Trump steadily eroding democracy

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A year after Trump won the election, it’s worth asking the question: Will democracy outlast Trump?

Ronald Reagan once said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” He was right, and we, in the Trump era, are the generation that Reagan was unwittingly speaking about. 

Trump is precisely the kind of demagogue that the founders of America’s democratic republic worried about. They designed a system that anticipated someone like Trump. But his authoritarian instincts and impulses still pose a serious threat to the integrity of our democratic system of government. 

{mosads}The danger, unfortunately, is real. Trump may not be a despot, but he is behaving like a despot’s apprentice — borrowing tactics from dictators and authoritarian strongmen across the globe.


I’ve seen their tactics firsthand in my research, from sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia to the Middle East to beyond the former Iron Curtain of post-Soviet Europe. I never thought I would see the same behavior from a United States president. Now we all see it. 

Trump scapegoats the press almost daily, echoing the language of Mao and Stalin in calling journalists “the enemy of the people,” while also threatening to revoke press licenses despite First Amendment protections. 

Mimicking Putin in Russia or Erdoğan in Turkey, Trump has politicized the rule of law, pardoning political allies while calling on the Department of Justice to “lock up” his political rival for things that aren’t crimes.

Like autocrats throughout history, he tries to divide and rule, directing popular anger at unpopular minorities. And, like virtually every authoritarian leader, he attempts to tap into a “rally-around-the-flag” effect, portraying legitimate dissent against the government — like kneeling for the National Anthem — as hatred of America.

In response, he has advocated for forced displays of patriotism — a hallmark of authoritarian leaders who seek to develop a cult of personality. 

Trump’s administration has also broken ethics guidelines routinely, wrapping himself up in absurdly compromising conflicts of interest. Drawing lessons from banana republics, he has surrounded himself with generals and unqualified family members, even putting his son’s wedding planner in charge of federal housing in New York and New Jersey. What’s more, he placed a climate change denier in charge of NASA. 

Even the integrity of our elections is under attack. Trump appointed a man with a record of voter suppression to head his bogus “election integrity commission.” The White House has effectively done nothing to deter future cyberattacks on American democracy.

And for a system of government that relies on informed consent of the governed based on a shared set of facts, Trump lies routinely — more than any president in modern history.

Thankfully, for now, the saving grace of American democracy seems to be Trump’s bumbling incompetence. His reckless, divisive tweets undercut his ability to build a governing coalition. His narcissistic impulsiveness takes a wrecking ball to his agenda.

After nearly 300 days in office, he hasn’t signed any of the 10 major pieces of legislation he promised to sign in the first 100 days. It may be hard to see past those failures to understand how Trump is ushering in creeping authoritarianism even when he can’t even pass a health-care bill, but he is steadily eroding democracy in America.

Trump doesn’t have to be effective in order to be destructive. The reason for this is simple: Trump has normalized authoritarian behavior while mainstreaming tactics that were previously considered out-of-bounds by both parties. Trump’s behavior once shocked us; now it’s routine. Many Republicans who used to swear by democratic principles have kowtowed to Trump while defending his violations of them.

Crucially, tens of millions of American voters now accept and even expect authoritarian behavior from the president. They don’t just tolerate it; they cheer it. That transformation is going to be difficult to walk back. In most cases of democratic decay or rising authoritarianism, the crucial step is to change popular expectations and acclimate people to previously unacceptable behavior.

This is one of the most insidious features of authoritarianism: It beats people into submission because you can’t fight 100 battles all at once. Citizens are forced to pick and choose. Authoritarian leaders are aware of this fact, and they exploit it to their own cynical ends. As normalization proceeds, the threat to American democracy grows. 

For political leaders and citizens alike, the change occurs so incrementally that it’s harder to stand up to it — particularly while Trump’s showmanship dazzles and distracts. Authoritarian abuses that would dominate weeks of news cycles in normal times seem like blips instead. A day later, it’s onto the next Trump outrage.

Ultimately, the checks and balances created by the Founding Fathers to shield our democracy from a Trump-like figure are working as intended. The formal institutions of American democracy still stand strong, unbowed in the face of a bumbling demagogue.

But the more realistic threat is a gradual but no less insidious one: that democracy in the United States will slowly but surely get hollowed out in informal ways. Millions will be seduced by Trump’s authoritarian populism, and most elected officials within his party either embrace that damaging shift, or tolerate it.

Reagan warned us of this moment. We would be wise to heed his warning, put policy differences aside, and band together across party lines to defend democracy.

Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of the new book, “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.”

Tags Authoritarianism autocrats Democracy Donald Trump Donald Trump Presidency of Donald Trump

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