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A Crisis of Legitimacy


Right-wing populists seem to be cropping up everywhere these days. What gives?

It’s not just Donald Trump in the US, either, though he’s the most salient, evocative example. Conservative anti-government movements have been rising in Europe, as well. It’s becoming less and less common for political parties to engage faithfully with one another–to recognize that, while they may disagree on particular issues, they all ultimately want what’s best for the country and its people. This attitude has given way to distrust and acrimony, and as right-wing populists enter the fray, the very legitimacy of the government and its institutions are thrown into doubt.

This is hardly a new trend in the United States. Rebellion is in our blood, and likely always will be, given the circumstances under which we were founded. A distrust of government power is a cultural trait we’ve always possessed, and the last time we had a massive legitimacy crisis, we endured the deadliest war in our history. The Civil War was unquestionably about slavery. Confederate apologists attempt to frame it as a “states’ rights” question, but the only states’ rights question in play was over the fate of slavery. In that particular legitimacy crisis, Southern states did not believe that the federal government could behave as it did–that, in attempting to limit the spread of slavery, the government had delegitimized itself. This led to secession and, eventually, war.

The end of that war and the restored Union that resulted forged a new common identity for Americans. There is some irony in such a crisis of legitimacy ultimately causing a strong reaffirmation of it. But the seeds of discontent, planted by our national myths and leftover animus from that bloody conflict, have endured and grown. While the process has taken decades, we now have a political party predicated almost solely on a refusal to government–on a commitment to treat a Democratic Presidency as illegitimate, even illegal. This occurred to some extent under President Bill Clinton, culminating in his impeachment, though not his removal from office. Efforts redoubled when Obama came to power, however, and gridlock has been the name of the game since Republicans took Congress in 2010. It’s not simply that they disagree with Democrats, but that Democrats are anti-American, evil, and don’t deserve to govern. More than that, the very idea that the country should be governed by a strong, centralized institution has been made an object of scorn for a great many Americans. Donald Trump’s success is in large measure because he’s an outsider who is harshly critical of both parties, the government, and the entire political system. Anyone who cares about having a functional government should find this trend very troubling, especially since Trump is not alone. There are now numerous governors and state legislatures that are committed to Tea Party experiments in government reduction. Kansas and Oklahoma are but two notorious examples. Both states are economically devastated, riddled with debt, and see their institutions imploding. It will take decades to fix these problems, and they were caused not by Democratic over-regulation, but by Republicans dismantling government safeguards and refusing to invest in basic infrastructure or people’s futures.

Similar trends are appearing in Europe, as well, and while it would be easy to attribute these developments to economic factors, the reality of the situation is far more disturbing. Some people assume that Trump’s support is coming mostly from disaffected poor white voters–the stereotypical Appalachian coal mining family, left to rot since the mines petered out, or the auto worker displaced by machines and international competition. Instead, Trump’s supporters are solidly middle class, with an average household income of $72,000 a year. But the reasons for this aren’t hard to discern. These are people with privilege–usually white, male privilege–who feel both racial and class anxiety. Trump nakedly appeals to both, and makes absurd promises that no one could keep. Right-wing populists elsewhere take the same tack and offer the same appeal: middle-class voters who are afraid of Muslims, refugees, or some nebulous concept of “European bureaucracy” have no faith that the neoliberal consensus which has persisted since the end of the Cold War is serving them. The fact of the matter is that that status quo is what allowed them to become middle class in the first place. But what they fear is competition: from women, from foreigners, and from poor people being given a leg up by government development initiatives. They fear losing their status to people who don’t “deserve” it. These fears are dramatically overblown, but efforts to communicate this are met with anger. Only ignorant, blind sheeple could fail to see what an existential threat the “flood” of Muslim refugees presents! Likewise, undocumented immigrants in the US are viewed by right-wing populists as a secret epidemic, a plague tolerated (or even promoted by) by liberals and progressives intent on destroying white civilization. People who dare to make openly racist expressions are not shy about this: “diversity” is code for “white genocide,” they say. Most politicians (and, indeed, people in general) are observant enough to realize that blatant white supremacist language gets you in trouble, so they tend to avoid it. But such anxieties about diversity and racial and gender progressivism are real and widespread, even if they are uttered mainly in code.

The dynamics differ somewhat in Europe–the Other is not the same Other as in the US, and indeed varies from country to country–but the underlying psychology and the political behaviors manifested are essentially the same. These are people who believe their governments have sold them out. The governments have instead handed themselves over to nefarious actors who will only ensure a once great civilization’s downfall. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult mode of thinking to correct, because to argue with it is to be taken for an ignoramus at best and a collaborator at worst. It’s doubly troublesome since, in the end, governments tend to bend over backwards for middle-class citizens of the majority ethno-religious group. For such individuals to believe that they are uniquely under assault represents such a hopeless detachment from reality that it’s hard to know where to begin addressing it.

Solutions are also harder to come by. In the US, moves toward devolving government to the local level alongside privatizing government services is how this struggle has largely played out. Occasional victories at the federal level offer some protection to the marginalized and oppressed, but as we’ve seen recently with same sex marriage and regulations surrounding how transgender people access public restrooms, the federal government imposing specific orders can still be heavily resisted. One can hope that national institutions can simply weather the populist assault until the fervor loses momentum, but it’s impossible to say how resilient such sentiments are–a war of attrition may be a losing proposition.

It’s undeniable that norms are set, in large measure, by the people who administer and represent our institutions–that is, political leaders themselves. This is why it has been so irresponsible of Republicans to use legitimacy-oriented arguments when disagreeing with Democratic Presidents and Congresses. It convinces voters that their suspicions are correct, that the government truly is hopelessly corrupt, and a system so badly impaired by graft, bribery, and criminality cannot be reformed–only destroyed. There can be no long-term solution to this problem without politicians engaging in a rhetorical disarmament and resetting the norms of discourse. But this requires the political arena to do more candidate-level gatekeeping, which may be undemocratic. It is here that we encounter one of the most difficult and basic contradictions of democracy. A free and open system requires that any citizen of lawful age be allowed to pursue office, and laws protecting free expression allow virtually unlimited parameters for how such campaigns are conducted. But it also permits candidates to appeal the basest, most oppressive instincts of the electorate, which will inevitably come to harm marginalized people. It is difficult to justify a democratic system that simply allows a dominant majority to run roughshod over everyone else. The basic rights and dignity of all people must be protected, no matter what policy-level disagreements are currently in play. But this very idea is under attack in places where these right-wing movements are taking hold (or have already done so). Donald Trump doesn’t treat Hispanic people or Muslims as human beings–the way he speaks of them makes clear that he mocks and denigrates their humanity.

Trump is likely to lose this November, but that will not end the fundamental conflict, nor will it restore a perception of legitimacy to our government. This is a problem we’ll likely have to deal with for many years, even decades. It’s unknown what the outcome will be. What is clear is that our existing democratic institutions are ill-equipped to provide both a government of and by the people, and a government for all people, in an environment that’s so fractious and polarized. We’ll have to develop new tools and ideas to face these problems. I don’t know what those tools would be, necessarily. If I happen to think of any, you’ll read about it here.