Trump as an authoritarian populist (a review of How Democracies Die)

No democracy is immune from decay.  Even America’s democracy could wither away if current trends continue. This is the thesis of How Democracies Die, a recently released book by Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  Distilling lessons drawn from how democracies throughout the world have sometimes succumbed to and sometimes survived the threats that authoritarians, demagogues and extremists have posed, Livitsky and Ziblatt provide a timely and accessible analysis of the conditions that can lead to the demise of democracies and of the antidotes to this devastating possibility.

Venezuela’s Chavez and Maduro, Peru’s Fujimori, Ecuador’s Correa, Hungary’s Orban, Turkey’s Eurdogan. and Russia’s Putin are among recent counterparts to the classical cases of Germany’s Hitler, Italy’s Mussolini, and Spain’s Franco as authoritarian personalities  who came to power and subverted democratic institutions in their countries. Before coming to power, they exhibited at least some of the following tendencies:  (1) they rejected or exhibited weak commitments to such democratic rules of the game as working within Constitutional limitations or abiding by electoral results; (2) they viewed their rivals as illegitimate subversives; (3) they encouraged or tolerated the use of violence by their supporters against their adversaries; (4) they supported restrictions on the civil liberties of political adversaries or the media. These tendencies did not bother their significant political followings (their committed base of supporters), who were seduced by their populist rhetoric – that they stood for ordinary people who were marginalized by existing political institutions and practices.  They employed demagogic language and outright lies to contrast their own populist virtues with the unpatriotic and foreign qualities of others, the incompetence and disloyalty of existing governmental leaders, and the corruption of economic elites. While such authoritarian demagogues initially lacked enough appeal to win democratic elections outright, their strong base of supporters – coupled with their extensive public visibility – enabled them to become part of (and often the face of) winning electoral coalitions.  Established political leaders who entered into coalitions with such authoritarians recognized that these outsiders might undermine established democratic procedures and norms, but they believed that demagogues could be tamed once in power or they believed that authoritarian candidates had sufficient ideological convergence with them to be assets in pursuit of their partisan interests.

This outline of how outsiders with authoritarian inclinations have risen to power is sufficient to indicate that Donald Trump fits the mold and threatens American democracy.  While America has long had a tradition of authoritarian outsiders who sought the Presidency – Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace are among those discussed by Livitsky and Ziblatt – established elites, rather than concerned citizens, effectively sidelined their ascent.  But in 2016 such elites (especially in the Republican Party) put their partisan goals ahead of their commitment to democracy and facilitated Trump’s victory.

Winning an election as a populist is one thing but governing as an authoritarian is another.  In effective democracies, rulers with authoritarian instincts are constrained by constitutional checks and balances and by informal but long-standing norms.  However, constitutions are always incomplete, vague, and subject to alternative interpretations.  Even the widely admired American Constitution provides inadequate protection against threats that arise from the emergence of demagogues and authoritarians. Perhaps as originally conceived the Electoral College could have prevented Trump’s election, but as the process of electing presidents has evolved, the Constitution is too silent on the essential elements of fair elections to prevent the ascent of future authoritarians.  Perhaps Constitutional checks on presidential power will be interpreted in ways that thwart Trump’s authoritarian approach to governance, but when faced with a security or economic crisis, a compliant Supreme Court and Congress may bow to the “emergency” measures of authoritarian presidents.

According to Levitsky and Zibatt, for democracies to survive an authoritarian’s ascension to power, two fundamental norms must be followed by other political leaders or somehow ingrained into the outsider.  First is mutual toleration – understood as the tendency to view partisan opponents as adversaries having legitimate goals and roles, rather than as mortal enemies who are disloyal to the country, who must be removed from politics, and who should even be punished as treasonous criminals.  Second is forbearance. Rather than using one’s institutional prerogatives to enact policies that have narrow margins of support and that can be passed only by pushing against the limits of constitutional and legal restraints and long-standing norms, seasoned political leaders exhibit self-control in the pursuit of partisan goals.  They exercise forbearance because they understand the importance of allegiance to the existing system, respect for others, and the need to keep their opponents from becoming so frustrated that civil war becomes an option and even a perceived imperative.

Rather than avert a civil war by having the police and military crush opponents, contemporary authoritarians change the rules of the game to tilt political and electoral processes decisively in their favor.  Through incremental revisions of existing norms and rules – none of which alone is sufficient to trigger widespread concern – the media cease to perform their watchdog function and become subservient lapdogs, oppositional parties are weakened, and electoral rules are changed so as to effectively disenfranchise those segments of the population that would be expected to remove an authoritarian from power. As illustrated by the recent landslide  victories of Orban in Hungary and Putin in Russia, authoritarian rulers and their policies can appear to be legitimate, given their electoral mandates.

Political scientists often conceive of democracies as existing along a continuum.  Just short of being dictatorships, authoritarian democracies have few democratic characteristics other than holding elections, which are often unfair and uncompetitive.  At the other end of the spectrum are “liberal democracies,” which have many democratic characteristics, such as fair elections and adherence to constitutional and legal rules.  While not explicit, Levitsky and Ziblatt seem to reject such a conceptualization of democracy, and posit three types of democracy, which I will plainly label and briefly characterize.

