This week I have gone through the book, How Democracies Die, by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I picked it off the new book shelf of my local library and was pleasantly surprised by its scope and quality. It is a real work of comparative political science, looking at recent and current developments in the US in the context both of what happened in other countries during the last great Atlantic crisis (Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933), and of what has happened much more recently in nations like the Philippines in the 1970s, Peru in the 1990s, Venezuela in the 2000s, and Hungary, Turkey, and Russia in the last decade. The comparative method, I decided decades ago, is the best way to make judgments about the behavior of nations and of people, since it places each individual case within a spectrum drawn from reality, not theory. The method does not let Levitsky and Ziblatt down.
The authors' model is also quite simple. They identify four tactics common to political leaders trying to seize power within democracies, and then to establish authoritarian rule. First, such leaders either reject outright, or show a very weak commitment to, the democratic norms of their nation. Second, they deny the legitimacy of their political opponents. Thirdly, they tolerate or encourage violence. Lastly, they show a willingness to curb the civil liberties of their political opponents and of the media.By this time, every reader's sense of the present danger to American democracy will have been heightened, but I want to deal with other aspects of their argument before analyzing exactly how Donald Trump's behavior matches their checklist.
That is because a good deal of the book has a very different focus: the question of how Trump could have become president in the first place. Here too, I think, their history is quite sound, and their analysis is sophisticated. For most of the history of the United States, they argue, political parties--largely controlled by career politicians--served as the gatekeepers to the White House and created mechanisms that kept any demagogues or would-be revolutionaries out of the contest for power. The seeds of our current predicament, they argue effectively, went into the ground in 1968 and afterwards, when the rather undemocratic selection of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic presidential candidate led to the McGovern-Fraser commission and a new set of nomination rules, turning the choice of the nominee over to the voters. At that time, I remember, there was commentary to the effect that primaries, in which relatively few people voted, were inherently vulnerable to minority success and favored more ideological candidates. But--and this is the point the authors miss--such was the strength of the postwar consensus even then, and such was respect for our institutions, that those dangers were not immediately realized, even though, as they point out, George Wallace's strong showing in 1972 primaries, before he was shot and crippled, was a straw in the wind.
For better or for worse, primaries on the Democratic side did allow two men from outside their parties' establishments--Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton--to win the Democratic nomination and become president, but both of them governed from within the mainstream. Some Republican insurgents, such as Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes, did surprisingly well in primaries but never got close to nomination. Barack Obama was not, of course, the favorite of the Democratic establishment in 2008, but his positions were well within the Democratic mainstream and he quickly won them over. The case of Donald Trump, however--the first successful candidate never to have held elecctive or appointed government office--was an entirely different matter.
Trump, of course, wiped the floor with a host of establishment candidates, as well as a couple of other outsiders (Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.) Nate Silver, among others, predicted early on that the would be a flash in the pan like Pat Buchanan or Herman Cain, but that did not turn out to be the case. Here was the point of the book at which some knowledge of the works of Strauss and Howe might have added an important dimension. For the last 70 years, our political class has been living off the prestige it earned by coping successfully with the Depression, winning the Second World war, and creating a thriving and relatively egalitarian society in the 1950s and 1960s. But their prestige as eroded as many of those achievements have been reversed and those who remember them have died off. The elites of both parties have clearly lost touch with the American people, leading the Republicans vulnerable to a celebrity candidate who had become a national figure on television. Trump won the nomination. It is the crisis that we are going through, also, that is largely responsible for the polarization we have experienced, which can easily be observed in the era of the American Revolution and the Civil War and the New Deal, as well.
Returning to the comparative framework, the authors identify another key reason why he became President. While the Republican leadership hated and feared him, they refused to repudiate him in the election. Most even of those who had spoken frankly about the danger he represented--like Lindsay Graham--eventually made peace with him and endorsed him. The authors list seven Republican Senators and two sitting governors (including my own) who refused to endorse Trump--but not a single one of them endorsed Hillary Clinton. She, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, was an establishment candidate, and although she won the popular vote, Trump managed narrowly to defeat her.
To what extent, then, does Trump show the signs of authoritarianism that the authors identified, and has he taken steps similar to those of other elected leaders who did, in fact, become dictators? These are complex questions.
