Overview

Given the defining principles of the party, a Democratic Trump is hard to imagine. But a Black Trump would never be tolerated

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We’re living through a period of rising authoritarianism in US politics. The January 6th Capitol riot was not an isolated incident but a culmination of conservative extremism. Former President Donald Trump regularly flouted political norms and pushed his base toward what were previously fringe, anti-democratic positions. There is evidence that the Republican Party has moved much further to the right than Democrats have to the left. Despite all of this, there is a pervasive narrative that both parties have become extremist, and that both parties are becoming authoritarian. Nothing more could be further from the truth, and the best possible example is asking if a Black, Democratic equivalent to Trump could become President. 

Trump has always been a man devoid of morals, who is entirely focused on financial enrichment and personal aggrandizement

Prior to becoming President, Donald Trump had never held elected office. He had never shown that much interest in politics whatsoever. But he was a well-known entertainer and reality show host. His claim to fame was the real estate business he inherited from his father, but Trump took part in a wide range of failed business ventures over his tenure, including steaks, airlines, and even a university. Throughout it all, Trump remained bombastic and egocentric, loathe to admit defeat or any personal fault. His businesses had significant legal issues, from civil lawsuits over invoices not paid to contractors, to government investigations over housing discrimination. Trump has always been a man devoid of morals, who is entirely focused on financial enrichment and personal aggrandizement. This is before thinking about his xenophobic political views, considering that Trump attempted to ban Muslim immigration and wanted to severely curtail Latino immigration into the country. On top of it all, Trump refused to learn about the mechanisms of the US government, had no interest in learning how Congress or specific policies worked, and consistently went on bizarre rants that were nearly incomprehensible. 

So what would a Black version of Trump look like?

Let’s imagine former President Barack Obama, who the Republican base reviled (as Democrats despised Trump). Obama was a clean-cut, scandal-free President. He was extremely well-spoken and well-versed in the specifics of American governance.

Now imagine instead that Obama was a billionaire who promoted himself and his family at every opportunity. Who ran several failed businesses and refused to pay contractors after they completed work for his companies. Who was sued countless times for shady business practices. Who had different children by several different women. Who called the media the “enemy of the people.” Who was xenophobic and thought that people outside of his immediate community shouldn’t be allowed inside the country, let alone given political power. Who pushed to break democratic norms, and install himself in power even after losing the election conventionally. Who pushed his supporters towards violence to do so.

Could someone who looked like Barack Obama get away with the behavior of Donald Trump and still become President? 

Obviously not. Trump can have no experience, act obnoxiously, have no regard for the rules, and still be rewarded with immense power. There are examples of other Republican politicians who have adopted Trump’s political style and been rewarded by the voters. But there is no equivalent on the Democratic side. And American cultural norms and political expectations make it virtually impossible for a Black person to succeed in politics in Trump-like fashion. Trump can become President because this country was originally founded to provide disproportionate political power to rural, land-owning white men, the same demographic who is most likely to support Trump today. Likewise, it means that other groups have a more difficult time winning elections. There’s a reason there have only been 11 Black US Senators in all of American history. The modern Democratic base also tends to be more diverse and highly educated, making it very difficult for extremists to win. Whereas the Republican base has fewer demographic divisions, which makes it easier to coalesce around extremism. 

That’s why it’s important that we distinguish what Trumpism is, and why there is no Black equivalent. There are no Black Democratic Presidential candidates who would push for a subversion of US elections in order to gain an advantage. Democratic candidates, especially people of color, are held to a standard that Trump is not, which is partly why people of color remain underrepresented in Congress relative to their share of the population.

It is vital to call out the “both-sides” claims that Democrats also incline toward authoritarianism, especially when US democracy remains under fire. But it’s equally vital to recognize that race plays a decisive factor in allowing Trump to be Trump.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.