You’ve heard it in the headlines, on social media, and maybe even from the mouths of your friends — “Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous.” But what mechanisms does polarizing language actually trigger, and how dangerous is it really? Through analyzing several examples of Trump attacking and discrediting the opposition, I will show how the democracy of the United States is at risk.
In Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book “How Democracies Die,” they describe how constitutional checks are not enough to ensure the survival of democracy, that other, informal democratic norms have to be in place to keep democracy alive and thriving. The two norms to remember are forbearance and mutual toleration . I will be focusing on the breakdown of mutual toleration, which, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, is the idea that if the opposition plays by the rules, that their right to exist, compete, and govern, must be respected.I will look at examples of Trump’s rhetoric and actions from the 2016 race for president as well as from the primaries leading into the impending 2020 election, and how these examples signal a turn away from democratic norms that keep democracy upright.
Trump has made a habit of challenging the legitimacy of his opponents, even when they play by constitutional rules. In his 2016 campaign for President, Trump painted Hillary Clinton as an illegitimate opponent because of her email controversy. His campaign and followers adopted the sayings “Hillary for Prison 2016” and “Lock her up.” These became popular chants at Trump rallies. By painting his opponent as a criminal, Trump broke the unspoken norm of accepting the legitimacy of one’s opponent. The nickname “Crooked Hillary” that came out of the Trump campaign also undermined Clinton’s validity as a presidential candidate by likening her personality with that of a criminal. When mutual toleration breaks down other norms are bound to fall subsequently.
Coming into the 2020 Presidential race, Trump is facing new opponents, one of those being Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The angle that Trump’s rhetoric took on was not criminal one this time; he chose to go for degrading and condescending. In a tweet soon after Warren announced her bid for the presidency, Trump took to Twitter, referring to Warren as “Pocahontas,” in a tweet aimed at the newly announced candidate, who has Native American heritage. Here, Trump reduces a legitimate presidential candidate down to a racial stereotype. In a later tweet, Trump calls Warren a “phony,” calling her heritage into question. In the tweet, Trump also suggests Warren apologize for “perpetrating this fraud against the American Public.” In these attacks against Elizabeth Warren, Trump attempts to undermine her credibility as a candidate by insinuating that she has lied to Americans. Trump once before used this particular method of attack, attempting to discredit the background of the opposition, when he claimed that President Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump’s language and actions towards his political opponents signals a breakdown of mutual toleration. Democratic institutions become at risk when politicians disregard the legitimacy of their opponents. When political norms are disregarded without consequence by the highest executive in the country, politicians learn that there is no down-side to abandoning the informal code of conduct. Additionally, democracy is threatened when political elites endorse populist demagogues like Trump instead of keeping them off tickets and refusing to align . In the situation where democratic norms break down, all that is left upholding democracy is the Constitution. However, rules alone can’t keep a democracy standing. The people within the system must be committed to democracy and keeping it alive. The reality is that most policy makers often choose the path that will take them closest to the top, and sometimes that means undermining democracy.
The trend of one player, in this case, President Trump, being the causal factor for a potential democratic backslide can be explained by the agent-based theory that political leaders, as individuals, may cause democracies to erode . According to the 2019 Freedom in the World Report, the United States has taken a dip in the rankings for democratic indicators since 2016, Trump’s election year. While correlation does not always equal causation, there is certainly reason to believe that Trump’s treatment and abandonment of democratic norms in his campaigns has damaged the structure of the unspoken, but crucial, rules of democracy. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapters 5 and 6.
 Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.
 Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID. pp. 1-15.