The formula for democratic erosion in the modern era is lethal: clear, public and incremental changes to the legal framework of a democracy in the name of a national interest. President Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed populist and “outsider” of the political arena, will continue using identity politics in this vulnerable environment to begin the decay of American democracy right before our eyes.
Critics question the validity of the hysteria revolving the populist positions that Trump asserts; however, both the fundamental features and governing tactics of such a leader is inherently detrimental to a democracy, allowing erosion to seamlessly occur. First, as Jan-Werner Müller asserts, populist leaders categorize citizens into the morally pure, working class and the morally corrupt elitists. Using these identity politics, the leader then claims to represent the common good of the moral people; thus, establishing an anti-pluralist political system.
President Trump exemplifies these characteristics. During the Republican National Convention, Trump claimed that he was the singular voice of the “forgotten men and women of our country…who work hard but no longer have a voice.” His aim was to depict himself as a common man who, up against the immoral, politically correct system, was pushing forward an agenda for the common good. However, the mere idea of the common good opposes the very definition of democracy itself. Joseph Schumpeter claims that the rational person can rarely understand her own interests, and even if they are realized, a society is congested with too many conflicting interests, that a common good is impractical. Thus, the idea that one man can fix all the problems in a complex political system is outrageous. It is nothing but a manipulation of citizenry and a justification for undemocratic rule.
Furthermore, Trump has used multiple narratives to establish an the “us versus them” sediment to generate a distinct identity for his supporters. Before the 2016 election, Trump consistently used defaming rhetoric against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Often, Trump labeled his opponent as “Crooked Hillary” during rallies and began chants, such as “lock her up,” to indicate an enemy to the common good of the people. Trump has used this justification of the common good to delegitimize his opponents on several occasions; against the liberal leaning media, political adversaries and opposing NGOs.
This anti-pluralist rhetoric eliminates the need for debate, for Trump claims that he is able to assert the goals of the common good of the morally sound. However, this rationale is extraordinarily dangerous to democracy. First, as Robert Dahl asserts, democracy encompasses the ability for the people to cultivate preferences, communicate those preferences, and decide on those preferences; anti-pluralism directly rejects this idea. Second, and looking forward, Trump is able to use this common good justification to implement legal changes to the democratic system in his favor.
Ozan Varol terms these legal, incremental mechanisms of altering democratic institutions as stealth authoritarianism. Because each policy change is seemingly democratic and small on its own, it is able to withstand public criticism; however, the conglomeration of all the changes creates an authoritarian, or hybrid regime. For instance, one mechanism of stealth authoritarianism is through the adjustments of electoral laws. Contrary to actual data, Trump has talked about establishing this mechanism by claiming that voter fraud is a prominent issue in America. By establishing a national interest of “protecting the ballot,” Trump has argued that tougher immigration laws should be put in place to stop illegal immigrants from voting. Additionally, Trump supports stronger voter identification laws; however, these laws usually affect Democrats due to the exclusion of minority groups through these laws.
These pathways to democratic erosion are expedited during times of crisis. Populist leaders are able to implement policy in the name of protecting a national interests; thus, the most opportune time to gain momentum and power is during this time of citizen susceptibility. Often times, dictators are able to manufacture a crisis; I argue that the modern, politically polarized era is even more prone to this dilemma. Today, the U.S. is particularly polarized, generating non-neutral media outlets to attract a politically homogenous audience. This, coupled with the political echo chambers on social media news feeds, has the capability to manufacture a crisis. Trump is able to use right wing rhetoric to spiral corresponding media outlets into crisis mode, causing public anxiety and a presidential right to authority. For example, after the 2016 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Trump claimed a justification for his travel ban on muslim majority countries; he did this by using rhetoric that depicted muslims as terrorists who threaten U.S. civilian life. Again, this “us versus them” mentality strengthens an American identity, one in which the polarized media can adhere to. Following the shooting, media outlets perpetuated their divergent thoughts about the issue; the left-leaning media focusing on gun control and the right-leaning media denying the need for gun control and instead, perpetuating Trump’s assumed crisis.
Populists, like Trump, are able to usurp more power in plain sight due to the nature of our modernized society. The common good justification gives Trump the tools necessary to remain in the confines of a democratic system while breaking democratic laws. The media has the ability to perpetuate the unjust message. Trump’s governance should not be taken lightly, for populist rule can quickly and deviously turn into an authoritarian regime right before us.
Photo: By James Brey, “Tattered American Flag, Still Flying Free and Proud”, Royalty.
While I agree that some of Trump’s rhetoric is indicative of populism, I believe that it is an exaggeration to consider it an element in the “decay of American democracy”. I accept that Trump’s claims to represent the common good of the morally sound may concern those who don’t fit his definition of morally good. However, America has democratic institutions in place to prevent a populist or totalitarian leader from ruling exclusively in the favor of one segment of the population. For example, you discussed Trump’s travel ban as an example of stealth authoritarianism. However, Trump alone does not have the power to permanently change laws. Both the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled against the ban, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case on April 25th. Similarly, Trump declared that he would end the DACA program, yet the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. Despite his wishes, those protected by the program will not be deported this week. Their fate will be determined by the 9th Court of Appeals (one that has not looked favorably upon Trump’s previous policies), instead of by the wishes of President Trump. We could debate the morality and deeper intentions of Trump’s policies, but his power is limited. Like Schumpeter, I recognize the dangers in claiming to represent the “common good”. However, I believe that our democratic institutions are functioning as a solid protection against the “decay of American democracy”.
MONA NIKKI FARZAN
I think it’s really interesting that you included the part about how rational people cannot even understand their own interests. We also know what democratic processes entail- people forming their own opinions and being able to freely express them. However it has also been proven that when people are presented with more than a few choices for something, they become overwhelmed and as a result become unable to form an opinion at all. What if the public needs someone to form opinions for them and decide what’s best for them? Even though Trump’s policy choices seem outrageous and his rhetoric is demeaning in many ways, what if this is what America needs to remain at the forefront as a hegemon? Putting ideological views aside, do you think he could actually be saving the United States from its downfall, especially as other powers like China continue to rise?