As the impeachment trial of Donald Trump proceeds, the House managers are arguing that disqualification from future office is critical for our democracy. It is true that expressing condemnation of the Capitol riots is a worthy goal. But keeping Trump out of office will not keep him out of politics, and it won’t even keep him out of the White House. Trumpism is alive and well in the grassroots of the Republican party, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
We have seen many leaders in other countries, especially populists, who have found ways to wield power from behind the throne without formal office. In the early 2000s, for example, Jaroslaw Kaczyński served as Prime Minister of Poland while his brother was President. After his brother died in a plane crash, Kaczyński ran for the Presidency and lost. But he remains the most powerful person in the Law and Justice Party, and in 2015, engineered a massive victory, with Andrzej Duda winning the presidency. Some refer to Kaczyński by the informal title of “Chief of State” even though he has only been an ordinary member of parliament for most of this time.
Other leaders have had their spouse or siblings run for office, sometimes when they are no longer able to. After he was exiled from Thailand in a military coup, Thaksin Shinawatra changed the name of his political party, and his sister Yingluck won the prime ministership. Thaksin was widely believed to be calling the shots from Dubai, and having his sister in office from 2011-2014 extended his influence. It did not end up well for Thailand, which suffered another coup and remains in turmoil today. Such nepotism seems attractive to certain kinds of populists and authoritarians, which are both qualities associated with Trumpism.
Trump is what the German sociologist Max Weber called a charismatic, which means his authority doesn’t come from holding office, or from any rational process by which his followers examine evidence and make a calculation of costs and benefits. His supporters have so little faith in institutions of any kind—courts, elections, legislatures, the press—that they believe the word of their leader over demonstrable fact. This quasi-religious form of Trump’s power is a fact of our national life now.
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