile rhetoric against the establishment, against those people in power, whether they're allied with my enemies politically or my allies, whether they're in politics or business or entertainment, it doesn't matter. It's them, the elites, and I am the champion of the “true people” and want to overthrow them.
Trump was, it turned out to be, one of the greatest demagogues in American history and maybe world history. We can't judge that yet, let's see how all of this works out, and I say greatest in the sense of incredibly talented, but execrable. The guy is a genius at fastening on to the thing that will make the crowds cheer and mixing in a kind of humor with it at the same time, that makes it sound like he's not taking himself too seriously, winking about how it's all an act at the very moment that he's doing the most vicious things possible with language, attacking the press, journalists, seeming like he's stirring up violence against them, while joking that like, "Well, of course, we're not going to let you attack the journalist, let her go." He's just very, very good at that.
Now, your question to set this up was which is it? What is it that has infected the Republican party? The truth is it is a blend, I think, of the two. One of the problems I'd say that Tom Cotton has, Tom Cotton also would love to run for president in 2024. He has given speeches, including at the Reagan Library several months ago that I wrote about, that are very clearly Trumpian speeches on the side of the first category that I just ran through. Very conservatism inflected with paleocon themes on the "new correct side" on all of these issues of foreign policy and trade and immigration and social issues, very rabidly engaged in the culture war in a way that is redolent of Trump.
In all those ways, he sounds like a Trumpist, but he's boring as hell and has no charisma. He sounds like a wet noodle standing up there and looks like a geek who tried to make the basketball team and was cut in the first round of cuts. That makes me very skeptical that he could succeed in this environment. DeSantis on the other hand has been shrewd enough and talented enough to combine or tried to combine both in a way that I haven't seen in another candidate. I think it's one reason why so many on the right like him.
He stands abstractly in favor of a lot of the policy changes that Trump brought in, but as the governor of a state, he has more power than one of a hundred senators like Cotton to actually do certain things to show, "See? I'll use power to achieve these things." Then he also combines that with a really swaggering obnoxious populist demagogic rhetoric that includes him getting up on a stage in front of some high school kids wearing masks during the worst pandemic in a century and berating them in front of the cameras to "Take off your damn masks. Freedom."
I don't know what your language rating is for this podcast, but I'll at least stoop to say, you can bleep me out if you need to, he's performatively an asshole. That is part of his schtick. That I think makes him a more plausible successor to Trump because you do need both. You need that kind of anti-cosmopolitan issue conglomeration that Trump has now put at the center of the right, combined with a pure populist and demagogic attack on the people who would police us morally in positions of power, to basically stick a middle finger up at them and say, "I'm going to say anything I want. F you. I don't care."
You need both, and Trump has both, and DeSantis among all the options out there I think comes closest to matching that. He might not have Trump's instinctual genius at it, but he clearly I think—he at least understands that he needs to include that in his message, not just the what, but the how in the message, and has enough talent at the latter that he can at least be a potential rival as the leader of that faction.
The Global Rise of the Populist Right
Aaron: I want to pick up on another thing in your inaugural essay for Eyes on the Right because I liked it quite a lot as a statement of purpose for the broader project. One of the things you mentioned is a pushing back on what we might call American provincialism, which is to analyze all of this in the context of what is happening in America. You mentioned Orbán, who's an example of this populism in Europe, but this rise of far-right reactionary populism is not limited to the United States. It's not limited to Donald Trump.
We have seen it happen in other countries in forms that look—they're distinguishable from Trumpism, but they share a lot of common features. What has happened in the last decade or so to lead to this renewed movement of right-wing reactionary populism on a more global scale?
Damon: Well, another great question, and another big answer, which I will try to keep within reasonable limits. I mean, it's obviously very complicated because now, we're not only talking about a continent-wide liberal democracy of 330-odd [million] people, but now we're talking about the broader world with all the differences across countries and regions and histories and so forth.
