One of the advantages that science fiction has as a genre is the ability of writers to recast issues by presenting them in another place and time. On occasion, the transformation of our problems into another situation can be forced (e.g., the original Star Trek episode in which the racial conflict was between those who were black on the left side of the face and those who were black on the right side of the face).
During the third quarter of last century, one of the top science fiction writers was Robert Heinlein. While most famous for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, his early career consisted of a series of short stories and novellas that formed a “future history” — taking the United States from the mid-20th Century until around 2200. In several of the stories in this sequence, Heinlein mentions Nehemiah Scudder, a preacher who became popular enough to be elected president in 2012. Scudder then establishes a religious dictatorship which governs until it is overthrown around 2100. While Heinlein never got around to writing a story focused on Scudder’s rise to power, his summary of that rise in other stories identified some aspects of American politics that were not immune to the rise of a demagogue. So in what ways does the election of Donald Trump mirror those aspects and in what ways do they differ.
The obvious difference is that Donald Trump is not a fundamentalist preacher. However, writing in 1941, (well before the rise of the Moral Majority), Heinlein noted the power of fundamentalism in American power. While Trump should not have been the natural candidate for fundamentalists, somehow he managed to get the support of fundamentalists over other “better fitting” candidates during the primary followed by the usual support for the Republican nominee in the general election.
Another significant difference is that Heinlein did not have the advantage of knowing how the two parties would revise their presidential nomination process. As such, Heinlein forecast an America in which there were multiple third parties splintering the vote — a forecast that was not outrageous in the 1940s. (In 1948, both the Dixiecrats and the Progressives managed to get 2% of the vote and — as late as 1932 — the Socialists managed to get 2% of the vote.) However, instead of these splinter groups emerging as significant third parties, they have become factions within the two major parties.
Heinlein did get two key factors right — the low number of votes and the ability to win with a plurality. According to Heinlein’s later descriptions of the election of 2012, only 63% of registered voters voted (and less than 50% of eligible voters) and Scudder got 27% of the popular vote which translated into 81% of the electoral vote. While not great, in the November Presidential elections, a majority of eligible voters do tend to vote — around 55% in 2016. However, the same can’t be said for the party primaries. Comparted to the 137 million who voted in November, only around 62 million (approximately 25% of eligible voters participated in the primary elections). Additionally, while the third parties only represent a small share of the vote, the primary vote tends to be very splintered. While the Democratic Party rules (proportional in every state and district) force a successful candidate to get close to a majority of the primary vote (Clinton got approximately 55% of the Democratic Primary vote), the Republican Party rules allow a candidate to rack up a significant majority of the delegates while winning narrow pluralities in states and districts (Trump ended up with 44% of the vote despite being essential unopposed in the last month of the campaign and was only around 40% when the last of his opponents stopped campaigning). Trump won a lot of delegates in states where he got around one-third of the vote. (By March 15, Trump had just slightly less than 50% of the delegates while getting around 37% of the vote.) The low turnout in primary elections plus the use of plurality rules makes it possible for “outsider” candidates to contend and win the party nomination even if they do not speak for either the majority of party loyalists (i.e. those who regularly vote in the party primaries and work for the party’s candidates) or the majority of the party supporters in the general election.
The big things that Heinlein got wrong were the relative weakness of the President and the separateness of elections. Winning the presidency is not enough in the U.S. The composition of Congress and state governments matters too. Additionally, while a president or a presidential candidate can have influence on other races (especially in the general where ticket splitting is becoming less common), candidates still have to run for these lesser offices on their own. Over the past sixty years, both parties have become somewhat hollow, lacking the ability to restrict the candidates who run in primaries or to assure the nomination for the leadership’s preferred candidate. Every candidate (whether primary challenger or incumbent) has to run and raise money in their own districts, and no president has the ability to deliver enough money to every congressional district and state legislative district to guarantee a party composed of clones. Furthermore, even the most popular president is unable to deliver victories for his party for every state-wide official and every state legislative chambers. As such, as we have seen with challenges to the Muslim travel ban, there will be pockets of opposition to every president. (And there is enough of a dedication to the rule of law from judges and the militaries to prevent a president from crushing the opposition through martial law.)
One last factor that played a part in Heinlein’s predictions was the “cult of personality” around political leadership. While we are not yet at the level of the near-deification of Scudder by his followers, we are seeing a fluidity of political beliefs. Since the election, polls of Republicans show vast changes in their answers to certain policy questions — friendlier toward Russia, more protectionist, etc. If party loyalty stops being about a unified world of a view and more about an us versus them battle for power, it becomes much easier for demagogues to win.
Some takeaways from this diversion into whether Trump resembles a fictional account of how the U.S. could slip into a dictatorship. First, whatever changes may occur to the Democratic rules for the 2020 nomination cycle, they must still contain some assurance that a nominee must represent the consensus of the party. Second, every election matters — whether a primary or a municipal or off-year or mid-term election. Getting good candidates to fill these offices provide a significant check on an out of control president. We need to start working on 2018 now. Third, turnout matters. The nature of our government means that there really are no minor elections. Even the presidential general election turnout is inadequate, but we desperately need to improve the turnout in these other elections. If every Democrat who voted in 2018 for a Democratic House candidate votes for a Democratic House candidate in 2018, we would win control of the House. Fourth, we need to work on the Democratic brand. A lot of the critique that I have heard about the 2016 elections reflects how poorly we have been conveying the Democratic brand. The Clinton campaign had positions on a lot of issues. However, the vast majority of the voters did not know about these positions. Voters perceived the Democrats as focusing on certain issues (aiding specific groups) that did not matter to the voters and missed the broader pro-growth policies. While misguided, Republicans have done a better job of identifying (inaccurately) problems that they contend inhibit growth and suggesting that, if we just trust them to fix those issues, we will have growth that we have not had in decades. They also do a much better job of getting on the same page and using the same terms to describe those problems. It’s nice to have detailed plans, that is part of governing. But winning elections is about having a couple of key ideas and pounding on them constantly. A demagogue has an advantage over serious candidates in that the demagogue only has a handful of ideas and is not distracted by the details of how to address any particular issue. (e.g., It is easy to say that we will negotiate great trade deals if you don’t have to identify what is wrong with the current deals or how you will fix them.) There are some issues on which Democrats have done a decent job of simplifying the issue, but we tend to let our disagreements about the details out during campaigns while Republicans focus on the big picture.
As 2016 shows, the U.S. is not immune from electing a demagogue to a position of power. The Framers of the Constitution knew this and designed barriers to keep such individuals from destroying the country. Those barriers depend upon voters electing individuals to positions of power that have the ability to resist any attempt to convert an election win into a dictatorship. To succeed, we need to start working hard on 2018 and 2020.