Democracy, Populism & The Age of Trump


Katha Pollitt

          If we had a democracy, President Hillary Clinton would be sitting in the oval office. You know, President Hillary Clinton, who got almost three million more votes than that loser, Donald Trump. In any other country in the world that has elected government the person who gets the most votes wins. That is what democracy, at the most basic, irreducible level, means.

But, at least at the Presidential level, we don’t have a democracy. We have the electoral college, the poisoned pill inserted in the constitution by the founding fathers we revere, as a compromise between election by Congress and election by popular vote. Popular vote? Can’t have that! That would be terrible! Like the 3/5 compromise, the electoral college was a compromise with the slave states, who otherwise would have been outvoted by the more populous northern states. Well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Anyway, the electoral college means that millions of votes simply don’t matter at the presidential level. A Republican in Massachusetts, a Democrat in South Carolina – it’s sweet that they even bother. What matters is a handful of swing states – in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and so on. Trump lost by almost three million, but he won by 78,000 – and he wasn’t even the first President in our century to win by this paradoxical math. Thanks to the Supreme Court, George W. Bush did the same. And note that both times, it was a Republican who won the White House in this antidemocratic way.

But wait, there’s more. Every state gets two senators regardless of population. Wyoming has two senators even though it has less than one-fifth the population of Brooklyn. The two-senator rule means that roughly 13 percent of the people control 44% of the senate. To look at it another way, black people are approximately 13 percent of the population, though at present only 3 Senators are black.

Clearly there are many ways to disenfranchise voters – and thanks to the Supreme Court it’s becoming ever easier. Since the Supreme Court threw out parts of the Voting Rights Act, it’s become harder for black voters to vote in the south – Stacey Abrams very likely would have won in Georgia had it been as easy for blacks to vote as whites. Gerrymandering means the party that controls the state legislature in census years draws the district lines for state legislature and congressional districts. And that means that in several states, for example Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio, the majority of voters can vote for the Democratic party and find that the state legislature and congressional delegation are controlled by Republicans. And don’t look to the courts to prevent this: in June of this year, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts cannot intervene to stop partisan gerrymandering.

Then consider this: prisoners can’t vote. In many states ex-felons can’t vote. In some states, college students can’t register to vote where they are enrolled, so that in effect they are discouraged from voting. People need a current address to vote – think of all the people who are homeless or transient, or bounced off the rolls because they’ve moved. In many states you need a government-issued photo ID to vote, like a driver’s license. Many people have been barred from voting on that account, especially low-income, non-native born people who might not have a birth certificate or the paper trail that shows how their name has changed over time.

All these ways of preventing people from voting favor wealthier, older citizens, with stable home addresses and social networks that connect them to local politics, whether it’s for a ride to the polls or help with filling out an absentee ballot. In view of all this, it is amazing that one of the demographic groups with the highest level of voting is black women – by that measure the smartest people in America.

Oh and don’t let me forget to mention the role of big money in campaign financing. Thanks to the Supreme Court – yet again – in its notorious Citizens United decision, which basically lifted restrictions on corporate campaign spending, there are yet more ways for the rich to put their thumb on the scale.

And so, in my view, when you add it all up , we don’t have a democracy and never have had one. We have some kind of crazy geographical/race/class oligarchy, plus cheating. And the next presidential election may prove that once again, when Trump could win with fewer votes than he got in 2016. According to the New York Times’s Nate Cohn, the Democratic candidate could get 5 million more votes than Trump and still lose in 2020. It all depends on where the votes are. If you really want to help the Democrats, you should probably move to Wisconsin.

Given what I’ve just said, it is truly remarkable that President Trump presents himself, to some extent successfully, as speaking for the majority. He can do this because of the magic of populism. The majority, it turns out, isn’t some dry, trivial mathematical number; it’s a vague, mythological entity, THE PEOPLE, aka: the Real Americans. The Real Americans are white, Christian, heterosexual, the sort of people who can tell other people to go back where they came from, even when those other people are Afro-Americans whose ancestors came over around the same time as the Pilgrims.

The Real Americans are conservative, patriotic according to their own definition of patriotism, and although they’re always talking about liberty, authoritarian: they want a strong man, and by that they mean a MAN, who will set things right. In many ways Trumpian populists are the minority: most Americans do not share their love of gun rights, most Americans think abortion should be legal, most Americans think immigrants bring positive values to the United States. Most Americans live in cities and suburbs. Very few live in rural places, much less on farms. Very few are coal miners. Trump’s real Americans seem to spend their days in diners waiting to be interviewed by reporters curious to know if they still support President Trump. They always say yes, they do. I understand why reporters find these diner denizens so fascinating. They are in many ways the people left out of media discourse, which is so focused on the coasts, the educated, the well-off, the hip. Covering them is almost a form of anthropology: look at this tribe of Iowan soybean growers, these Rustbelt factory workers, these waitresses. It’s fascinating to speculate on their mental states: do they love Trump because they’re racists or because of “economic anxieties”? Do they really expect him to do something for them or do they just want to “blow up the system”?

Many books have been written trying to figure them out. But what is often left out of the analysis is that these Real Americans, with their grievances and sad stories, are only a fraction of Trump’s supporters. MOST of his support comes from your regular old Republicans, the people who voted for Romney and Bush—candidates who represented the stable, conservative end of the existing system and had no interest at all in blowing it up. It would make more sense for reporters to interview hedge fundies and bankers and car dealers and members of local bourgeoisies – to say nothing of the pastors and preachers who have been successfully organizing voters for Republicans for decades. But that’s the thing about populism. It creates an imaginary majority and an imaginary enemy that is behind the curtain pulling the strings. Often this enemy turns out to be “the Jews.” Remember, the white supremacists at Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us,” not “billionaires will not replace us.” It is not surprising that we are seeing an upsurge of anti-Semitism under Trump, even though his own daughter married a Jew and converted, and even though he himself, much as I want to dislike every single thing about him, does not seem to be an anti-semite despite a few passing remarks about Jews making good accountants. But the enemy can also be women upending ancient gender bargains and people of color benefitting oh so unfairly from affirmative action, foreigners making unfair trade agreements, and immigrants who are here to rape and murder and steal your job and make Sharia the law of the land. And oddly enough, if you really want to get into the weeds, the Jews are behind all this – they are leftists and also uber-capitalists. The reason the Nazis at Charlottesville were shouting “Jews will not replace us” was not just to say that jews would outnumber them, which after all is most unlikely, but that Jews had fomented immigration in order to rule the country through their Mexican and Muslim puppets.

It makes no sense – but neither does Pizzagate, or QAnon or the many other weird conspiracy theories floating around on Facebook and Youtube that many, many people you’ve never met take seriously. And if you don’t believe me, just check out Twitter, where the theory that the Clintons just tried to have Jeffrey Epstein murdered in jail is proving quite popular. It’s just another of the many murders perpetrated by the Clintons, don’t you know.

Hatred of minorities, paranoia, trusting a phony billionaire to save the country because he’s too rich to steal while paying no attention to the country’s real power structure—that’s populism.

And here’s what else is populism: the belief that you’re a powerless majority when in fact you’re a minority that controls the country.

These remarks were delivered at a panel discussion on the closing night of the July 2019 New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College.