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Feb. 29, 2024

Ask the expert: What a 2nd Trump term could mean for democracy and advancing policy

The 2024 presidential election is squaring up to be a rematch of the 2020 presidential election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. This comes as Trump continues his primary winning streak. He defeated his only remaining Republican challenger, Nikki Haley, in both South Carolina and Michigan, the most recent primaries ahead of Super Tuesday. As questions arise about how Trump would govern in a second term, some have called attention to what a Trump Administration could mean for American democracy.


Headshot of Erica Frantz.
Erica Frantz is an associate professor in MSU's Department of Political Science. Courtesy photo.

Erica Frantz is an associate professor of political science in Michigan State University’s Department of Political Science in the College of Social Science. She is an expert on authoritarian politics, democratization and the dynamics of political change. Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security and Joseph Wright of Pennsylvania State University are publishing a book this year, “The Origins of Elected Strongmen,” which explores how parties that promote a leader’s personal agenda threaten democracy.

Frantz answers questions about why personalist parties are a concern for democracy, looking at examples throughout history and one that has emerged today: Trump’s Republican Party.

Responses are excerpts from anarticle originally published in The Conversation.

What are personalist political parties and how are they a threat?

Personalist political parties exist primarily to promote and further the leader’s personal political agenda, as opposed to advancing policy and personnel choices. This leaves party elites lacking the incentive and capacity to push back against a leader’s power grab. 

Typical political parties, by contrast, select new leaders at regular intervals, giving elites in the party chances to win the nomination in the future if the party is popular. Their leaders usually have to rise up the ranks of the party to secure the post, having worked with other party elites along the way.These so-called personalist parties, as my colleagues and I have researched, threaten democracy because they lack the incentives and ability to resist their leader’s efforts to consolidate power. There is strong evidence supporting this pathway using original data on ruling party personalism in all the world’s democracies from 1991 to 2020.

The message is clear: greater personalism in the support party of incumbent leaders endangers democracy.

How does Trump’s Republican Party resemble a personalist party?

Though it was not always this way, today’s Republican Party now closely fits the personalist mold. Trump secured the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 having little relationship with or experience in the party. In fact, he switched party allegiance several times and had never held any elected office before becoming president.

After Trump’s victory, the Republican establishment’s grip faded as he became the party. Under his first presidential administration between 2016 and 2020, the loyalty of many of his backers (including those in his inner circle) was to Trump rather than the Republican Party. Many of these backers were even critical of the party, which they saw as weak and corrupt. 

Personalism only increased in the party since Trump was voted out in 2020. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2021, for example, a larger-than-life golden statue of Trump dominated the merchandise hall. As Robert Kagan noted in September 2021, “the movement’s passion was for Trump, not the party.” 

Trump’s supersized control over the Republican Party has transformed other elites in the party into sycophants, fearful of losing influence should they fall out of Trump’s favor. This dynamic is harmful to democracy because — if Trump were to win office again — he is unlikely to face pushback from the party in response to a power grab, which all signs indicate he is likely to pursue. 

Why are personalist parties harmful to democracy?

There are a number of common themes that emerge from our research that help explain this. Here are just a few examples:

·      Loyalty to the person, not the party: In personalist parties, elites are loyal to the leader rather than the party. With party personalization, those elites who are politically experienced are replaced with less experienced individuals who are loyalists of the leader. They see their political futures as intricately linked to the leader, not the party. As a result, they are likely to support the leader’s agenda regardless of how threatening it may be to democracy. Experience in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, as it is known in Turkish, illustrates this. The party’s high ranks initially included a number of established politicians, but over time, Erdogan replaced these individuals with loyalists. This paved the way for him to consolidate control, including allocating power from the parliament to the presidency in 2018 to expand his influence.

·      Official endorsement of the leader’s actions: Elites in personalist parties often go along with a leader’s antidemocratic actions, rather than push back against them. When the party higher-ups endorse rather than condemn the leader’s undemocratic inclinations, it sends a signal to supporters that nothing is wrong, and they get in line to back the leader. In Brazil, for example, then-President Jair Bolsonaro suggested to his supporters that the 2022 elections might be fraudulent, implying that election officials might rig the results in his opponent’s favor. Members of the political elite (including those in Brazil’s Congress) backed these unfounded claims, cueing Bolsonaro’s supporters to see his behaviors as compatible with a healthy democracy. This set the stage for them to resort to violence when Bolsonaro lost what was widely considered a free and fair race.

·      Polarization of society: Leaders of personalist parties are polarizing. Policy choices reflect their preferences rather than a bargaining process among multiple actors and institutions. Those groups not in alignment with the leader end up sidelined in the decision-making process. As divisions grow, supporters of such leaders defiantly defend them, even in the face of actions that harm democracy. Take Venezuela, historically one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Former President Hugo Chávez’s grabs for power splintered Venezuelan society, dividing it over what the rules of the game should be and who should have access to power. Chavez’s actions polarized society, ultimately pushing the country toward dictatorship.

What could happen to democracy in the U.S. under a second Trump term?

Power-hungry leaders like Trump are common. What matters is less the ambitions of such leaders, and more the incentive and capacity of those in their support group to tame them. As an indicator of this, our research shows that when personalist ruling parties hold legislative majorities or curb judicial constraints, there is little that stands in the way of the grab for power. For example, if Republicans were to win a slim Senate majority, they might abolish the filibuster, limiting Democrats’ ability to hold up legislation they opposed.

Longstanding and wealthy democracies are remarkably resilient to the challenges that confront them. Personalism in the support parties of elected leaders, however, undercuts these protective guardrails. The personalist nature of the Republican Party means that if Trump were to win office again, he is unlikely to face pushback from the party on any issue. 

All signs indicate that Trump, if reelected, is likely to pursue a power grab by, for example, purging professional bureaucrats, expanding the Supreme Court or using the Insurrection Act to deploy the military against protesters. Party members may even support him in that power grab. With the Republican Party taking a personalist turn under Trump’s spell, democracy in the U.S. will likely suffer under a second Trump term.

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