The Fundamental Legitimacy of Donald Trump
Conspiracy with Russia wasn’t the only thing that commentators—both liberals and Never Trump conservatives—got wrong, though. There was another, related charge that was graver and, on its face, more implausible: that Trump would (or could) destroy American democracy. And he would do so with the help of his Russian enablers. Here, the two claims came together—that the Russians wished to end the American experiment and that Trump provided the vehicle for their ambitious designs.
This was part of a grand narrative. But what if the narrative of American democracy under mortal threat—with or without Russian help—was fundamentally flawed from the very start?
On January 4, 2018, despite the helpful information that America hadn’t become a dictatorship in 2017, Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote in an article titled “2018 Is the Year That Will Decide If Trumpocracy Replaces American Democracy” that “Trump has been extremely long on demagogic bluster but rather conventional—if extremely right-wing in some respects—on policy. But … this is entirely typical. Even Adolf Hitler was dismissed by many as a buffoon.”
Preemptively suggesting that your ideological opponents won’t accept the results of elections if they lose isn’t nearly as bad as, well, not accepting the results of elections, but it is still bad. In the case of the 2018 midterm elections, it also happened to be wrong. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote: “Remember, Donald Trump claimed—falsely, of course—that millions of immigrants voted illegally in an election he won. Imagine what he’ll say if he loses, and what his supporters will do in response.” Krugman went on, suggesting that those who voted for the other party were, in fact, voting for autocracy: “If we take one path, it will offer at least a chance for political redemption, for recovering America’s democratic values. If we take the other, we’ll be on the road to autocracy, with no obvious way to get off.”
Claims such as these weren’t just overblown rhetoric from pundits in the heat of the electoral moment. They came with the imprimatur of some of the country’s most respected political scientists. Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published How Democracies Die in 2018, and the book became an alarmist bible (even though the book itself is more nuanced than its enthusiasts let on). In New York, Jonathan Chait wrote, “It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump might inflict a mortal wound on the health of the republic.”
How could so many get it wrong? Underlying these various accounts of doom is a major analytical flaw. In some sense, the flaw is so obvious that I wasn’t entirely aware of it until I started thinking about this article. If we exclude cases of military conquest or occupation, as occurred during World War II, there is no clear case of a long-standing, consolidated democracy becoming an autocracy. Democracies backslide—it is a spectrum, after all. But democracies, or at least certain kinds of democracies, do not “die.”
Analogies are useful for understanding the people who use them to understand events, not necessarily for understanding the events themselves. As Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security note, “Parallels from the past too often are put forward less to focus debate and discussion than to shut them down. That’s exactly why the invocation of dates like 1938 or 2003 are such political catnip.” History, after all, does not repeat itself. Anything resembling World War I will not happen again, mostly because it can’t. Too many variables have changed. (The broader and, by now, somewhat banal lesson that “small, seemingly trivial events can have tremendous, catastrophic consequences” still applies, however.) Chait acknowledges that “the concern of serious democracy scholars is not a totalitarian state that murders its opposition en masse. It is ‘democratic backsliding.’” If the concern is democratic backsliding, however, it is unclear why Hitler or 1933 would be a touchstone, since Hitler did, in fact, murder his opposition en masse.
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits—which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on.That something happens to be a norm does not necessarily mean it is a good norm or that it is inherently democratic. Sometimes, writes the political scientist Corey Robin, “norm erosion is not antithetical to democracy but an ally of it.” If we think of democracies as constantly evolving—of needing to evolve at particular historical junctures—then rethinking the unspoken habits of political engagement and competition is simply a requirement of any truly progressive politics. All transformative figures are, by definition, norm breakers, whether that was the leaders of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s or abolitionists in the 1800s.
In a previous piece, I pointed to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of a 70 percent marginal tax rate as an example of a “radical” proposal that, irrespective of its substantive policy content, is important because it expands the window of the politically possible and encourages politicians and voters alike to consider creative ideas outside the norm. This makes democracies more, not less, responsive to a broader range of ideas and proposals from voters and politicians alike, as democracies should be. The rise of right-wing populism in both the United States and nearly every major Western democracy is itself a product of the norm-centric and unimaginative center-left and center-right governing models that dominated in the 1990s and 2000s. A return to norms cannot be both the solution and the problem.
The strongest defense of alarmist politics and of fearing the worst—even in the absence of evidence that the worst is yet to come—is that it encourages the very constraints that prevent truly terrible outcomes. In this reading, the Russia investigation, even if it didn’t produce evidence of collusion, provided an important check on the Trump administration’s ability to do harm. Here, the fear of democracy dying motivates citizens to vote, to petition, and to organize.
To claim the mantle of resistance is also to suggest that your opponents are something akin to fascists or, more modestly, that they are authoritarians. But, unlike in the 1930s, today’s right-wing populists do not generally condemn the idea of democracy. More likely, they salute it (or at least a majoritarian version of it). Rather than dispatching brownshirts in the streets, they call for referenda and plebiscites. As many observers have noted for years, “direct democracy” isn’t necessarily good, but direct democracy isn’t quite the first thing you think of when you think of Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler.
Being in a constant state of alarm, particularly when there’s little actual threat of being imprisoned for your beliefs, can be unusually thrilling. Carl Schmitt, the hugely influential jurist-philosopher who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, called this the romance of “the occasion.” Romantics, writes the political theorist David Runciman, “want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.”
But more than two years after Trump assumed power, there is the risk that they may no longer have an enemy worthy of the title. Democrats control the House of Representatives. More than norms, institutions—the courts, the media, and the machinery of government—have constrained the Trump presidency. In policy terms, outside of immigration, the Republican Party has more co-opted the Trump administration than the other way around.
Books, particularly books by academics, are usually more nuanced than the headlines they produce. So those focused on the unabashed anti-Trumpism in a book such as How Democracies Die might miss an argument the authors hint at in passing but explicitly state only in the final pages. “Even if Democrats were to succeed in weakening or removing President Trump via hardball tactics,” they write, “their victory would be pyrrhic.” After all, it would only mean Republicans returning the favor in kind, perhaps with even more vehemence, after a new Democratic president takes office. Every time one party won, the other would try to impeach its president, claiming that he or she was both illegitimate and a threat to the very foundations of the republic.
Many will still make such claims, holding on to the notion that they are fighting a world-historical struggle against a would-be dictator. They can believe that they are. But they are not, or at least they aren’t any longer.
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