May 20, 2016
I’m sure we are all tired about hearing about Donald Trump, but as a case in 21st century populism, it is fascinating.
Before we get my main point, allow me to remind the reader of the significance of all these maple leaves. As a Canadian, my perspective is mostly unique. Specifically, we occupy a political space that is indisputably of the American continent without suffering from the worst of the political excesses felt south of the border. Therefore, I am fascinated at the whispers of a mutiny in the Republican party. The politics of Donald Trump are a pill too extreme for old guard of the party to accept: the old guard of the Republican party of the USA. For many Canadians, as for many Europeans, the Republican party’s party line seems like surrealist satire of Western democracy, therefore to have politics too extreme for even them? Well, it’s hard to not take notice.
It begs the question, why are these politics less acceptable to the American right wing than it is to Europe, who prides itself on its socially progressive and humane politics? That this identity is often, and rightly, challenged aside, the differences in the US and many European electoral systems might hold a clue.
Proportional Representation might play a role. In the US, the de facto two party system might make the Republican leadership nervous about getting behind Trump for president. US elections, in recent years, have been very close. Ideologues don’t move much in their political participation, so the elections often come down to whoever can take the political centre. Trump is toxic among many people in the political centre in Europe, not least of all because the parallels he draws with fascists. Whereas, in many countries in Europe, it’s not a “winner takes all” scenario and smaller parties can take chances on ideology instead of relying on barter politics.
There are flaws with this analysis. France does not use proportional representation (mostly) and yet the National Front is one of the most notorious populist parties in the world. Britain is the birthplace of Anglo democracy and most of our political traditions and populism still has roots there in the form of men like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson; admittedly, those roots are not very deep, as Farage, self-proclaimed champion of Britain in Brussels, failed to achieve electoral success domestically. It seems Britons are only comfortable with electing him when it means sending him to another country. This could be more to do with dislike for Farage himself than Brussels.
While proportional representation is not a definitive answer to the question why populism is more acceptable to the European establishment than the American, it would seem to be a strong contribution. Clearly, a number of Americans have signalled their willingness to put the presidency into Donald Trump’s tiny baby hands. If the elections were held under a proportional system, Donald Trump would likely earn quite a number of seats; maybe even more than those possessed by the National Front or Alternative für Deutschland currently possesses. The Republicans would be right to worry about Trump spiting the conservative vote, but for the most part, Trump would be someone else’s headache.
Donald Trump isn’t someone else’s headache. He is the headache of the Republican party. If they nominate Ted Cruz as part of a mutiny without taking Trump out of the race, they will undoubtedly lose this coming election. They can’t win if they split their base; even if they take the centre. Even if there aren’t many practical lessons for Europe and Canada in the politics of Donald Trump, we’d all do well to watch this closely as it unfolds. Hopefully, this is a once in a lifetime event.C. Shannon