Referring to the checklist above, we can certainly agree with the authors that Trump has shown a very weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game--but mostly, I would suggest, at the rhetorical level. He argued repeatedly during the campaign that the election was likely to be rigged against him, and he said afterwards that a fair count, untainted by vote fraud, would have given him the popular vote. What is rather frightening, however, is that the Republican Party as a whole has been not only attacking, but disregarding, the normal rules of democratic politics now for at least 20 years. In 2000, the Republican-led government of Florida purged its voter rolls to reduce the Democratic vote, and a Republican-appointed 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court handed the election to George W. Bush, rather than allow a recount that would have honestly settled the question of who had won. (As it turns out, it was probably Al Gore.) Another 5-4 Republican majority opened the way to voter suppression by gutting the voting rights act a few years later, and Republican state governments rushed to take advantage of the opening with voter ID laws. Worst of all, after 2010, Republican state governments in several key states raised gerrymandering to a new scale, allowing them to control the delegations of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to an extent far out of proportion to their total vote. The authors do show how in recent years the North Carolina Republican Party has twisted election rules and other laws in ways worthy of any banana Republic. The Republican Party--not Donald Trump--has done a great deal in the last 20 years to deprive our democracy of real meaning.
Moving down the list, Trump has also--in fact, made his name--denying the legitimacy of political opponents. He led the spurious birther movement against Barack Obama and he argued repeatedly during 2016 that Hillary Clinton belonged in jail, not in the White House. Here, too, he was only climbing on an existing bandwagon, although it is fair to say that no American president has used comparable rhetoric towards his domestic enemies--including Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of civil war. Many Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of Bill Clinton, which is why they were willing to impeach him because a consensual sexual affair. Hillary Clinton certainly denied the legitimacy of many of Trump's supporters in 2016 when she called them a "basket of deplorables," and many Democrats today deny Trump any legitimacy even though he was elected according to the rules laid down by our Constitution. And Trump has not as yet tried to turn the machinery of the federal government--including the criminal justice system--against political opponents. That the George W. Bush administration did, most notably in Alabama, when it jailed a popular Democratic governor with a case that should never have been brought. (The attempt to put Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, on trial, may however cross that threshold.)
Moving on, Trump certainly encouraged violence at his rallies during the last campaign, and he tolerated it in response to the Charlottesville incident last year. Yet the alt-right militias are at least two orders of magnitude smaller than Mussolini's Blackshirts or Hitler's SA, and, somewhat to my own surprise, Charlottesville has remained a unique incident so far. And while Trump has talked a lot about reining in the media, rewriting libel laws, and doing something about fake news, this assault, too, has remained rhetorical.
Late in their book the authors introduce a second checklist of steps would-be authoritarians take on their way to more or less absolute power. These are to "capture the referees," usually the other branches of government, such as the judiciary; "sidelining players," that is, intimidating, imprisoning, or killing political opponents; and "changing the rules," which often means rewriting the Constitution. The biggest long-term impact, quite possibly, of the Trump Administration, is going to be the consummation of the long-term Republican attempt to take over the federal judiciary, from the Supreme Court on down. This is proceeding rapidly, but I think it will simply return the judiciary to the role which--as the late James MacGregor Burns pointed out in his last book--it played during most of our history, that of a defender of economic power and privilege. The Trump Administration is trying to break the power of the federal bureaucracy but, except in the McCabe matter, it has not tried to use legal intimidation to do so. It has made no attempt to revise the Constitution.
How Democracies Die has persuaded me that Donald Trump must be seen in the context of a world-wide trend towards authoritarianism, and I am sad to note that the United States resisted that trend in word and in deed during the 1930s, when it was at least as serious. I am not yet convinced, however, that Trump seriously wants to destroy our system of government, or that he can do so. Yet the firing of Robert Rosentsein and Robert Mueller--which I predicted here some time ago--would be a big step in that direction. That would be an abuse of power designed to save the President himself from legal process. It would not necessarily signify the opening of a legal campaign against political opponents. But it might. Meanwhile, the voters will have the opportunity, this year and in 2020, either to slow the process considerably or to bring it to a halt.