Explaining American Politics Abroad



Again, yesterday, the question. This time from a Belgian, but it has also come from French, Italians, Spaniards. How can someone like Donald Trump possibly have a chance at being president of the United States?

There is, of course, no easy answer. Here are some of the reasons I offer, and maybe you have some more to lend me. An American living abroad during election season is always in need of explanatory  material.

For the broader context, there is a wave of populism across what we used to call “the West,” Europe, the United States, those in favor of democracy, vs “the East,” the Soviet Union, rule by the party for the proletariat, but in practice government of the powerful and rich, by the powerful and rich, for the powerful and rich. Some countries like it that way. The United States hasn’t been one of them, but it seems to be turning that way. Populism fits right into that idea as it tells the great masses what they want to hear, and then does what it wants to do, which is be powerful and rich.

Populism is rising in some former Soviet nations, who really ought to know better, but some would trade security for liberty any day of the week. Estonia doesn’t seem to be one of them. Watching the direction of events, they have begun training a guerrilla army. Just for fun and exercise, of course.

For examples of where populism leads, there is Andrew Jackson, and Adolf Hitler. Jackson was the first populist president of the United States, and the act he is best remembered for is Indian Removal. Rather than build a wall, he marched his target enemy halfway across the country to an empty prairie in order to seize their fine lands. He had his own ideas about the economy: paper money was not to be trusted, and banks were bad. He closed the Bank of the United States, and we had no central bank until 1913, after various financial panics and recessions had wreaked their damage with no hand whatsoever on the wheel. Jackson believed that he knew best.

The Nazi Party took 43.9% of the vote in Germany in the elections of 1933. Led by Hitler, the party attacked the press, used violence to intimidate opponents, raised hysteria over a “communist threat” (which of course required special security measures to handle), and then set fire to the parliament building, the Reichstag. No one missed the metaphor of the German republic going down in flames, except perhaps the 43.9% of the German population who thought Hitler was going to make Germany great again.

Most Europeans understand where these political ideas lead, because they’ve studied them in school if they haven’t seen them in action themselves. American students receive almost no political education. No theory, no practicum, no Kant, no Hegel, not even John Stuart Mill. So they don’t know what the coded messages mean and where the rhetoric marches go. Many Americans with whom I dare to talk politics put it in terms of whether they “like” a candidate. As though the most important quality in a national leader is an emotional connection with each and every voter. If “like” was shorthand for “agree with policy positions,” then okay. But more often than not, it’s about personal feeling, rather than policy. A little education might help on this.

One discussion glaringly absent from this political season is the habitual call for an end to the electoral college system. Designed by the Founding Fathers to diffuse the effect of a potential populist rise, the electoral college has been seen in the past few decades as no longer necessary, an anachronism in our modern politics. This year, not so much. A future for American democracy may lie in its hands.