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Party movements and Donald Trump

Party movements in the 2016 US election: A whisper of Weimar?

The role of party movements in the 2016 US presidential election reflected the electorate’s deep discontent and confirmed the endemic problems faced by both major political parties. The Democrats failed to articulate a unifying and persuasive message; while the Republicans failed to control the candidate nomination process. Out of those failures, party movements, which challenge existing power and advocate change, on the left and right found space to operate.

On the left, the main party movement was typical of those that have appeared during other presidential elections, arising in support of one candidate, and quickly dissolving on that candidate’s failure to secure the presidential nomination. Historical examples of this include the anti-war movement that coalesced around Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 challenge to incumbent Lyndon Johnson; his success persuaded the president not to run for a second term. Similar movements, though not on the left, were associated with John Anderson, a dissident Republican candidate in the 1980 election, and Ross Perot, who challenged George H. W. Bush in 1992. The closest parallel to this kind of party movement in 2016 was demonstrated by the enthusiastic backing that came primarily from young people galvanized by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Sanders campaigned against growing inequality and the erosion of the middle class, for which he blamed Wall Street and large corporations, and called for major change. But unlike the earlier examples, Sanders did not abandon the Democratic Party when he lost the nomination, and he urged his supporters to follow his example.

Some in the pro-Sanders movement did follow him, but without bringing along the backing of the now fading movement of which they had been a part. Yet, even if the movement had held together and supported the Democratic candidate, its impact would have been limited. This is because the demographic groups it represented—young, well-educated, concentrated in large cities in the Northeast–were already a part of the Democratic coalition, and additional votes from them would not have made much difference. In order to have made a difference in the outcome, the movement would have required much greater representation from older white men, the South and Northwest, rural areas, and the industrial heartland–all decisive in giving Trump his victory. No matter how much such voters felt their situation had deteriorated, the culprits identified by Sanders and his movement were too far removed and even too abstract to be reasonable sources of that deterioration.

Bernie Sanders presidential election 2016 supporters
Bernie Pre Caucus by Max Goldberg. CC BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Historically, the emergence of party movements provides insight into prevailing political discontents and dissatisfaction with how established parties approach them. But, as conditions change, existing party movements may no longer capture the mood of the electorate. This is exemplified by the Tea Party movement that emerged after the 2008 election from within the Republican Party. It represented some continuity with previous insurgencies and was influential in affecting a number of Congressional races as well as the behavior of those already elected. However, by 2016, its influence was much less evident, and its irrelevance would be sealed when the movement endorsed Ted Cruz for the presidency.

With the Tea Party less important on the right, another preexisting movement gained prominence. It consisted of loosely affiliated groups united by white nationalism expressed in anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim messages along with Nazi symbolism. It quickly found an affinity for the candidacy of Donald Trump and gave him its support. The movement was named the “alt-right” by its principal ideologist, Richard Spencer, and benefited from a skillful use of social media. The alt-right holds views similar to those of the right-wing news outlet Breitbart News, whose former chief executive Steve Bannon became a strong supporter of Trump and later was rewarded with appointment as White House chief strategist. Overall, given the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right can consider itself to have been successful in affecting the outcome of the election and even look forward to expanding its influence.

Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns espoused their own versions of populist appeals; that is, they framed their appeals in terms of the grievances of the “people vs. elites” and promised to disrupt politics as usual. J. Eric Oliver and Wendy M. Rahn confirm the pervasiveness of populism among the candidates, with Trump the strongest exponent (“Rise of the Trumpenvolk People in the 2016 Election,” Annals of the Academy of the Political and Social Sciences 667 [2016]: 189–206). But Trump also introduced an uninhibited language into the campaign that, during living memory, had not been heard in the rhetoric of a major party candidate. Rallies were often characterized by a disturbing lack of civility and acts of violence involving supporters and opponents of Trump. George Saunders, who attended a number of such rallies, gives some chilling examples. For instance, Saunders was told by one protester that two different Trump supporters had told him that they would like to shoot him in the back of the head. He also witnessed two Hispanic women, quietly watching, who were roughly thrown out of a rally. Such events evoked memories of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the street fights among Nazis, Communists, and anarchists that preceded it.

To link serious unrest generations ago in Germany with sporadic incidents in the United States may not be altogether plausible, but it still offers an apprehensive shiver. The German experience took place under very different conditions in a setting where democratic governance was not yet fully legitimated. The United States, as a mature democracy with deeply rooted institutions of governance, has incomparable advantages. Yet we should remain wary if the evolving political discourse, especially that stimulated by the “alt-right,” continues to coarsen and to threaten violence against minorities. Ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported almost 900 instances of harassment, intimidation, and racial slurs, of which 300 occurred in New York. In the same time span, the Anti-Defamation League similarly reported an upsurge in racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, vandalism, harassment, and assaults.

Featured image credit: Donald Trump with supporters by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Keefe

    “Ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported almost 900 instances of harassment…”

    To be accurate, the SPLC CLAIMS it received over 1,100 reports since the election but its methodology is fundamentally flawed, which the company itself acknowledges through various disclaimers.

    1. Except for a handful of incidents reported in the media (a number of which, sadly, have proven to be hoaxes) ALL of the SPLC’s reports have come to them via an anonymous web page on the company’s website where anyone can “report an incident” without providing any verification.

    2. While claiming 1,100 incidents, the SPLC has yet to make the list public to journalists for verification. There is no way to know what was reported or even how many reports were actually made. All we have is the SPLC’s word on it with no proof.

    3. The SPLC didn’t set up its anonymous web page until the day of the election, so there is no way to know if the rate of alleged incidents has increased or decreased in the months or even the year before the election. When you start at zero any increase becomes a “spike.”

    The whole point of the exercise was to somehow tie the alleged incidents to the election in the public’s mind.

    4. On November 15, the SPLC published a disclaimer on the company website where they themselves admit that:

    “These incidents, aside from news reports, are largely anecdotal.”


    Dec. 16: “The SPLC made every effort to verify each report, but many included in the count remain anecdotal.”


    January 24, 2017, SPLC Intelligence Director Heidi Beirich in a Slate podcast:

    “I would imagine that a share of the incidents we have collected, right, will eventually turn out to be based on nothing, or, a bit of hysteria fueled by the fear people felt after the election. I mean, I think that is a fair point. I’m sure that as we dig in the data that’s exactly what we are going to find out.

    I still think… when all is said and done, that we will find that a lot of this stuff was substantiated. But it remains to be seen, right? It remains to be seen.”


    As Dr. Beirich observes, it really does remain to be seen how many of the incidents can be verified. Under the current system, David Duke could urge his followers to make hundreds of anonymous claims against minorities. How would the media handle those reports?


    Big claims require big proof, which the SPLC has yet to provide. Trust, but verify. It’s what used to be called “journalism” in the old days.

    adjective: anecdotal

    1. (of an account) not necessarily true or reliable, because based on personal accounts rather than facts or research.


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