Recently, Eric Crampton wrote an opinion piece in The Spinoff listing several reasons why he had come to realise that a Donald Trump presidency was nothing to be feared (How I learned to stop worrying and love Donald Trump). Crampton’s main argument is that the institutional constraints any president faces, particularly from Congress, mean that Trump will be able to implement very few of his extremist policies. Whether or not Crampton’s points are accurate – and I hope they are – there are still reasons to be concerned. Democratic restraints on centralised power can feel unassailable from our longstanding democracies, and America’s constitutional checks on presidential power appear formidable. Yet history is full of examples of democratic systems being overturned by powerful and charismatic leaders. Trump’s rhetoric is full of statements which illustrate his disrespect for the rule of law, and he appears to appeal above all to voters with authoritarian tendencies. Yet I will leave aside this alarmist and perhaps hyperbolic observation to mention another more pressing concern.
In Crampton’s focus on institutional restraints on the presidency, he ignores the other very real possibility that Trump and his rhetoric will stimulate extreme non-institutionalised action. Consider some of Trump’s most infamous recent pronouncements: all illegal immigrants, estimated to be 11 million people, should be rounded up and deported; no more Muslims should be allowed into the country; that Mexicans are rapists and a wall is required to repel them; and that the families of terrorists should be executed as a deterrent. He refuses to condemn recent Ku Klux Klan violence and the racist and threatening behaviour of his supporters. He spoke glowingly of a (false) account of a US commander executing 39 Muslim rebels in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig blood and of Kim Jong-un’s elimination of rivals in North Korea. (As an aside, this is why claims of populist similarities between Bernie Sanders and Trump are absurd).
Fascist tendencies and prejudice are far more common in any society than open rhetoric or actions might suggest. In the majority of cases, bigotry remains incoherent and sporadic. Any inclination towards violence and authoritarianism, any desire to physically defend the majority culture from the transgressions of the minority, is kept in check by two main constraints. The first is that potential perpetrators believe they do not have the support of those in power, as a result they fear both ostracism and legal sanction. The second is that they feel that their actions are unlikely to achieve the goal they have in mind, whether that be driving the minority from their neighbourhood or cowing an entire community into submission.
When a popular leader like Donald Trump makes statements like those above, he removes these restraints. It signals he shares their views, and convinces them they are unlikely to face legal sanction. The sense of opportunity, legitimacy and belonging to those who have previously felt marginalised in their views can be exhilarating. There are numerous cases of violent riots against migrants or other ethnic minorities which have followed inflammatory rhetoric by politicians. Riots broke out in Germany in the 1990s after national politicians advocated for restrictions on asylum rights. In 1998, deadly riots against Chinese Indonesians broke out in Jakarta after the outgoing regime of President Suharto attempted to blame that community for the Asian Financial Crisis. The United States itself has a rich history of non-institutionalised violence – lynching for example –occurring with regularity because it appeared sanctioned by the political elite, even if outside the law.
There is no reason to believe that Trump will moderate his rhetoric once in office. He shows no inclination to play a normal political role and clearly believes he has captured the American zeitgeist. Even if he does begin to govern in a more reasoned manner, in the case of a crisis – a terrorist attack, economic downturn, or slump in political support for example – it seems likely that this rhetoric will return. It is therefore not just the institutionalised impact of a Trump presidency that we should worry about, but what is likely to happen on the street if this rhetoric continues to gain legitimacy. And if Trump blames his failure to carry out his right wing populist agenda on Congressional obstructionism, the consequences for the political system may yet be profound.