Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.”
After a year in office, President Trump hasn’t become a despot — but he clearly wants to be one. Every day, it seems, he smashes through democratic norms, the soft guardrails of American democracy. As he does so, the echoes of authoritarianism in the United States are growing louder.
Trump demonizes the press. He issues calls to “lock up” his political rival and brazenly deploys divide-and-rule tactics, whipping up nationalist anger against Muslims and migrants. He surrounds himself with family members and cronies, riding roughshod over long-accepted ethical standards. And he belittles our democratic allies while bizarrely cheerleading for brutal despots across the globe.
If this is the scorecard after 10 months, what will American democracy look like after four years of Trump? Will it be recognizable? As I see it, there are four plausible scenarios, ranging from the hopeful to the catastrophic.
1. The Trump Vaccine
A vaccine is a weakened form of a virus injected into the body to allow the immune system to recognize its own vulnerabilities and patch them up before a more virulent and dangerous strain invades. Trump embodies a relatively diluted strain of demagoguery, more impulsive than ideological, more simpleton than scheming strategist. In this sense, he could serve as a kind of vaccine for American democracy.
One could argue that Trump has done us all an important service by exposing how much our system of government is based on pliant norms rather than hard laws. But we must go beyond the mere acknowledgment of the lesson and take corresponding action. We must require presidential candidates to release tax returns. We should make it illegal for a president to fire an FBI director or special counsel who is investigating the White House. We should require top officials to divest themselves of entangling business interests. We should pass laws ensuring automatic voter registration to defeat voter suppression. And, above all, we must work to build a new political culture that treats democracy like something more than a reality television show or a spectator sport only requiring citizen action every few years at the ballot box.
2. Democratic Decay
Democracy is a bit like a sand castle. It takes a long time to build but can quickly be swept away. The Trump wave likely won’t sweep away democracy in the United States, but it is steadily eroding it.
We’ve already grown dangerously accustomed to many of Trump’s unacceptably authoritarian habits. We now barely blink when he issues tweets calling for the investigation of his political opponents or the closure of critical media outlets. Such behavior poisons the minds of many voters, who applaud his strongman tactics and even falsely believe that the nonpartisan congressional legislative scorekeeper is “little more than fake news.” Many in Trump’s base now trust crackpot InfoWars conspiracy theories more than accurate, well-sourced reporting. And the Republican Party’s willingness to mainstream populist bigots like Roy Moore exposes how much Trump has corroded previously bipartisan American values.
3. The Forerunner
What if a smarter, savvier and more disciplined Donald Trump 2.0 comes along? Trump has paved the way for such a figure. Imagine an authoritarian populist who borrows from the Trump playbook while avoiding its more obviously divisive and self-defeating qualities. Imagine someone with Ronald Reagan’s charisma and Barack Obama’s polished rhetoric peddling ideological Trumpism. The Trump presidency could serve as the rehearsal for someone far more dangerous.
4. American Authoritarianism
This is, thankfully, the least likely option. But if a catastrophic mass casualty terrorist attack or other national security nightmare takes place on Trump’s watch, all bets are off. He has shown us his authoritarian instincts, his willingness to defy democratic constraints and his disdain for constitutional checks and balances. During the campaign, Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and floated the idea of registering Muslims in a government database. It would not be a shock if he were to magnify these troubling traits in destructive ways in the wake of a security crisis.
Whichever of these scenarios comes to pass, the bottom line remains: U.S. democracy is under threat. The framers, thankfully, anticipated a Trump-like demagogue and designed a system of government that could withstand attacks on its institutions. But the Constitution is not written on magical parchment. We can preserve and protect our democracy only through our own actions.
Reagan said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” He was right. Our generation is now being tested by Trump’s authoritarian impulses. We must rise beyond partisan and policy squabbles so that we may protect and save democracy.
After Trump, we will find ourselves hard-pressed to fix the damage, raising the possibility that the era of democratic decay he has ushered in will linger and endure. This is the most likely scenario: American democracy will survive, but in profoundly weakened form.