Trump has been compared to European Nationalists and Latin American Populists. Those are apt analogies. But the differences are equally striking.
As a comparativist political scientist, I was trained to compare countries and politicians. No political phenomenon is entirely sui generis; therefore, we look for parallels. But I was also trained to be careful with analogies. Differences across cases can be as revealing as commonalities.
Comparativists analyzing the rise of Trump in the United States, including me, have been busy highlighting the commonalities between Trump and politicians elsewhere. Whereas Americanists tell you that they have seldom seen anything like Trump, we comparativists say, almost pedantically, it’s déjà vu all over again: plenty of Trump-like figures exist in other countries and periods, and even in this country at different periods.
But comparativists have been less forthcoming about the ways in which Trumpism departs from even its closest analogs. This might be a mistake. Some of the differences between Trump and his closest counterparts help us understand important aspects of Trump’s appeal, especially its limits.
By limits I do not mean to suggest that Trump has no chance of winning. I mean instead the fact that his movement has provoked so much rejection, especially within his own party, and why he is struggling to become a dominant movement. Knowing how Trump departs from some of his closest political twins provides clues about Trump’s struggles.
Take the comparison with 20th-century European fascism. There are many parallels. Like Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Trump is running on a platform of restoring order. Fascists in pre-World War II Europe argued that the status quo was chaotic, decaying, and dooming, and they offered themselves as “tough” (though not necessarily, inclusive) leaders needed to save the nation. They saw external actors as enemies too: no country, not even allies, treated the nation with respect, and international agreements were nothing more than opportunities for foreigners to take advantage of the homeland.
All of the above aligns with typical Trump speak. But the problem with the fascist analogy is that the context doesn’t match up. Europe in the early 1930s, when Hitler rose, was in the midst of a severe depression; Germany in particular suffered two major economic crises after World War I. In Italy, the war humiliated the troops and decimated what was already one of the poorest economies in Europe when Mussolini rose. Communists were gaining ground everywhere, and in Spain they were allied with the government when Franco rose. An epidemic of arson across churches was engulfing Spain. So when European fascists talked about threats, they didn’t need to exaggerate too much. Violence, political assassinations, strikes, and riots were ubiquitous.
In contrast, most Americans today don’t feel they are living under falling skies. Unemployment and crime are low. Political instability is nonexistent. There is race unrest in America, but nobody is burning churches. So when Trump invokes mortal threats, most Americans wonder.
The key word is “most.” Sure enough, some Americans perceive their lives to be in a state of cosmic threat. But for the rest, there are challenges ahead, not mortal dangers. Because the context is so different, Trump’s fascist scare tactics work with some voters, but not with majorities.
Another favorite analogy is comparisons with 21st-century European right-wing nationalists. Again, the rhetoric is very similar. The new enemy is not the Jews or the Communists, but immigrants and criminals. They share a common disdain for globalization and for detached politicians in capital cities. When Trump says “we have no border” he sounds like just any sloganeer for Brexit. When he says, “we are led by very, very stupid people,” he sounds like any Euro-skeptic complaining about Euro-bureaucrats.
And yet, there are differences. The biggest is perhaps the approach to religion. Unlike many European right-wing nationalists today, Trump is not offering a defense of secularism. One salient innovation by today’s right-wingers in Europe is the way they justify condemnations of Islamism—by invoking the importance of separation of church and state. Some, like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, even portray themselves as staunch feminists and gay-rights defenders, in part because they know that many immigrants, and all terrorists, stand for traditional patriarchy.
No doubt, many critics of Europe’s nationalists find these secular, progressive stands to be insincere, distorted, and opportunistic. Fair enough. But my point is that European right-wingers have learned to broaden their appeal, even if insincerely, by embracing an ideology that is widespread in Europe. This has allowed them to make huge inroads even into traditional socialist bastions. They may not be winning national elections, but they have caused re-alignments across the electorate.
Trump in contrast rejects progressivism wholeheartedly. He gets a kick out of appearing as the anti-Feminist-in-chief. And although he wants people to believe that he is a queer ally, in reality he is devoting more energy to convincing people that he is a Christian soldier. How else to explain his vice-presidential choice, a man admired mostly by the Christian right, or statements like: “I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.” Whereas European right-wingers are embracing secularism, Trump is faking Christianism.
This distancing from progressive secularism hurts Trump. It is one reason he is struggling with college Republicans, minorities, and women. It is hard to imagine a force dominating U.S. politics with these electoral deficits.
