What was meant to be a peaceful transition of power from the 45th to the 46th President of the United States turned into a doubting of the electoral institutions from former President Donald Trump. These allegations have made many question whether Democracy is truly alive and thriving in the United States.
The tactics used by President Trump to question the validity of the election were at best anti-democratic. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die one of the four key signs of Authoritarian behavior is the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents (23). Into the few months of President Biden’s Administration, Donald Trump claimed that he won the 2020 election. Denying President Biden won the election is denying the legitimacy of the electoral institution. Yet, this was not the only tactic used by President Trump to attempt to overturn the election.
It was reported that the former President pushed the secretary of state of Georgia to overturn the state’s presidential election so that he could win the state of Georgia. Furthermore, President Trump pushed then VP Mike Pence to reject and change the results of the Electoral College on January 6th 2021.
These instances go further than solely denying legitimacy of an opposing candidate; rather, President Trump seemed to undermine the Democratic institutions themselves in order for him to stay in power. Levitsky and Ziblatt also describe this “rejection of … Democratic rules of the game” as another aspect of authoritarian behavior (23). We see that President Trump has met two of these criteria for Authoritarian behavior; yet Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that a politician who meets one of these criteria are a “cause for concern” in terms of the erosion of a Democracy (22).
While President Trump’s behavior was categorized as Authoritarian according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the former President may be also characterized as a populist leader according to Jan-Werner Müller. Müller contends that populists say that they are for the people and that if they do not win elections, it is because the real people were not heard (What is Populism? 27). He also characterizes populists as not accepting political opponents as legitimate (20). This is what we see with Donald Trump in the 2020 election. He had not recognized current President Biden as legitimate and alleges that he won the election due to the baseless voter fraud claims.
Furthermore, Müller states that although populists are sworn in through the Democratic Institutions, they erode these institutions for the sake of the real people and to keep themselves in power (57). When it came to trying to re-certify Georgia and the Electoral College, specifically, Trump undermined the institutions that put him in power. This is why Muller warns that populist figures such as former President Donald Trump interfere with Democratic processes; thus, eroding Democracy.
The combination of Authoritarian and populist tactics is cause for concern in the deterioration of Democracy. The undermining of Democratic institutions such as the certification of the Electoral College and attempting to alter the results of a states outcome are key factors Donald Trump implemented which had the potential of eroding current governmental institutions.
The question must be addressed whether we are headed to the deterioration of Democracy in the United States thanks to the actions and support of President Trump. Although the former President certainly has a big following, I argue that the Democratic norms and institutions have checked the power generated by Trump and his base.
While Trump was adamant on overturning the 2020 election, Vice President Mike Pence called President Trumps effort wrong and said that doing so would undermine Democracy. The belief in the institution far outweighs the belief in the former president to be effective. Similarly, the Vice President upheld the norm of mutual toleration as described by Levitsky and Ziblatt. Although he has differing views as the incoming administration, these norms and institutions become necessary for the upholding of Democracy. This is why the election was certified the day after the January 6th riots.
All of this is not to say that the US is safe from Democratic erosion. Populist candidates may appear from both the left and the right according to Jan-Werner Müller. While President Trump may not be as active as he was during his presidency, this does not mean that another populist candidate may arise. The events of the past two years have shown that populist candidates may implement authoritarian measures which undermine the norms and institutions which keep Democracy alive. If the United States wants to keep Democracy alive and well, people should be wary of future populist candidates which may take on Authoritarian measures as Donald Trump has.
You made a lot of interesting points, Arpan. An idea you mention that sparked thought is the looming threat of populism to American democratic ideals. Although often called for, Populism in America is tied to Donald Trump in many circumstances. However, as you mentioned, it is possible that other populist leaders may arise, in various parties, and by various means, to fight for political authority in the U.S. I am left wondering, however, what action do you suggest people take to avoid authoritarian populism, aside from being “wary,”?
Great blog, Arpan! In the post, you mentioned how politicians in President Trump’s inner circle prevented democratic backsliding by rejecting Trump’s requests for them to overturn election results. While I agree with this, it is also interesting to think about how the Republican party could have acted as a gatekeeper and prevented Trump from entering office in the first place, eliminating the possibility of Trump being able to erode democratic norms. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss in How Democracies Die that political parties have the responsibility to act as gatekeepers. In the future, how can political parties more effectively prevent a would-be autocrat from rising to power? Is the responsibility ultimately in the hands of the political parties or the voters?
Hey Arpan, this was a really well-written blog, and I really enjoyed reading about your perspective on populism in the United States. Also, I think populists within government could erode checks on institutional authoritarianism. Also, I think it is really interesting that despite being a member of the privileged elite, Donald Trump’s populist tactics found so much support among the right wing “ordinary masses.” Demagoguery is one of the populist tactics Trump uses to mobilise his voters; Trump seems to have mastered the rhetorical device of demagoguery. Although populism in the US isn’t as bad, a parallel can also be drawn to Hugo Chavez’s populism in Venezuela and Poland’s populist Law and justice party, where populist policies have led to tangible democratic erosion. However, the blog left me with a lingering question, what steps can political actors take to prevent populism and ensure that the democratic conditions don’t erode further?
