In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline parameters which serve as warning signs regarding the erosion of democracy, one of them being the “toleration or encouragement of violence” (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 66). Following a summer wrought with protests and social upheaval in the United States, the Republican Party and President Trump has either explicitly supported or subtly condoned political violence. How President Trump’s sympathy to and encouragement of partisan violence align with previous authoritarian movements?
In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt outline Peru’s descent into autocracy under Fujimori. Fujimori claimed that Peru was “on the brink of collapse,” “broken apart by violence, corruption, terrorism, and drug trafficking,” and that he would “dig [Peru] out of the state that it’s in and guide it to a better destiny” (73). Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that authoritarians may nominally pursue legitimate political goals, in this case most notably that of “national security” and protection against threats to the state. Fujimori creates an almost apocalyptic landscape, portraying himself as the one who will guide Peru not only to a “better destiny,” but also reclaim a better, likely idealized, past. Authoritarian movements, in order to consolidate their power, have made use of and endorsed partisan violence as a means to this end (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 62).
President Trump has idealized partisan violence not only as a means to securing his political goals but also as a reclamation of power for his supporters. At the time of print, Levitsky and Ziblatt would not yet come to know the extent to which President Trump would encourage both partisan and (inherently partisan) state-sponsored violence. During his campaign, Trump would call for dissenters to be beaten and removed from his rallies by his supporters, whom he exalted and praised as “tough guys.” He repeatedly claimed that in the “old days,” people could violently silence their political opponents, but blames “political correctness” for this sort of action being taboo (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 63). However, these warning signs were ignored, whether intentionally or not, and mainstream Republicans shifted into Trump’s camp. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic and near-daily protests in major cities, the violent consequences of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have come into relief.
Following largely peaceful protests for racial equality, Trump has made repeated calls for “law and order” in America, mostly in cities, which tend to be Democractic and, therefore, his political opponents. After weeks of sustained protest in Portland, President Trump tweeted “People of Portland, and other Democrat run cities, are disgusted. They want Law & Order.” The RNC used videos of fiery protests in Spain mixed indistinctly with marches in the United States, fabricating a reality more violent than it actually is. In the same vein, the William Barr’s Department of Justice declared New York City, Portland, and Seattle as cities “permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction.” These declarations come in stark contrast with the reality of 93% of Black Lives Matter protests being peaceful and the violence that has occurred being concentrated within just a few city blocks. Trump has blamed the summer’s social unrest in major cities on “anarchists,” leftists, and more broadly, dissidents. Trump is implicitly denying that Black Lives Matter protests have been legitimate, undermining the constitutional sanctity of protest.
Although Trump’s calls for law and order may seem benign at face value, they have been followed by swaths of partisan violence, some resulting in death, committed by his supporters. Right wing groups sympathetic to Trump have brought military-grade weapons to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and pepper sprayed protesters, among other confrontational acts. The large majority of deaths at protests have been at the hands of right-wing counter-demonstrators. As of August 26th, the 27 deaths that had then occurred at protests were not connected to protestors. One notable exception (which came after the time of the publication of the Washington Post article which tracked deaths at protests) is the shooting of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group who was shot by a protestor, Michael Reinoehl. Reinoehl, however, was subsequently gunned down by law enforcement officers in Washington State. His death was celebrated by Trump as “retribution” for the death of Danielson, eschewing the norms of trial by jury and due process for those accused of crimes and instead reveling in the death of a political dissident. Rather than condemning the violence of his own supporters, Trump has egregiously overexaggerated the violence of protests, both tacitly approving of and creating the seeming need for his supporters to keep “law and order” in cities.
Perhaps the most stunning example of support of partisan violence was his defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17 year old who murdered two protesters with an AR-15 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When asked about the shooting, Trump said that Rittenhouse “was trying to get away” from the protestors, “fell,” and then was “very violently attacked,” suggesting that had he not fired and killed two people, Rittenhouse “would’ve been killed.” The Department of Homeland Security also issued an internal memo instructing spokespeople to refrain from condemning Rittenhouse’s actions and instead shift focus to the incident as a consequence of the need for “law and order.”
The partisan violence seen at protests can also threaten more mundane democratic routines. Right wing groups who saw President Trump’s first debate remarks as an approval of their groups have planned online to engage in poll-watching, as well as wear fatigues and carry guns to polls in order to dissuade their political opponents from engaging in the electoral process. Poll-watching and armed intimidation of voters undermine the fundamental democratic principle of free and fair elections.
With President Trump’s hesitancy to disapprove of these groups and their violent tactics as a means to his political ends, the tenets of American democracy, especially the right to protest and the right to free and fair elections are at risk. Trump’s rhetoric as it pertains to creating an image of the United States as on the wrong path and using political violence to rectify that fits into the pattern of authoritarianism outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt. President Trump and his administration have fabricated a fear-instilling reality of chaos and violence throughout America. They have exacerbated partisan violence in response to these non-events by failing to condemn right-wing violence. Accepting Levitsky and Ziblatt’s proposition that partisan violence may beget democratic breakdown, the coming weeks before the election and its aftermath may prove to be a turning point in determining the longevity of American democracy. An alternate reading of the evidence may conclude that Trump is unwilling to condemn political violence for sheer political reasons, rather than in a trajectory of consolidating power. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt note that democratic erosion may not be a purposeful march to authoritarianism, but, rather, convenient political moves in an attempt for a leader to consolidate power to make their rule more effective (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 73-74).
- Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Broadway Books., 2019.