Yet another favorite analogy is with Latin American populists. I too have made the comparison, in part because the parallels are numerous, perhaps more so than with European right-wingers. Like Perón (Argentina 1940s), Castro (Cuba 1950s), Fujimori (Peru early 1990s), Chávez (Venezuela late 1990s), and Correa (Ecuador mid 2000s), Trump exhibits no regard for pluralism, dissent, and checks and balance. He is flaunting his newcomer status to legitimize his connection to “the people” rather than vested interests. He is not interested in fiscal conservatism, but in borrow-and-spend politics. His vitriol against fellow citizens (the sector of the electorate that doesn’t support him) is harsher than his vitriol against foreigners, comparable to the vitriol that populists reserve for “oligarchs.” Trump has no qualms about forging strong ties with the military (presumably after he fires those generals he dislikes). He also does not think that violence needs to be monopolized by the state, given how comfortable he is with followers using violence against dissenters.
But there is a difference, and it has to do with the concern for the poor. All Latin American populists have a Robin Hood infatuation. They talk incessantly about taking privileges away from elites and providing handouts to the have-nots. This allows them to expand their reach, at least at first. They start out with a multi-class coalition of liberal elites (who despise inequality), the middle classes (who feel they won’t have to pay for distributionism), and of course the poor (who are the top winners from hand-outs).
Sure enough, critics of Latin American populists contend that this concern with distributionism is insincere, distorted, and opportunistic—that it’s more of a masquerade intended to hide nasty intentions to expand the reach of the state. Very likely.
But my point is that the one aspect that makes Latin American populism so electorally appealing—its distributionist bent—is missing in Trump’s populism. Trump rarely shows sympathy toward the little guy. If anything, he is disdainful. He almost feels like the little guys have no one but themselves to blame for their plight. And he has nothing to offer them. In addressing poor African-Americans, for instance, he won’t say, like a typical Latin American populist would, that he will shower them with free education, free services, more housing, guaranteed jobs, and more inclusive laws. No, he simply says: you have nothing to lose.
Because of this major difference in his approach to the have-less, Trump’s populist appeal has limits even across disaffected groups. He does not seem to be attracting hordes of poor people, and this too is an electoral handicap.
Another analogy, less frequently invoked by political scientists but apt nonetheless, is that Trump represents the irruption into politics of America’s favorite form of entertainment: Reality TV. The more preposterous and unpredictable he acts, the more voters seem to like him, for the same reason Reality TV shows become hits. It’s all wild entertainment. So when Trump engaged in low-life bickering with Republican candidates during the debates, including references to body parts, viewers were as entertained as when they watch Real Housewives, a show famous for its vulgar fights. When Trump says, “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” voters might think Kardashians, a show about wealthy lifestyles. When he says something non-factual, voters can be forgiving: after all, viewers did not stop watching Honey Boo Boo or Newlyweds because the characters said unscientific things (remember when Jessica Simpson was confused about tuna being chicken of the sea?).
And yet again, there are differences. An indispensable element in Reality TV is flawed characters coming clean, or at least paying for their blunders. Viewers want to see outrageousness on TV, but they also want to know that the outrageous fellow can be introspective, and maybe even contrite. Those one-on-one moments in Reality TV, when the camera focuses exclusively on a single character, who talks confessionally about choices, are an important part of this TV genre. Viewers might have enjoyed watching The Bacheorette’s Chad Johnson act as a serial bully, but they also enjoyed that in the end he did not get the rose. It’s OK if our TV characters are mean, over-the-top, and insane, but we want to see the wrong-doers go through some self-reflection and ideally recognize mistakes, or else pay.
But self-reflectively or contrite is never how Trump portrays himself. Trump the politician is therefore not a perfect Reality TV star. His self-confidence is so extreme that he comes across as too non-human and too inhumane. This hurts him with voters, except those looking for some quasi-monster. While the electorate might crave the unpredictable candidness that Trump spews, many reject his unpunished bravado.
Analogies are helpful, but so are distinctions. The ways in which Trump departs from its closest peers can help us understand why his movement is generating so much rejection, even within its natural constituents. As a proto-type of different models of illiberal politics worldwide, Trumpism comes with important defects. To use the language of retail, the product is leaving the factory with irregularities. This explains why Trump’s appeal, despite the strong demand that might exist for some of his policy recommendations, has limits.
Trump may still win the election. The market for irregular products is not small. His movement may still expand, especially if birth-defects are corrected. But for now, Trumpism remains an electoral offering that is hitting a wall, rejected by most liberals and many conservatives. Some voters will buy this irregular model, many won’t.