Since at least February, I’ve been making cavalier jokes about how our Supreme Leader Donald Trump may spell the end of American democracy as we know it. But I can do one better than flippant dark humor. No, let’s put my newly-minted Political Science degree to good use because there truly are many potential paths to the downfall of democracy under Adolf Twitler.
Potential Downfall #1: Elite Fracture
Max Fisher and Amanda Taub of the New York Times lay out a theory that the U.S. may be heading down a path towards destabilization similar to what Venezuela has been experiencing since President Nicolás Maduro inherited an economy in shambles which created massive polarization and destabilized the political system. “Elite fracture,” they write, is:
a political science theory that says that while protests matter, the real trigger for regime change is usually when an authoritarian leader loses the support of important elites… Loyalty, it turns out, is basically a collective-action game played by self-interested politicians… [E]lites will most likely abandon a leader if they think that it will leave them better off, and will stay loyal, even in the face of public unrest, if they think that is the best option for them personally.
In other words, if the leader’s loyal base of political elites decides that, in the face of growing political unrest, jumping ship is better for their personal success than the potential rewards they reap with continued loyalty to the leader, the base could fracture into elite infighting. In the U.S., that sort of elite fracture would occur if, as Fisher & Taub propose, Democrats begin to compromise with moderate Republicans, thereby creating a coalition of centrists and leftists opposing only staunch hardline Republicans. If that begins to erode the partisan divide, it also erodes Trump’s base. That makes governing decidedly more difficult. So, if Paul Ryan miraculously regrows a backbone and returns to conservative principles or if Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer reach across the aisle, Trump could see his elite support fracture.
Elite fracture has the potential to create regime change when leaders can no longer govern because of the total loss of support. In the U.S., regime change could come in a democratic form like impeachment, or even in a less seismic form if bipartisan coalitions actively obstruct Trump’s agenda to prevent effective governance. But, regime change can also take the far-less- democratic shape of coups, as in Venezuela, which make the maintenance of democratic institutions difficult to fathom or, at the very least, erodes their integrity. Which leads us to…
Potential Downfall #2: Steady Erosion of Democratic Norms Coupled with the Slow Consolidation of Authoritarian Power
Democracies don’t collapse overnight. Democracies collapse when the integrity of the norms and institutions that maintain them are slowly compromised. Think of Turkey. At one point, the West considered Turkey the pinnacle of democracy in the Middle East— an exemplar to democratize the region. But after years of suppressing dissent and shoring up power, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has “constitutionally” seized increasingly authoritarian levels of power.
Although Erdogan began his presidency trying to bring together disparate political factions create a more stable government, the last several years of his regime have been marked by the vilification and persecution of demographics and political parties opposing him. This was especially noticeable after the failed July 2016 military coup when Erdogan declared a state of military emergency and conducted a massive purge of dissidents, jailing or firing from state sector jobs thousands deemed hostile to his party or its interests. Erdogan also used the purge as an opportunity to blast propaganda and shore up populist, nationalist sentiment, which culminated in the recent referendum converting Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential system. That referendum decreased the power of parliament, entirely eliminated the position of the prime minister to consolidate it with that of the president, and also increased the president’s executive and judicial powers; in effect, it expanded presidential authority while simultaneously eroding checks against him.
In other words, the steady erosion of democratic norms and the progressive undermining of democratic institutions allowed the executive to slowly shore up power such that his eventual seizure of dictatorial power seemed like the natural progression of state affairs.
In the U.S., we’ve already seen Trump try to suppress dissent by attacking the media and propagating “alternative facts” and fake news propaganda. We’re also seeing Trump undermine democratic norms and attempt to erode checks against him as he repeatedly attacks the legitimacy of the judiciary when it rules against him; spoken— well, tweeted— out against protesters; seemingly encouraged nepotism; argued loyalty takes precedence over competence when making appointments; and fired the man heading the independent investigation into the legitimacy and legality of Trump’s election when it threatened his position. These are not necessarily illegal acts, but they are also not acts which coexist with liberal democracy because they violate fundamental democratic norms. And democracy is held up as much by democratic institutions as it is by the integrity of democratic norms. Neither can exist without the other, and right now Trump is seriously testing the strength of those norms. If we see a crisis as Turkey did, that could give Trump the opportunity to declare a state of emergency, consolidate power, and also undermine those democratic institutions. Which leads me to…
Potential Downfall #3: A Crisis and a State of Emergency Give the Executive Unprecedented Power
During times of emergency, the nation looks to the leader to steer it out of the crisis. We’ve seen repeatedly in the U.S. the expansion of presidential authority during crises: it happened when FDR brought the country out of the Great Depression and when George W. Bush took the country to war after 9/11. And, of course, we’ve also seen it happen abroad, as in Turkey. An even more potent— if perhaps somewhat extreme— example exists in the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany.
