Political scientists can’t tell you whether these fears are overblown or justified. Perhaps democracy is indeed declining in the United States. Perhaps it is just being tested, as it was during the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt worried openly about the future of democracy. As Ira Katznelson wrote in his magisterial treatment of this era, when FDR took office he was “[c]onfronted by seemingly more successful dictatorships on the Right and the Left,” and had “to lead a democracy that was unsure of its practical abilities and moral authority…. Liberal parliamentary regimes were toppling. Dictatorships led by iron men and motivated by unforgiving ideological zeal seemed to have seized the future.”
We won’t find the answer by trying to peer into Trump’s soul. The outcome will depend not just on Trump — but on how others react to him.
Fascism and populism are not the same
As I argued in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, there is a big difference between populism and the kinds of fascism that took over some Western European states between World War I and World War II. Fascism was a big threat because democracy was weak, and other political actors behaved in ways that strengthened fascists rather than undermining them. I’ll explore both of these further below.
The bottom line is that the political consequences of Trump’s rise will depend as much on how American democratic institutions respond as on Trump himself.
Fascism resulted from democratic failure
Although fascism came to power between the wars, we can find its origins during the economic and social upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, as now, an intense period of globalization dramatically reshaped Western societies. Up through World War I, right-wing, nationalist, and anti-democratic movements disrupted political life in parts of Europe, but did not fundamentally threaten any of them. Only after the war devastated Europe — killing more than 16 million people, maiming another 20 million, and crushing economies — did fascism became a major political force.
As World War I ended, monarchical dictatorships collapsed and new democracies took their place across Europe. But most of these countries lacked previous experience with democracy and so their citizens hadn’t grown up with democratic norms, habits, and institutions. Emerging from the physical, economic, and psychic trauma of a brutal war, these new democratic governments faced extraordinary challenges. They had to reintegrate millions of soldiers back into society and rebuild economies distorted by war. Austria and Germany had to deal with the humiliation of defeat and a punitive peace, and were hit by the economic catastrophe of hyperinflation.
Across the continent lawlessness and violence became endemic. In Italy, for example, left- and right-wing militias fought armed battles in the streets and fields, workers occupied factories, and peasants seized land. Germany’s Weimar Republic was hit by assassinations and violent left- and right-wing uprisings.
Despite this, fascists at first remained marginal. In Italy’s first postwar election, fascists received almost no votes. In Germany, Hitler’s attempted coup in 1923, known as the Beer Hall Putsch, was unsuccessful. But democratic governments failed to deal with big problems, badly shaking Europeans’ faith in democracy. The Great Depression simply pushed many over the edge.
However, the Depression was politically consequential not merely because of the economic suffering it brought, but because of how democratic institutions and actors responded. In Germany, for example, governments during the early 1930s pursued austerity policies that made things worse rather than better. The main opposition party, the Social Democrats, offered little in the way of an attractive alternative. This helped Hitler persuade people that democracy was unresponsive and weak and made his promise to replace it with a new system more attractive.
Even so, the Nazis like the Italian fascists could not have taken power without the help of traditional conservatives who maneuvered Mussolini and Hitler into office to achieve their own goals (and were eventually marginalized or murdered by their erstwhile proteges).
We are not living in the 1930s, but politicians should still be careful
The interwar democracies collapsed into fascist dictatorships as much because of how existing political institutions and actors reacted as because of the fascists themselves.
The same will be true with Trump. His strategy will be shaped in part, of course, by his own inclinations — but also by how democratic institutions and the electorate respond.
The Republican and Democratic parties’ responses will be especially important. Some Republican leaders, organizations and publications took a strong stand against Trump’s more authoritarian or intolerant pronouncements during the election. Recognizing the need for Republican support to get things done as president, Trump has moved to co-opt critics like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and perhaps Mitt Romney Will such moves lead the Republican Party to fall in line like their erstwhile conservative counterparts in interwar Europe, or will the party distance itself from Trump’s more radical inclinations, like his recent questioning of the legitimacy of the popular vote? Will Democrats rebuild their organizational infrastructure and electoral appeal to become a strong opposition party again?
The traditional U.S. system of checks and balances is also important. The U.S. government’s branches and layers were designed to disperse rather than concentrate power. Since Republicans control the executive and legislative branches, the courts will be key. Will they remain independent or be stacked with Trump sympathizers? Will state and local governments continue to allow different perspectives and policies flourish? The way power eddies through these byways will define how much Trump can indulge any radical instincts to reshape American politics and society.
Finally, civil society — how citizens organize, communicate and pursue common interests outside of regular politics — and the news media will be crucial. Historically civil society in the United States has been rich and diverse. Whether these groups stand up to Trump forcefully will let him know what price he would have to pay to take various actions.
During the campaign Trump spoke of the news media disdainfully, and manipulated them masterfully. Some mainstream outlets have already been covering his actions and apparent conflicts of interest aggressively. We’ll have to watch whether these voices are as influential as those of other media whose “news” has a shakier relationship with facts. What information citizens consume will be important in helping them understand and react to Trump’s actions.
Democracy’s decline or a brief disruption?
If democratic institutions and actors strongly challenge Trump’s potentially radical and racist inclinations, and if citizens find attractive alternative responses to their demands and concerns, Trump may well tack back toward traditional Republican or even centrist positions. If not, however, we may indeed be at the beginning of a period of immense political upheaval.
Sheri Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is currently finishing up a book on “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe.”