Trump’s Threat to Democracy


January 13, 2018

by Nicholas Kristof

Image result for The Trump

Two political scientists specializing in how democracies decay and die have compiled four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:

1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules. 2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents. 3. He or she tolerates violence. 4. 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,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors at Harvard, write in their important new book, “How Democracies Die,” which will be released next week.

Image result for Richard Milhous NixonWill Donald J. Trump do a Nixon, that is resign in the national interest?

“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”

We tend to assume that the threat to democracies comes from coups or violent revolutions, but the authors say that in modern times, democracies are more likely to wither at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections. That’s what happened, to one degree or another, in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Poland and Peru.

Venezuela was a relatively prosperous democracy, for example, when the populist demagogue Hugo Chávez tapped the frustrations of ordinary citizens to be elected president in 1998.

A survey that year found that the Venezuelan public overwhelmingly believed that “democracy is always the best form of government,” with only one-quarter saying that authoritarianism is sometimes preferable. Yet against their will, Venezuelans slid into autocracy.

Image result for Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

“This is how democracies now die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

Likewise, the authors say, no more than 2 percent of Germans or Italians joined the Nazi or Fascist Parties before they gained power, and early on there doesn’t seem to have been clear majority support for authoritarianism in either Germany or Italy. But both Hitler and Mussolini were shrewd demagogues who benefited from the blindness of political insiders who accommodated them.

Let me say right here that I don’t for a moment think the United States will follow the path of Venezuela, Germany or Italy. Yes, I do see in Trump these authoritarian tendencies — plus a troubling fondness for other authoritarians, like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — but I’m confident our institutions are stronger than Trump.

It’s true that he has tried to undermine institutions and referees 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. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors.

“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized. … Little actual backsliding occurred in 2017.”

That seems right to me: The system worked. And yet.

For all my confidence that our institutions will trump Trump, the chipping away at the integrity of our institutions and norms does worry me. Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump (Newt Gingrich nudged it along in the 1990s), but Trump accelerated it.

It matters when Trump denounces the “deep state Justice Department,” calls Hillary Clinton a “criminal” and urges “jail” for Huma Abedin, denounces journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and promises to pay the legal fees of supporters who “beat the crap” out of protesters. With such bombast, Trump is beating the crap out of American norms.

I asked the authors how we citizens can most effectively resist an authoritarian president. The answer, they said, is not for Trump opponents to demonize the other side or to adopt scorched-earth tactics, for this can result in “a death spiral in which rule-breaking becomes pandemic.” It’s also not terribly effective, as we’ve seen in Venezuela.

Rather, they suggested protesting vigorously — but above all, in defense of rights and institutions, not just against the ruler. They emphasized that it’s critical to build coalitions, even if that means making painful compromises, so that protests are very broadly based.

Image result for Protesting in the US

“If these actions are limited to blue-state progressives, the risk of failure and/or deeper polarization is very high,” Levitsky told me in an interview. “Extraordinary measures are sometimes necessary to defend democracy, but they should rest on extraordinary coalitions — coalitions that include business leaders, religious leaders and crucially, as many conservatives and Republicans as possible.”

7 thoughts on “Trump’s Threat to Democracy

  1. Hey, Mr. Nicholas Kristof and others like you…why don’t you folks get it…the President is a puppet and is only doing what puppets are required to do…dance to a tune…the only difference this time round is that Trump is adding drama and comedy to it…

    Next time elect Donald Duck as President with Bugs Bunny as VP…and nothing will change in your country…

    30 million Americans live below the poverty line (some put it higher) and will have difficulty meeting a 1500 Dollar emergency…there is a mushrooming of tent cities with increasing numbers being forced to live in mobile homes…without the prospect of jobs or affordable healthcare…and all this in the richest country the world has ever seen…

    And you folks keep talking about democracy…get real man…

  2. Trump’s threat to democracy is only when his intended victims caved in under pressure.The only people who are intimated by his bullying as can be seen,are the Republican dogs in congress who are chained and starved,until they submit to Trump’s sexual demands.Just look at the recent events about the comments of the “shithole African and Carribean countries”.One democratic senator and confirmed by another republican senator to back up Trump’s racist comments.Three other republican senators have their mouths locked to Trump’s ass,while two republican have amnesia,saying they have no recollection.

    The press are all fighting back,having extra staff to dig up dirt about this scumbag horndog.Trump is already under immense stress and pressure due to the Mueller investigation.’Fire and Fury’ have added a tightening noose to Trump’s neck.The newly revealed payoff of $130,000 by Trump’s lawyer Cohen to Trump’s adult porn star mistress,six days before the election is already making the rounds over the talk shows and newspapers.Another $150,000 payoff to another adult porn star by Trump’s friend,the supermarket tabloid Enquirer’s owner weeks before the election have been given another life and have resurface again.By Steve Bannon’s account to Michael Wolff,it could be more than one hundred women been paid off,not by Cohen but by Trump’s other lawyer.

    There are several hangmen waiting to let the door loose below the gallows.The Russian collusion,which will be harder to prove due to many of Trump’s cronies,son and son in law that might be willing to take the fall for him.Obstruction of justice is one very possibility.Trump’s obsession with sex.The might of the unrelenting press.And of course,the midterm elections.The countdown to Trump’s last days in the WH leading to his indictment or impeachment has begun.He will be led out in shackles and spit upon by crowds miles long on his final journey to sing sing.After this his family will never dare to show their faces in public again.Maybe migrate to the “land of the bolehs?”

  3. Trump doesn’t understand Democracy and is an embarrassment to the United States. He also doesn’t know the US Constitution and its Amendments. He also does not know the words to the National Anthem. He fails in world geography, world customs and culture and etiquette.
    Trump was voted in by people who share the same traits and views as him and not by the majority of Americans. Trump is a failed President.

  4. “…. shithole African and Carribean countries,…” bruno.

    Another view from an African American:


    World goes crazy over shithole countries

  5. Why should that be?
    Decision making is still a process and is not by compulsion.
    Decisions are made through leverage of law and not politics.
    The system still protects the citizens from the state
    Power is still secured through ballot box
    First Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights are still protected.

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