After WWI, Germany became the Weimar Republic— a parliamentary democracy with a president and chancellor. For some time, the government was stable, but increased economic turbulence created widespread discontent and partisanship that pushed the electorate to increasingly extremist parties. The discontent resulted in highly disparate political parties and unstable coalitions where no party held a majority in parliament. To prevent an imminent coup and finally create a legislative majority, President Paul von Hindenburg was forced to appoint Hitler— a member of the extremist opposition party— as Chancellor. But when Hindenburg died in office, Hitler appointed himself president without an election. And soon after, when the Reichstag— the parliament building— burned down, Hitler blamed the communist opposition, declared a state of emergency and seized dictatorial powers for himself. The following several years immersed the country in racist propaganda and discriminatory legislation, obliterated civil liberties, imprisoned political dissenters, began to create a police state, and established the first concentration camps.
The catalyst for all of that change, though, was the crisis of the Reichstag fire when Hitler convinced the populace that it was under attack by violent extremists. If the U.S. experiences a major crisis, the executive can similarly use it as a means of justifying the consolidation of extreme power, especially when it comes on the heels of deep political unrest. Coupling that power with the suppression of dissent and extreme nationalism (some of which we’re already seeing)— or, even more dangerously, the aforementioned erosion of democratic norms— can spell the downfall of democratic governance in favor of authoritarian rule. (Remember that poster in the Holocaust Museum on the warning signs of fascism that went viral a few months back?) Consider what would happen if we experienced a large-scale terrorist attack, if there was a violent plot against elected officials, or even if there was a major economic collapse. A crisis on that scale would give a power-hungry executive all the opportunity necessary to seize dictatorial control.
Potential Downfall #4: Populism leads to “Authoritarianization” and One of the Potential Downfalls #1-3
Populism may be the most worrisome of the potential downfalls in that its insidiousness paves the way for any of Potential Downfalls #1-3 to become more likely. In fact, studies indicate populist-fueled authoritarianization is the most common downfall of democracy into autocracy. It has been the case with Erdogan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Chávez (and somewhat Maduro) in Venezuela, and Putin in Russia. In each case, what began with a wave of populist sentiments set the country down a path that ultimately ended in authoritarianism. We have also seen the rise of populist movements with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, and Nigel Farage of Brexit in the UK, and even though none of these movements elected a populist national executive, their existence itself is cause for concern when we consider the potential consequences of populism.
Populist tides tend to put loyalists and elites in positions of power, regardless of competence; stifle a free press in favor of messaging from the government; cultivate a cult of personality around their leader; stoke partisanship to create a clear us-versus-them divide; encourage xenophobia, extreme nationalism, and an exclusive, often racist, vision of the nation; and use litigation and legislation to silence opposition in civil society. And in the case of populism electing our Dear Leader Trump, we have Betsy DeVos and Jared Kushner, every speech/interview that weirdly became about his electoral victory, the use of “liberal snowflake” as a slur, the Muslim Ban and border wall with Mexico, and the woman convicted guilty of laughing at Jeff Sessions.
Many of these side-effects of populism are aforementioned symptoms of Potential Downfalls #1-3. The concern becomes keeping populism at the level of skewing liberal democracy in the U.S. through a far-right party and deep partisanship— a curable problem— rather than allowing it to putrefy the foundations of democracy.
Potential Salvation: Democratic Norms and Institutions, Once Put to the Test, May Be Stronger than they Appear
Certainly, it appears that we have begun a steady backslide into authoritarianism and that there are many potential avenues for the downfall of our democracy as we know it, but let us also keep in mind that our democratic norms and institutions have proven resilient thus far. Our governmental process is meant to be slow to change and it is meant to resist radical departures from precedent.
When FDR’s court-packing plan threatened the independence of the judiciary, democratic norms rebalanced the situation. When McCarthyism threatened the vibrancy of the political community, again the system righted itself. Even under Trump, we have seen the judiciary repeatedly stymie his attempts to shore up executive power (such as with the Muslim Ban). It seems possible, then, that our democracy is more resilient than perhaps we give it credit and that none of these downfalls are probable, merely possible.
We cannot simply have faith the system will work as it has before to rebalance itself, though; we need to be vigilant watchdogs, activists, and advocates making sure that if/when we see the warning signs of Potential Downfalls #1-4 we speak up and we act. The maintenance of a democracy is an active process that requires continuous engagement with the system. We must demand accountability from our representatives, work from within the system to prop it up and agitate outside the system to ensure that legal system actors represent our interests, and continue to be vigilant for signs that our democracy is being undermined. Unless we want the Cheeto-in-Chief to become an unchecked leader, we need to understand the many threats to our democracy and then refuse to allow them to come to fruition.