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Why Trumpian Populism Failed

Former US President Donald Trump didn’t think strategically or have a plan to translate his autocratic tendencies into new, authoritarian institutions. Frighteningly, however, it isn't difficult to see how a more serious and savvy wannabe autocrat might have succeeded.

CHICAGO – Although it may seem hard to believe for anyone who watched the spectacle, former US President Donald Trump’s recent second impeachment trial in the Senate suggested that American democracy remains strong. Four years of Trump’s bombast and blatant flouting of precedent and procedure had undermined confidence in the US political system’s resilience. But the impeachment proceedings seemed to affirm the hardiness of the country’s democratic institutions.

The Trump administration shook America by actively rejecting those institutions, culminating in the January 6 invasion of the US Capitol by a Trump-summoned mob. Under President Joe Biden, it feels like solid footing has been regained.

In fact, US democracy remains vulnerable, not least owing to many Americans’ lack of commitment to democratic institutions. While Trump worked to de-institutionalize America and enrich himself while in office, the Republican Party either sat on its hands or in some cases applauded, paving the way for sedition. Many Americans and a sizable chunk of the political elite were willing to see US democracy overthrown – an impression that all but seven Senate Republicans reinforced when they voted to acquit Trump in February.