I do think there are certain commonalities that we can point to. Clearly, after the end of the cold war, there was kind of a consensus in countries across the free world that, if not full Francis Fukuyamaism, which I've also written about on the podcast, as an exemplification of a certain form of this, but at least that consensus that, well, obviously, far-right politics including fascism and totalitarianism on the far right, that is off-limits.
Most countries, say, 30 years ago, thought that was like not even open for debate, but now with the fall of the Soviet Union, it appears that the leftward side of the spectrum has now been cut off as also legitimate. What we're dealing with is that politics going forward in free societies will take place within the 40-yard lines. There will be contestation, there will be elections, and they will be between a center-right party or parties and a center-left party or parties.
They will be about whether to cut taxes or raise taxes a little bit, expand government, or cut government a little, whether to choose this or that battle with a revanchist authoritarian state somewhere, maybe in the Middle East or elsewhere, whether to get involved in this war or that war, whether we'll all get together in a coalition of the willing to do battle with them and show them they have to join the club, start taking loans from the World Bank and the IMF and so forth, and whether immigration should be completely open and free or somewhat limited, whether it's going to be for like Canada does for the sake of meeting certain demands for labor within a country for a certain period of time, or it's just going to be open to all comers.
These will be our debates. Yes or no, little more, little less, again, within the 40-yard lines of the field, and that's about it. Now, this worked pretty well through the '90s and even into the 2000s, though in the United States because of 9/11 and then eventually Europe, when they had terrorist attacks, this was jolted, it was pushed, but it was pretty resilient, at least until after the financial crisis of 2008, which began in the United States, and then rippled throughout the global economy, caused loss of a lot of wealth.
Of course, one of the big economic changes in the post-Cold War world has been the opening up of the finance sector to small-time investors in the form of retirement accounts, and then the companies that handle pensions abroad, investing in the stock market around the world, global markets, and all of that took a big hit in 2008. That bred resentment, then added to resentment about immigration in a lot of countries.
It's a little different in Europe than it is in the United States. Here, there always has been more openness to a harder right-wing critique of some of these neoliberal trends. I'll use the term "neoliberal", which no one can seem to define to describe the Fukuyaman tendency of the 40-yard lines defining politics. In this country, there always have been people on the right, they were allowed to make a critique and say, "Maybe we should cut back on immigration. Maybe we should care more about rising crime rates. Maybe we should make certain other changes," but in Europe, Muslim immigration, for instance, in France has been much, much higher, much higher percentage of the population there than here, partly because of the colonial history of the country and allowing immigrants from, say, Algeria in over other countries and then some of it is a result of guilt over the legacy of this.
For various reasons in different countries, Germany has a lot of Turkish immigrants for historic reasons because of labor. In the post-war decades, they brought in a lot of Turks to, again, like Canada to fill holes in the labor economy in the country. Because of the history of fascism on the continent and shame about colonialism and its moral legacy, there was more of a sense in Europe that you can't really object to having, say, high Muslim immigration because then you're evil, you're a racist, and that's not allowed.
Maybe in Europe, it became not between the 40-yard lines. Even on the right, it became like the 45-yard line. You combine that kind of limiting of the margins with resentment over in this country about how the war on terror was waged and our inability to actually decisively win these battles around the world and wondering why we even did them in the first place and why the intelligence about weapons in Iraq was so terribly flawed, and then add in terrorist attacks in Europe after 9/11 in Spain and France and other places, and feeling like the elites here who are in charge defending those margins, the 40- or 45-yard lines, are inept. They won't actually allow us to debate these things. The anger about the lack of a justice-driven response to the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008.
You get the sense, looking back, it's clear there was a boiling pressure building up from the lower classes, from people who are not members of this neoliberal elite consensus of the government is not responding to our anger about these things. You have to listen to us and you have to listen to us and you have to listen to us, saying it over and over again.
I do think that whether it's the rise of what Orbán has done in Hungary or the perpetual return of the same Le Pen challenge to the French center, the Brexit vote in the UK, the rise of Trump, the rise of the League in Italy, you go around the world, Bolsonaro in Brazil, what's ended up happening in Turkey with Erdogan where he's ended up versus where he started, Modi in India.
