There is a new book coming out on Tuesday, 16 January 2017. No, this one isn’t a juicy tell-all like last week’s Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, but rather a. provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies. The book is written by two Harvard professors of political science, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America.
In the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four criteria that warn a leader is on a path toward authoritarianism:
- The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
- He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
- He or she tolerates violence.
- He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.
“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century. Donald Trump met them all.”
The authors posit that today, the biggest threat to a democracy comes from within, at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections.
“This is how democracies now die. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”
One of the biggest safeguards of our democratic republic is built into the Constitution: 3 independent branches, and most especially the independent judiciary. Look back, if you will, at that list of four warning signs, and think about how Trump has attempted to undermine the institutions the independence of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. Think how he rallies and rants against anyone … anyone … who disagrees with him. Remember how he has been quietly padding the judiciary with ultra-conservative judges, starting with Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court. Think of how he has questioned the legitimacy of judges who interfered with him. Remember how just a couple of weeks ago he referred to the U.S. Department of Justice as a “deep state”? And how he referred to the mainstream media as the “enemy of the American people”?
Trump has largely failed in his attempts to undermine the Constitution, and the dam has, for the most part, held back the floodwaters, but for how long? Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Rules, for example, that say no matter what your platform or ideology, violence, racism and bigotry are always to be condemned. Rules that say an opponent is just that – an opponent – not an enemy and not somebody to be taunted, harassed and bullied, nor called a criminal and jeered with chants of “Lock her up!”
American conservatives lacked courage. Once he was nominated, the only way to stop Trump was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and for a number of reasons, none sound, republicans were not about to do that!. Every senior Republican opposed Trump because he ticked the boxes on the authoritarian leader checklist. He talked the language of civil war: Clinton was not just an opponent but a criminal. Trump despised democratic liberties and said he wanted to remove restrictions on public figures suing for libel.
Trump incited violence at his campaign rallies. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,” he told supporters, “knock the crap out of them, would you?” In power, he has fired the head of the FBI for doing his duty, just as Putin, Orbán, Chavez and Erdoğan have fired public officials they could not control.
Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue from gaining the nomination.
“Yet, when it came to it, every serving Republican leader – McCain, McConnell, Rubio, Ryan and Cruz – put party before country and endorsed a demagogue they knew was a threat to free institutions.”
The authors note that protest is of significant value in holding up the institutions, but that protest needs to be targeted against injustices, in defense of civil rights and institutions, not merely against the ruler and his followers. In essence, exactly what we all know we should do, what I have duly noted, but often failed to do. Anything else simply adds to the divisiveness, the polarization, and that is not beneficial to the protection of our democracy.
I found this book relevant, thought-provoking, and spot on in the authors’ analysis of how we came to be where we are, and what we can do to stop the downward spiral. Nicholas Kristof over at the New York Times interviewed the authors last week, and you might find his take interesting. There is also a review of the book by Kirkus Reviews, in case you’d like a bit more.