Hi Arpan! I really liked your blog post, particularly your connections between the Levitsky and Ziblatt readings to the Müller one. I totally agree with your claims that Trumps actions massively threatened democracy and those actions were largely based in populist narratives. My main question for your article is what happens when we expand the definitions of populist for warning signs more American democracy? I think I am just slightly confused with one of your later claims in your final paragraphs where you describe the arisal of populist candidates as a danger to the US. I think in large part this is due to the earlier Müller quote you used about how populists claim that in elections they lose it is because the people were not heard, yet there are many other style of populism. For instance, Bernie Sanders would likely be categorized as a left wing populist as he campaigns strongly against the economic elite, yet I don’t think anyone would say Senator Sanders is comparable to Donald Trump as populists in this regard as Senator Sanders has willingly accepted his campaign losses and even gone on to campaign for those he lost to, but he is still a populist. Even Trump-style populists like Mike Pence, who agreed with and defended everything Donald Trump did up until the end, did not, as you say, take the undemocratic position of changing these election results. As such, I’m largely wondering if your concern for American democracy is rooted in a concern over the arisal of populists as a universal set, or Trump-style populists who deny election results? If it is not populism as a whole, what are the motives that promote electoral denialist behavior and why are they so often associated with populism? Should the classification of the combination of authoritarian and populist tactics as you describe President Trump to match, as well as added in a denial of electoral results, be considered it’s own brand of populism? What would be the warning signs of this type of populism and what can we do to keep it separate from all other variants?
Reading this blog was delightful. The author has an exceptionally meritorious argument in questioning whether Democracy is truly alive and thriving in the United States by analyzing Trump’s figure.
As the author argues, Trump fulfills the characteristics described by Ziblat and Levitszky for an authoritarian leader and the ones for a populist leader described by Müller. It is the combination of both concepts that have raised overwhelming concern. The main fear is that when an authoritarian leader gets to power by using the populist rhetoric strategy, it becomes harder and harder to dislodge him from the democratic system. Hence, deterioration of Democracy almost inevitably occurs.
However, I wonder if the author considered how populist leaders rise to power in the first place? According to Ziblat and Levitsky in How Democracies Die, populist leaders have been present in the landscape of American politics long before Donald Trump (37). Since the 1930s, Americans have had an authoritarian streak, yet, any leader with demagogue characteristics could rise to power because of the gatekeepers of Democracy (34). Populists’ strategy is sneaking themselves into the system by legitimately winning elections. Once in power, they erode the institutions and change the rules of the game. In Trump’s case, he won the elections fairly and with legitimacy. Just like Hitler or Mussolini, Trump used democratic elections to rise to power. Populism is in the shadow of Democracy because Democracy is tolerant to all ideas. By following its own principles, it is Democracy that allows populists to thrive; the system is lethal to its own survival. Therefore, relying on the system itself is a mistake because Democracy is not strong enough to fight its enemies; it needs guardrails to keep it alive.
Ziblatt and Levitsky refer to political parties as the gatekeepers of Democracy (38). According to them, political parties act as guardrails of the system because of their ability to select candidates. Thanks to the gatekeepers, American Democracy has been able to avoid extremist candidates from being elected (37).
Trump’s victory served to prove a point: the gatekeepers of American Democracy for the first time in history failed to stick with their mission. Until 2016, political parties in the US succeeded in keeping dangerous figures out of the mainstream. What was new with Trump was that although he had evident “red flags,” he was still nominated by a major party.
If American Democracy has stayed alive over the past centuries due to the gatekeepers, then finding why they failed in the 2016 election is crucial to Democracy’s survival. The Republican party failed in the 2016 election because of its desire to stay at the top of the game. Their short-term ambition and desire for power lead them to think they could control Trump, however, the fateful alliance is always a double edge knife because outsiders are very difficult to control once they get into power.
What is irrefutable with Trump is that he was able to gain electoral support. The understatement of his support left me with a lingering question in regards to the author’s ultimate point. Is the worrying sentiment of people for future populist candidates really what the United States needs to keep its Democracy alive and well? People represent a significant challenge in maintaining Democracy because of their susceptibility to falling for populist rhetoric; their uninformed vote can kill Democracy.
Because populist leaders appeal to citizen’s emotions, the electorate quickly becomes blindfolded by their rhetoric. Aren’t citizens the ones who ultimately choose and make demagogue leaders legitimate? Although gatekeeping can rely itself in an anti-democratic practice due to the failure to represent the majority of the people, Ziblat and Levitzsky define it as a trade-off we need to make if the ultimate goal is to preserve democracies (41). Relying on the will of the people is a dangerous choice and can lead to the election of a demagogue who threatens Democracy (41). By increasing the power of voters in the primaries and nominations, the party’s gatekeeping function has been weakened. Guardrails are needed because otherwise, the system would rely on an electorate open to authoritarian appeals.
Protecting our democracy requires more than just fright . More than ever, American politics needs strong political parties committed to the system’s core values. In the presence of a dangerous figure, parties need to be willing to ask their voters in this highly polarized system to vote for the other party. Gatekeeping prevented American Democracy from falling into electoral authoritarianism, so it is safe to say that its virtue is that it works.
Although Trump’s presidency is a worrying sign for Democracy, his victory does not suggest an entire decline in America’s Democracy. Pippa Norris agrees with the author that even though a risk of authoritarianism appeared in 2016, that implication does not suggest solely that American Democracy is eroding. For Norris, it is a sign of concern . American Democracy is still intact: the 46th presidential transition was made, and the system was able to prevent Trump from staying in power.
Analyzing the threats Trump’s presidency possessed to American Democracy is a great way to start undermining democratic erosion. Democracies die quietly. Fortunately, Trump rang the bell loudly. Following Ziblat and Levitsky’s perspective, it is last to say that political parties and their choices, when faced with demagogue leaders, will decide whether American Democracy survives.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018): 10.
 Pippa Norris, Is Western Democracy Backsliding? (Harvard Kennedy School).