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.