In 2018, for the first time in the 46 years that Freedom House’s global study of political freedom has been conducted, the United States failed to get a 1/7 rating (where 1 is most free and 7 is least free). To most political observers, the study’s results should come as no surprise–the worsening state of democracy in America is a phenomenon that’s been closely observed in the past couple of years. While commentators offer differing views on the severity of this downturn in American democracy, and whether governmental institutions will be able to recover from it, they all seem to agree on one point–that Donald Trump’s entrance into the political sphere was what caused it. However, the theories of Levitsky, Ziblatt, and Hawkins suggest a more likely theory–that Trump’s presidency merely catalyzed and illuminated a subliminal American democratic erosion process that had been long in the making.
In their book “How Democracies Die”, Levitsky and Ziblatt  suggest that the formal checks and balances laid out in the US constitution are only somewhat effective in guarding against Democratic Erosion. Rather, they argue, the real guardrails of Democracy are its “unwritten rules”–the rules that are hard to see, but nonetheless essential for a sustainable democracy. Chief among these rules are “Mutual Toleration”–that entities accept their political rivals’ equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern –and “Institutional Forbearance”–that politicians not use literal definitions of the law to imperil existing democratic institutions . According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, those two “unwritten rules” work together to help cultivate a level of bipartisan respect for pluralism within the political arena, and prevent politicians who seek unilateral authority from getting far.
An application of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s theories on a pre-Trump America reveals a increasing level of disregard for such “unwritten rules”. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, two years before Trump was elected to office, found that 36% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats believed the other party to be a “threat to the nation’s well-being”, with the numbers reaching almost half among respondents who were highly-engaged in politics. The study also found that “very unfavorable” views of the opposition party had steadily and significantly increased among Democrats and Republicans–almost doubling from 1994 to 2014. This steadily increasing perception of the opposition as a fundamental threat to the nation opposes the concept of “Mutual Toleration”–a crucial part of which is to “not view [political rivals] as an existential threat” . It seems that even without Trump to stoke the flames of discord, Americans in 2014 had already taken a step towards eroding their democracy by perceiving their political opponents as a threatening and destructive force to the nation.
The concept of “Institutional Forbearance” was similarly trampled upon well before Trump’s arrival to the political scene. In 2014, the Democratic Senate majority, frustrated at not being able to get Obama’s federal judge appointments approved without being obstructed by Republicans, decided to change the long-standing requirement of 60 Senate votes to approve a federal judge to simple majority of 51. This political maneuver allowed the Democrats, who held the presidency and 55 seats in the senate, to effectively appoint and approve federal judges without facing any political checks from their political rivals. This usage of the letter of the law to permanently remove an essential check on a majority party’s power in return for temporary political gain represents a clear violation of the “unwritten rule” of “Institutional Forbearance”, and another example of Pre-Trump democracy erosion.
Another Pew report, conducted a few months before Trump’s election, paints an even darker picture. The study, which polled supporters of both major American parties, found that 35% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans view individuals who identify with the opposite party as “immoral”. This introduction of moral labeling into the arena of political discourse represents what Hawkins calls a “Manichean Outlook”. According to Hawkins, such an outlook allows political rivals to “assign a moral dimension to everything”, which leads to the downfall of pluralistic thought in society, and supports the rise of populism. In other words, Americans were primed for populism even before the rise of Trump’s populist rhetoric.
Thus, it seems that even before the election of Trump, political rivalries had already turned sour, and the “unwritten rules” that served as “guardrails” of democracy had already dissipated.
It is certainly fair for political critics to argue that Trump’s election exacerbated the process of democracy erosion in ways that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. After all, Trump’s presidency embodies many of the traits that political scientists have flagged as characteristic of a leader eroding democracy. His assertion that journalists opposed to him are an “enemy of the people”, and repeated suggestions that Hillary Clinton ought to be put in prison are clear instantiations of the dichotomy of morality, representative of Hawkins‘ “Manichean Outlook”. Furthermore, Trump’s attempts to sue dissenters for libel, and vow to “open up” libel laws after receiving journalistic criticism, fulfill one of Varol‘s criteria for a stealth authoritarian leader attempting to avoid accountability. However, the flagrancy and potency of Trump’s strand of democratic erosion doesn’t necessitate that it is the origin of the phenomenon in the United States. In fact, if it wasn’t for the disregard for democracy’s “unwritten rules” in the Pre-Trump era, it’s unlikely that Trump’s democracy erosion tendencies would have been as potent; the institutional “guardrails” would have kept him in line. By placing all the blame for our eroding democracy on the election of a single candidate into the presidency, we risk not remedying the other, less apparent, issues that plague our democratic institutions.
Academic Sources: Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 5
 Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Ch. 1.
*Photo by Shealah Craighead, “ President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at Yokota Air Base, November 5, 2017 ”, Creative Commons Zero license.