Political scientists across the US have been alarmed by the election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populist parties in many European nations. There have been several political science conferences where the rise of populism has been analyzed and discussed. This article provides a good summary of the reasons for the rise of populist sentiment and the erosion of democratic institutions that are a real threat to democracy. The movement from democracy to autocracy is well understood. It has happened in Poland, Turkey and Hungary. It begins with attacks on all of the institutions that contain executive power. It begins with judicial system which preserves the rule of law. It progresses from there to attacks on other institutions such as the free press. It is not surprising to see Trump claiming that biased judges have ruled against some of his executive orders. Nor is it surprising that he attacked his Attorney General for recusing himself in a legal dispute. Trump expected his Attorney General to defend his interests even if he had to violate the laws which pledged to uphold. Trump has also been somewhat successful in his attacks on the free press. Almost half of our citizens believe that the media report false information about him and his policies. Trump has no regard for the truth. He lies repeatedly about almost everything and his base is indifferent to facts which disconfirm his falsehoods. In other words, he has normalized dishonesty. The erosion of social norms like telling the truth is a big step in the path the autocracy.
There are lots of social and economic reasons for the rise of populism in the US and in Europe. Many of our citizens are distressed and they do not believe that governments have attending to their needs. Trump capitalized on their discontent. He ran against the Republican establishment in his primary campaign and he is still running his campaign. He blames the Republican Congress when they fail to pass bills that he supports. He cannot fail. He always blames others when things go wrong. He could make things right if he did not have to deal with Congress and other institutions which stand his way. That is also a path to autocracy that has been successful in several European nations. Trump will make the Republican Party his party or he will replace its leaders. Single party rule is the norm in autocratic nations. Elections are held but minority parties have little influence.
The democratic institutions are stronger in the US than they are elsewhere. Our situation is not hopeless but as long as large segments of our population remain distressed they will lose faith in our democratic system and look elsewhere for solutions. Ironically, the policies that Trump is promoting will make things worse for the populists who elected him. They don't understand that but when government fails again to satisfy their needs they will be on the lookout for a new savior.