An outsider runs for political office in a hotly contested election. He has a closet full of skeletons the conventional wisdom views as a liability, but he regards as an asset. He preys on distrust of the government, vowing to obliterate “politics as usual.” Against a backdrop of demographic change and economic disruption, the candidate exploits a once-dominant group’s fears of being left behind. His behavior may be unorthodox, but it is authentic and even reassuring to his base.
The United States, the world’s oldest democracy, has just watched this political story unfold, but it has played out many times before — including in the world’s largest democracy, India. For the past several years, I have been researching a book on politicians in India, where as many as one-third of national politicians won office in 2014’s general election despite being named in at least one ongoing criminal case. Rather than experience rejection at the ballot box, these non-traditional politicians have been richly rewarded. And their playbook is strikingly similar to the one Donald Trump executed with aplomb to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election.