Populist democracy is the form that Trump and other “authoritarian democrats” promote and pursue.   Elections are held, but they are not fair and/or competitive.  Constitutions are in place, but they can be interpreted so as to further the authoritarians’ purposes, or at least not constrain their powers.  Everything the authoritarian does is justified as furthering “the national interest” or “the will of the people,” even though these ends are known more by the authoritarians’ personal intuitions rather than by any sort of objective (or intersubjective) process of identification.  In a society where citizens have diverse preferences and understandings of the common good, neither “the national interest” nor “the will of the people” is easily known.  Indeed, in most cases, they simply do not exist, as academic analyses of these concepts have long revealed.

Liberal democracy is the form that stresses working within formal governmental institutions and electoral processes.  Constitutions constrain political ambitions, especially when their vague provisions are interpreted by neutral referees, such as nonpartisan or bipartisan judges.  Fair competitive elections are held and they reveal majority or plurality preferences that are the basis for public policies and programs pursued by political leaders.  America’s two-party system is thought to have furthered liberal democracy, at least when one party controlled most governmental institutions either directly or indirectly by securing consecutive electoral victories.  A dominant party – such as New Deal Democrats or Reagan Republicans – could thus legitimately enact its agenda.  Liberal democracy was viable in America when partisan polarization was low, as the diversity within parties and thus the need to acquire some votes from the opposition ensured some forbearance.  The dominant party thus gave some attention to diverse views – compromising with others and accommodating more than the party base. But strong party polarization has arisen in recent years, and American parties – especially Republicans – are dominated by extremists.   The extreme activists within each party are far more active than ordinary citizens in elections, often controlling the nomination process through primaries.  No longer are these parties and their nominees controlled by established politicians who understand the need to abide by constitutional and legal limitations and by the informal norms of mutual toleration and forbearance.  If America has an effective liberal democracy, it enjoys greater immunity against authoritarians than populist democracy provides.  But now liberal democracy is unable to counter those social forces – such as citizens getting little exposure to political ideas outside those of their media silos – that flame partisan polarization and can lead not just to ethnic/racial conflict and culture wars, but to bloody civil war.

Pluralist democracy is the form that stresses the centrality of informal norms and “the democratic rules of the game” as necessary supplements to formal democratic structures.  This is the type of democracy that Levitsky and Ziblatt endorse, though it goes unnamed.  They call on both parties to devise procedures that give established party leaders greater capacity to vet candidates and stymie authoritarian candidates. They call upon both the Republicans and Democrats to adopt or reaffirm the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance.  They call on both parties to pursue policies that benefit everyone regardless of their class, their race, and their ethnicity, such as universal access to pre-school and community college.  Especially when our democracy is jeopardized, as it now is with Trump in the White House, they call on party leaders to put our consensual concerns for preserving democracy ahead of partisan goals.  While liberal democracy puts pursuit of partisan agendas first and thus encourages the party polarization that has made our democracy unstable, pluralist democracy puts first our common interests in preserving democracy and preventing civil war.

If Trump is indeed a populist authoritarian, can anything be done beyond following Levitsky and Ziblatt’s advice to reaffirm the norms and practices of pluralist democracy?  To address this question, I have written two different conclusions.

The first possible conclusion is that Donald Trump must be removed from power. Advocates of pluralist democracy hope that the midterm elections in November will clip his wings or bring to Congress people who are willing to remove a recalcitrant Trump from office.  Perhaps Trump’s personal narcissism, moral turpitude, diplomatic incompetence, intellectual laziness, nepotism, and cronyism could prompt using the 25th Amendment for this purpose, but if Trump’s greatest fault is his authoritarian instincts that threaten our democracy, then impeachment is the proper process for his removal.  Replacing Trump with Mike Pence (who appears to be deeply conservative but not authoritarian) would probably make it easier for Republicans to pursue their agenda.  But even liberals should realize that the survival of pluralist democracy is so important that short-term conservative victories must be endured.  After all, in a pluralist democracy, all partisan victories can be moderated, if not reversed, soon enough.

The second possible conclusion is that the impulse to impeach Trump must be resisted. Beginning impeachment proceedings would clearly exacerbate polarization, as Trump supporters would regard this as an illegitimate effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election.   Because constitutional impeachment processes are demanding, impeachment is unlikely to succeed.  Beginning the process  may indeed cause the sort of backlashes that turn many against democracy.   As an alternative to impeachment, Democrats could do upon to Trump what Republicans did onto Obama: oppose everything he says and proposes.  But that could backfire by driving moderates into the Trump camp.  And it could  prompt Trump to double-down on the opposition.  That leaves winning elections as the best option.  While Trump is not on the ballot this fall, a decisive victory by Democrats could trim his sails.  Failing these outcomes, the election of 2020 could be the most consequential presidential contest in American history.

Which of these alternatives conclusions do you support?