International Patterns Show Why Trump Is So Hard to Beat

Populists in power tend to stay in power.

An illustration of Donald Trump walking
Getty / The Atlantic

Many opponents of Donald Trump look upon their country in shame. What does it say about the United States that someone like Trump could not only win a presidential election, but also retain the support of so many Americans despite his evident failings—including his bungled response to the pandemic and his unwillingness to promise that he will accept the outcome of the election?

I feel like that too when I come across yet another callous or racist statement by the president. But as a political scientist who studies the rise of authoritarian populists around the world, I know that Trump’s enduring appeal is closer to the rule than the exception.

In recent years, populists—politicians who rail against political elites and refuse to acknowledge limits on the legitimate exercise of their powers—have conquered the highest office in democratic countries around the world, including Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The appeal of all three has proved surprisingly resilient. Modi resoundingly won a second term. Bolsonaro, who is still in his first term, is favored to win again in most polls. And while Duterte is ineligible to run for reelection, he has been much more popular than his predecessors.

The United States is not unique in tolerating a populist president for so long. But it might prove itself exceptional in November: If polls prove accurate, America will be among the rare major democracies in recent memory to throw a populist out of office at the end of his first term.

When Trump was first elected, many of his opponents fantasized that he would leave office long before his term was up. Perhaps he would get bored of his political responsibilities. Perhaps he would be impeached. Or perhaps he would be sent to jail. Whatever the precise form of his demise, a hundred op-eds assured us, this turbulence couldn’t possibly last four full years.

This wishful thinking is typical among opponents of authoritarian populists. But populist presidents and prime ministers, on average, stay in office twice as long as nonpopulist ones: six and a half years compared with three.

As Jordan Kyle and I have shown, this discrepancy becomes especially striking when you examine governments that have been in office for more than 10 years. A populist president or prime minister is five times as likely to remain in office after a decade as a nonpopulist one.

We also found few examples of populists who lost power after just one term. As countries such as Hungary and Turkey demonstrate, voters tend not to recognize their mistake until populist leaders have done serious damage to democratic institutions.

As we approach an election in which democracy is on the ballot in the United States, the enduring popularity of populists elsewhere should serve as an urgent warning.

Even when many pundits have long since counted them out, populists have tended to win reelection. And though many polls show Joe Biden ahead, the most sophisticated models still give Trump a one in five chance of winning. Given what is on the line, those odds are far from comforting.

The international context, moreover, also shows that those few populists who don’t get reelected for a second term tend to retain a significant and damaging presence in their country’s politics. Silvio Berlusconi, for example, first became Italy’s prime minister in 1994. He lost his governing majority within months, then quickly recovered, dominating Italian politics for the next two decades. Poland's Jarosław Kaczyński became prime minister in 2006. He lost power in 2007 and remained in opposition for the following decade. But his party regained power in 2015, and has been subverting the country’s democratic institutions ever since.

Although worries about both the U.S. election and its aftermath are rational, the primary lesson I take from the international context is an inspiring one. After four years in which it felt extremely hard for many Americans to be proud of our country, we might soon defy global trends by throwing a populist out of office at the first available opportunity. And if we do manage to turn Trump into a one-term president, we can lead the international fight against the rising forces of illiberalism.