According to many of its critics, the Trump administration represents the greatest challenge to American liberal democracy in decades. Trump regularly bemoans the independence of the Department of Justice, demonizes the press for running critical or unflattering stories, and speaks admiringly of foreign authoritarian rulers. A year into his tenure, he has pushed aside long-standing norms meant to limit presidential self-dealing and conflicts of interest. Some believe that Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice for firing FBI director James B. Comey over the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. His first two “Muslim bans” were struck down as unconstitutional; the status of the third remains pending. Critics charge that the Trump administration’s rhetorical attacks on nonwhite immigrants — especially when combined with the Department of Homeland Security’s aggressive deportations — suggest a playbook long associated with ethno-nationalist demagogues.
But what kind of a threat does Trump really pose? What does Trump stand for, and how should we best categorize Trumpism? Is he an authoritarian, a demagogue, a fascist, a white nationalist, an ethno-nationalist, a kleptocrat, a right-wing populist — or, befitting his beverage preferences, an embodiment of fascism-lite? This isn’t just partisan name-calling. Very serious scholars have entered the public sphere to argue, say, that Trump isn’t a fascist but, rather, a right-wing populist. Last week, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), in a speech that criticized Trump for his attacks on the press, even likened the president, a member of his own party, to Joseph Stalin.
On the scale of autocrats, Stalin takes us straight to 11: He occupies a rarefied place in the evils of the 20th century, along with the likes of Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler. Stalin’s name conjures up the Great Terror, the Holodomor and, notably, totalitarianism. Indeed, Trump’s election spurred renewed interest in Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Recently, John Stoehr wondered whether “we are approaching an inflection point beyond which we won’t be arguing, when it will be plain to everyone, not just the president’s detractors, that Trumpism is totalitarianism’s cousin.”
That kind of rhetoric, along with more straightforward comparisons of Trump to Hitler and Stalin, is threat inflation. Totalitarianism is one of those concepts that eludes simple definition. This is one reason that it has fallen in and out of fashion among political scientists. But it’s generally associated with the subordination, or elimination, of most of civil society in favor of the state, itself run by a single party. So the more totalitarian the system, the less it tolerates independent trade unions, corporations, religious institutions and the like. (Thus the “weaknesses” of civil society in the immediate wake of communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe.) In China, businesses are “required by law to establish a party organization,” and there are some indications that the government is giving this requirement greater teeth. There’s simply no indication that Trump, or his allies, want, or even dream of, anything along these lines.
Why does that matter? I share worries about the effect of the Trump administration on American (and global) democracy. But describing the threat Trump poses in ways that he cannot possibly meet makes it harder, rather than easier, to strengthen American liberal democracy and guard against backsliding.
True, Trump shows little intrinsic regard for democratic norms, values and institutions. Many Americans familiar with the rhetoric and tactics favored by leaders of authoritarian and hybrid regimes find the president and his administration deeply disquieting. But optimists, whether Trump supporters or the president’s more sanguine opponents, are right to point out that the American elections in 2017 were as free and fair as they were in 2016; the judiciary still has acted to check the executive branch; our libel laws remain the same; and plenty of functioning democracies adopt much more restrictive immigration policies than does the United States. In fact, current trends point toward a brutal 2018 for Republican officeholders. This hardly seems the stuff of authoritarianism, let alone totalitarianism.
Still, the real fear is that democratic institutions can seem robust until they collapse. Each encroachment, especially if accomplished under the cloak of formal legitimacy, can be waved away; norms, once breached, can be difficult to put back into place. Pessimists point to Hungary’s self-proclaimed illiberal democracy or Turkey’s slide into de facto dictatorship.
This suggests a dilemma. Hype the threat too much, and you risk discrediting the cause. Downplay the threat, and risk standing by while the bottom falls out. It doesn’t help matters that we really have little idea why Trump has failed to make good on his rhetoric. It might be the strength of institutional checks, the presence of “cooler heads” that keep him under control, his personal incompetence or a general lack of seriousness behind his threats and boasting. But, at some basic level, it is deeply irresponsible to simply dismiss the threats and boasts of the president.
Trump, though, did not appear in a vacuum. His very election is itself a warning sign about the state of American democracy. It slots into a broader narrative of years of democratic backsliding and the erosion of institutional norms. Among the other warning signs: attempts to restrict the franchise in the name of fighting voter fraud; the attempts to insulate governing parties against the will of voters; the rise of strong partisanship and weak parties; and the rise of zero-sum politics in which power, and total policy victories, are more important than governance. It is easy to dismiss these as examples of “hardball politics,” but scholars of democracy recognize them as indicators of democratic erosion. Many (but not all) of these symptoms are more advanced among Republicans than Democrats, which also makes them matters of partisan politics — and hence politicizes the maintenance and consolidation of democracy. This last development is, in the context of democratic backsliding, particularly dangerous, because it translates loyalty to party into opposition to liberal democratic norms and processes.
The debate isn’t just a matter of contextualizing Trump in terms of post-Cold War trends. Left wing critics of “liberal alarmism” point out, quite rightly, that the United States is, by many standards, a more consolidated democracy today than in past periods. Voter fraud may be trivial now, but it wasn’t for much of American history. Are you worried about the abuse of domestic police powers? How about J. Edgar Hoover? Or Richard Nixon? Can anyone honestly say that current attacks on voting rights are remotely comparable to the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans before the 1965 Voting Rights Act? Heck, from the end of Reconstruction to the end of Jim Crow, much of the United States consisted of racial authoritarian enclaves. And how does Trump’s travel ban stack up against Japanese American internment during World War II, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s current crackdown measure up against Operation Wetback? When contemplating America’s history of illiberalism, racism and oppression, would you like some ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, as well as some chattel slavery, on the side? By the implicit standards sometimes used by Trump’s critics, the United States wasn’t even a liberal democracy until fairly recently.
Some hold up this history to argue that focusing on Trump distracts us from more dangerous, and more insidious threats to American democracy. Others point to it as a reason for optimism. American democracy survived much worse than Trump, so get a grip.
But, in fact, it is precisely the opposite: It’s reason for deep concern. It demonstrates that there’s no “special sauce” that insulates the United States from autocratic policies, kleptocracy and zones of outright authoritarianism. Many look back fondly on past periods of American prosperity and global power. Trump built his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” around this nostalgia. But as critics argued during the 2016 campaign, the America that Trump invoked could be a brutal place for ethnic and religious minorities, people who violated prevailing gender norms and sexual morality and those accused of communist sympathies.
This kind of selective tyranny, in fact, is endemic to autocratic and hybrid regimes. As Thomas Pepinksy writes, “Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is … boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered … they are going to be frustrated.”
There’s no need to invoke the specter of Stalin or Hitler. Here in the United States, we know where democratic backsliding can lead, because, in a sense, we’ve already been there.