In all of these contexts, you have variations on this same story of, "We let you neoliberals run the show for a couple of decades and we're not happy with the results, that you are illegitimately marginalizing the boundaries of political debate." I think one way of understanding what we've been living through is to see that those boundaries have to be fluid. They have to be permitted by the institutions of liberal democracy to shift leftward and rightward, even if they threaten to begin to touch up against something that looks a little like illiberal communism on the left or illiberal fascism on the right, because the attempt to forestall that, to prevent it, to say, "You can't have that opinion, it's illegitimate, it's racist, it's immoral," doesn't make it go away. All it does is increase resentment toward the very institutions that are preventing it. We need a more supple understanding of the fringes if it will, that if you don't let some of it in, you risk a more turbulent reaction against the rules that prevent it from getting in.
The last thing I'll say is that an interesting case study, the German situation is a little sui generis both because of Germany's incredible power economically and politically within the EU structure and also because of their distinctive shame over national socialism, which is almost in its own category of awfulness, but it is interesting that the Alternative for Germany, the AfD party, cropped up in the same period, middle of the 2010s, really scared a lot of people, rightly so.
It surged to around 15% nationally in Germany which was enough again to scare a lot of people and to throw the coalition government there into a little bit of unsettledness because 15% is enough to mess with coalition formation if all the parties refuse to make a deal with and govern with that party because it means that now your total set of potential coalition mates is a lot smaller because 15% of the votes are now off the table for negotiation.
The interesting thing is that Germany did not ban the AfD party, they didn't allow it to sit in a government, but they did allow it to be the main opposition party to the Christian Democrat-led Merkel government at the end of her very long reign. The result is that the support for the AfD has come down. It's now getting 9%, 10%. Can a liberal democracy survive with a far-right party that gets around 10%? I think, yes. Maybe it's better to just allow it to be there, make its case, and then lose by the normal rules of democracy.
Germany also has a 5% electoral threshold. If it sinks a lot more, it could even wink out of existence at the level of the Bundestag, which would be a very good thing. Because it could come back if it got more support, but it shows that the system is open to those who are angry on the margins. Again, that can be scary for those of us who would like the—we don't want the 40-yard lines to be enforced from the top. We would prefer, at least I speak for myself, I would prefer it to be roughly within the 40-yard lines but by free choice. [chuckles] I want the electorate to want politics to take place in those somewhat narrow terms. If there starts to be rebellion on those margins, you can't keep it within the 40-yard lines by imposing it from the top down.
Aaron: Then bringing this back to the context of the US, our final question, I'll ask another that I fear might be a big one, as far as combating illliberalism in the US, one disadvantage that we have is we don't have a multiparty democracy, so we can't relegate it to a 10% or 15%. We have two parties, and that 10% or 15% can take over one of them and then effectively—and then achieve White House, achieve dominance in the legislature, and so on, be able to exercise power well beyond their 15% support within the electorate.
The real worry, I think, is—one of the perennial questions about Trumpism is, does Trumpism represent a genuinely fascist movement? Fascism is another thing that it's awfully hard to come up with a single definition of it, but it does seem to have a lot of legitimately fascist characteristics, and there's a real concern that, say, if Trump wins again and has the control and is able to exercise more control, that he'll push things even in…I Trump would be an authoritarian if he were able to get away with it.
Within the US context, how do we take those lessons that you just articulated on the international scene and apply them looking forward two years, 10 years, to try to make sure we don't slip into something that we can't easily recover from?
Damon: Yes, again, another great question, and you're completely right that the US situation—I began in one of my first responses and talking about how we have to make distinctions and Trump is worse than DeSantis. There's a way in which the American situation is uniquely alarming in the international context precisely because of what you're saying. We are not a parliamentary system in which the executive sits in the legislature and really has no independent power apart from the multi-coalition government that is in charge at any given moment.
