TK: You speak in the book of being worried for the future of representative democracy. How much more or less bleak does the picture look now, after four years of Donald Trump? It looks possible that his legacy will be the delegitimization of electoral politics, as traditional hierarchies have almost rallied to something like an authoritarian counterrevolution in response to him. If people have lost faith in authority, have elites also lost faith in the ability of populations to hold up their end of the bargain in democracies?
Gurri: First, I hold that Trump was a symptom — an effect rather than a cause. He possessed an outlandish personality, and that brought its own effects, but one can easily find Trump-like populists all over the world. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, for example, makes Trump seem like an etiquette book by comparison. Globally, the public is looking for alternatives to the ruling elites, and these populists, by their very outrageousness, are signaling that they are not them.
Second, the elites, as I said before, are stuck in a sterile nostalgia for the 20th century. They are at war with the world as it actually is today, and I imagine they would love to disband the public and summon a more obedient version. Hence the panic about fake news and the tinkering with control over content.
When Trump won in 2016, the elites refused to accept his legitimacy. He was said to be the tool of Vladimir Putin and an aspiring tyrant. When Trump lost in 2020, he and many of his followers refused to accept the legitimacy of that election. A Trumpist mob sacked the Capitol building to demonstrate its rage. None of this is good for democracy or the legitimacy of our political institutions.
But let’s look at the big picture. Trump won in 2016, and, in his inimitable style, ran the US government for four years. He lost in 2020 and moved out of the White House to make room for Joe Biden, just as he was supposed to do. Now Biden is in charge. He gets to run the government. The drama of democracy has generated lots of turbulence but remarkably little violence. The old institutions are battered and maladapted but they have deep roots. The American people may be undergoing a psychotic episode, but they are fundamentally sensible.
With regards to democracy, I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. Not sure whether that’s an analytical judgment, or just an act of faith…