In today’s society, Donald Trump’s presidential legacy still lurks within US democracy. More specifically, Trump’s claims of election fraud haunt the country’s political climate. Many citizens believe that Biden, the current president of the United States, gained office illegitimately and stole the election. High ranking politicians, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, continue to use Trump’s divisive rhetoric and make issues like fixing “election integrity” main platform points despite the many investigations that have shown little fraud occurred.
Along with concerns of a broken US electoral system, Trump’s presidency exposed fears of powerful political actors not facing consequences for anti-democratic actions. Although Trump was impeached twice by the House for the abuse of power and obstruction of Congress and inciting a riot on the US Capitol, he was also acquitted on both counts by the Senate. This not only shows a polarized Congress that votes on party lines, but also sets a potentially dangerous precedence of a president not being held accountable democratic actions. Although he was publicly vilified by many high ranking elected officials, he was also openly supported by others. With these outwards signs of a system in turmoil, it begs the question is Donald Trump a warning sign of democratic erosion in the United States?
To answer this question, we must first understand what democratic erosion is. One way to define this idea is that rather than happening all at one, democratic erosion is a process that happens over time and committed from within by elected officials. It is done step by step and is not always noticeable until it has become a pressing problem. One scholar that has studied democracy erosion is Daniel Ziblatt. In the first chapter of his book, How Democracies Die, he explains that populist outsiders are a key actor that can help drive democratic erosion. Often, they gain power during times of economic crisis or public discontent. Ziblatt also notes that authoritarian politicians will erode democracy by rejecting democratic rules of the game, deny legitimacy of opponents, tolerate and/or encourage violence, curtail civil liberties, like the media.
Now, with this in mind, let’s examine how it can be applied to the current situation in the US. Throughout former president Trump’s time in office, former President Trump rejected democratic rules of the game by claiming voter fraud and perpetuating the “big lie.” He denied the legitimacy of opponents, like President Biden, especially after the result of the 2020 election. He encouraged violence during his January 6th rally, resulting in the riot at the Capitol, and continuously calls mainstream media “fake news.” Trump’s outwardly divisive and anti-democratic actions do not stop with him. Rather, he has inspired many politicians, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and already mentioned Ron DeSantis, and given them a platform to co-opt and gain support.
Only time will tell if Trump was a one off populist politician elected to such a prestigious position of power or if he is a symptom of a failing system. However, at the end of his time in office, Trump had not done irreparable damage to US institutions; Biden still took office on January 20th, elections were proven to be virtually voted fraud free, and Trump’s so called “fake news” continued to publish their stories. The problems Trump exposed during his time in office are not new; they were just at the forefront of political discourse because of Trump’s populist undertones. He voiced his opinions and took action. Trump’s presidency should serve as a warning to US officials and citizens of how fragile democracy can be. To maintain it, they must be wary of authoritarian politician and try to prevent them from gaining the support of high ranking officials. If not, who knows who the next Trump could be.