July 20 marks six months into the Donald J. Trump administration. Now seems like a good time to step back from the daily headlines and take stock of the situation. To what extent is the United States experiencing democratic erosion?
Let me give credit where credit is due. I am a political scientist but democratic erosion is not my area of expertise. Since Trump was elected, I have been drawing on others’ expertise and published research. Steve Walt, Timothy Snyder, Sam Wang, and others have put together useful thoughts on creeping authoritarianism. I’ve learned a lot from Brendan Nyhan, Erica Chenoweth, Norm Ornstein, Shana Gadarian, the Bright Line Watch group, the Authoritarian Warning Survey, and others.
What follows is not fully systematic, which makes me uncomfortable as a social scientist. The United States is a fast-moving political environment and it is hard to know what impact various events and developments will have in the long run. So I will limit myself to putting events from the last six months into three basic categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If Trump has a master plan to become a dictator, he is either hiding it well or executing it incompetently. Most would-be dictators, from Adolf Hitler to Hugo Chavez, put loyal subordinates in as many government positions as possible. They also tended to create para-statal institutions, meaning new institutions that appear to duplicate, and eventually replace, existing government institutions.
Trump has not really done those things. He has left a lot of senior government positions unfilled, without even a nominee. He hasn’t created new government departments or para-statal institutions.
Even if Trump never becomes a dictator, he could do an awful lot of damage to U.S. democracy, and potentially pave the way for an autocrat in the future. Democracy often erodes gradually, as seen in Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, so it’s important to identify its earliest signs.
Days after the election, I identified 10 warning signs of impending democratic erosion. Let’s revisit each in turn.
Media intimidation and restrictions. Check. Trump has repeatedly threatened CNN and other organizations, including a video showing him wrestling a “CNN” figure to the ground. The NGO Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. 43rd in press freedom, one notch behind Burkina Faso.
Identification of crises or political paralysis to justify emergency measures. No check. No burning of the Reichstag (so far). But the real concern, in my view, is how the Trump administration would respond if the U.S. experienced a major terrorist attack, and how the rest of society would respond. That’s simply unknown.
Attacks on minorities; scapegoating foreigners. Check. Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries is the most obvious form. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ approach to law enforcement hasn’t helped. Probably more toxic for domestic politics, though, is the cloud of racist or anti-Semitic subtext that surrounds him.
Closing of space for civil society (especially funding restrictions, legal cases, raids and arrests, etc.). No check. So far, relatively little of this I think – though the funding restrictions on Planned Parenthood might be seen in this light.
Rhetorical rejection of current political system; discourse shift. Check. Trump’s rhetoric is full of frustration with the press, Obama, and the so-called “deep state” (meaning other government institutions that check and balance the presidency). The White House also generates confusion and distrust of non-partisan agencies like the CBO and the CIA.
Expanding the size of courts or other bodies to stack it with partisan judges/officials. No check – though the Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is a step in that direction. An expansion of the Supreme Court would be a major red flag: it was one of the key steps Hugo Chavez took to seize power in Venezuela, for instance. More on Trump and the judiciary later.
Modifying rules to impose or eliminate term limits on officials, esp. election officials. Partial check. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, shattering a previously-bipartisan norm of good governance. Trump explicitly admitted that he fired him because of the “Russia thing.” Also, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has placed the 2020 Census, which underpins the U.S. electoral system, on its “high risk” list of programs.
Weakening of the legislature / intimidation of legislators. No check. Trump does try to bully legislators, but they appear more responsive to the voters than Trump directly. On the broader issue of elections, however, there is the Russia issue … more on that later.
Silencing of political opposition. Partial check. Trump has inspired a series of state-level initiatives to tighten voter requirements, which disproportionately affect left-leaning voters. The Commission on Electoral Integrity just publicly released personal information of the administrations’ critics. Also, this chilling NRA video hardly encourages calm, civilized political debate. The video is not Trump’s responsibility directly but it is consistent with his demonization of political opposition.
Significant increase in the internal security forces. Not yet. The major increase in Department of Homeland Security enforcement activities against immigrants is notable, but it is so far targeted to a relatively limited population: “only” about 11 million people, or 3-4% of the population.
So there are three full signs of democratic erosion, plus two or three partial ones. There are, moreover, six additional factors that don’t fit neatly into my original categories:
The Russia mess. There is mounting evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly accepted help from a foreign government to win the 2016 presidential election. This is somewhere between morally wrong and high treason. It is also a significant step towards democratic erosion.
The emoluments clause. Trump’s business conflict of interests appear to be multiple and significant. He undermines rule of law further with statements like “The law is totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Oh, and he still hasn’t released his tax documents. Still, I consider the whole issue of corruption less important than pillars of democracy like fair and free elections. Reasonable people might disagree, but for me outright dictatorship is a greater nightmare scenario than a decline in good governance due to corruption.
Intimidation of the judiciary. Trump has repeatedly made statements against judges that undermine the independence of, and public faith in, the judicial branch. At least so far, however, he has not tried to expand the Supreme Court or otherwise pack the courts with loyalists – which would be a very worrying sign indeed, as it would allow him to pack the court with loyalists.
Politicizing the civil service. The Trump White House has asked for names of staff members at the Department of Energy and elsewhere who worked on climate change. He has effectively sidelined some departments, notably the State Department and USAID. And he has attacked and sidelined the intelligence community.
The river of lies. All politicians lie some of the time. Trump and his team take it to a completely different level – truth is meaningless, as Dan Drezner points out. Martha Finnemore and Henry Farrell show it applies to foreign policy, too.
The nepotism. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner holds a formal position in the White House – and lied on his security clearance form. His daughter Ivanka frequently accompanies or represents him at foreign meetings. His sons are nominally outside of government but are constantly involved. All presidents have families, of course, and this country has seen more than one father-and-son presidency duos. But this looks different. The Trump administration seems to hope to further the careers of his children while he is still in office.
Trump has done a lot of damage to basic norms of civility and decency, which is bad even if it does not (directly) hurt democracy. Some examples:
His rampant sexism continues, perhaps most notably in his vicious insults against Mika Brzezinski.
Many of his advisors and ex-advisors, from Steve Bannon to Michael Flynn, are racist, Islamophic, and/or sexist. The whole character of his administration fosters greater divisions and polarization in America.
He has lowered America’s diplomatic standing in the world. He has turned away from traditional allies, particularly in Europe, and embraced authoritarian states like Russia and Saudi Arabia. As Elizabeth Saunders and Jim Goldgeier point out, good diplomacy is boring but hugely important.
Trump’s Cabinet, press secretaries, and other officials are constantly contradicting him or being contradicted by him. Not pretty to watch. Gives the impression that the executive branch is currently a one-man show.
It isn’t good. I’m sure I’ve missed stuff (tell me!). Currently I think the damage Trump’s administration inflicts is more about long-term weakening of institutions, norms, and practices than it is about a short-term risk of dictatorship.
But we won’t really know until we have experienced an emergency, like a major terrorist attack. Government leaders, even democratic ones, tend to grab power during emergencies. The key question is whether the other parts of society can limit the scope and duration of the executive’s grab for power.
Jeff Colgan is the Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor at Brown University, a Bridging the Gap Policy Engagement Fellow, and @JeffDColgan on Twitter. This publication was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
This blog post was cross-posted at Duck of Minerva.