That makes our president much more of a potential dictator if he can get away with it. Then we also have a two-party system where it's either one side or the other. If one side, namely the Republicans, becomes devoted to a fascistic leader, then it could potentially control the whole ballgame. Especially with the way upcoming Senate elections are looking, it is at least within the realm of possibility that in 2025, we could have a reelected Donald Trump as president with 61 Republicans in the Senate, which is a true horror show scenario, and it really does scare me.
I don't have any great magic bullet response to this. My response is to give a version of the popularism argument that is often made about the Democrats because we haven't talked much about the Democrats in our conversation, but they are the other party. As commentator David Frum said in a very pithy tweet the other day, I won't be able to quote it from memory, but to paraphrase the point he was making in the single tweet, that because of the shape of the different electoral coalition, if the two parties in the US, and the way that those coalitions at the present moment are interacting with our uniquely, distinctively weird American systems, which are really not built for ideologically sorted parties in the way that we have them now. We're in a situation where the Republicans are able to run a politics that is geared toward placating its most radical, committed elements in a way that the Democrats cannot do and win.
The Republicans can win by becoming ever more extreme, and that parenthetically, just so your listeners grasp why this might be, it has to do with the fact that both the Senate and the electoral college involve winning states, and Republicans are spread around many more states than the Democrats tend to with a majority. There are more people living in blue states, in states that vote for the Democrats, but there are fewer states that vote, so they get more electoral votes, but not enough to compensate for the fact that the Dakotas and Nebraska and Kansas and all these largely empty states vote for the Republicans, giving them an edge in both of those institutions.
That's one-half of the equation that Frum talks about. The other half is that the Democrats, although they cannot placate their left-wing agitating base as much and win, their potential winning coalition is much larger. It's very unlikely that the Republican, say, presidential candidate in 2024 is going to win, say, 55% of the popular vote. That's almost impossible to imagine.
It is possible to imagine that a Democratic candidate could do that. Now, I don't know if it would be Biden or Harris or who it could be, but in terms of potential, the Democratic message appeals to more Americans. To see how this interacts with their institutions, all you have to do is look at the results of the 2020 election. Biden won seven million more votes than Donald Trump, but if 50,000 of those votes flipped to Trump in three states, Trump would have won anyway.
That is a horrifying prospect for the legitimacy and stability of American democracy because it means that—George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 while losing the popular vote in one state by a very small number, like a few thousand votes. Trump won in 2016, winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote by almost three million. If Trump had managed to flip those 50,000 or 60,000 votes in three states, he would've been reelected president while losing seven million.
These tendencies are increasing over time. It's conceivable that in 2024, you could have a Trump or DeSantis win the presidency while losing the popular vote by 8 million, 9 million, 10 million people, which is going to be very dangerous for American democracy because I do think there are limits to how much losing the Democrats are going to be willing to take if they're actually getting that many more votes in the aggregate.
My medium answer to your very complex and important question is the Democrats need to do whatever it takes to prevail. If that means moderating on some social issues, that will alienate some of their more agitated activist base, they should do it for the promise of winning more votes away from the Republicans in the center. Because, really, that's the only thing that the Republicans are going to understand and that could moderate them over the future, which is to realize you can't actually win power saying and doing the things that you're doing.
They need to learn that lesson. If they keep being able to squeak out victories doing this, they're going to keep doing it out of simple self-interest. Anyway, that's my unsatisfying answer. I'm never entirely satisfied with how I answer those kinds of questions, including in the post that went up today I made a version of this argument, and after I do it, I think, "Oh, no wonder nobody likes me." [chuckles] It's not very satisfying to say that we have to be the reasonable ones. We have to be the ones to say, "Sorry, you passionate supporters on my own side, you got to sit on it so that we can win later." I get why that pisses some people off.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. If you want to learn more about the rise of illiberalism and the need to defend a free society, check out theunpopulist.substack.com.
Damon Linker, Eyes on the Right’s inaugural post
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