Can U.S. democracy survive when between 35 and 45 percent of the population cheers a president who behaves like an autocrat?
When Donald Trump took office two years ago, I and many others began sounding the alarm — not out of partisan worry but out of concern for democracy. Trump, we argued, was an existential threat to the republic. For the first time in American history, the president of the United States was an authoritarian-minded demagogue who viewed checks and balances as outdated nuisances rather than sacred principles.
I even wrote a book explaining how Trump was behaving like a “lite” version of the thin-skinned authoritarian leaders I have interviewed and studied in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. I called Trump a wannabe despot. In return, some Trump fans called me an alarmist — a person suffering, perhaps, from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Others acknowledged that Trump had autocratic tendencies but argued that he had become such a weak and unpopular president that those impulses were meaningless.
Now, two years later, should we still be alarmed? Or was I an alarmist?
The United States is still a democracy. The Constitution and its checks and balances still exist. And even though Trump swoons at even the mention of a foreign dictator or despot, he is not one himself. Yet Trump has done immeasurable damage to U.S. democracy. That damage can be broken down into three categories: damage to institutions; damage to norms; and normalization of authoritarian tactics within the Republican Party.
First, Trump has chipped away at the institutional pillars of democracy. On a near-daily basis, Trump tries to undercut rule of law to advance political goals or to save his own skin. He’s called for the jailing of political opponents while pardoning political allies. He has fired investigators because there was an investigation into him. He forced an attorney general out because he wouldn’t sabotage an independent investigation. All these actions implicitly undermine the rule of law — the ultimate basis of any democracy. Trump has gotten away with it, so far.
Trump has also relentlessly attacked the free press, another pillar that allows democracies to stand above authoritarian regimes. He has echoed the worst dictators in history, calling journalists the "enemy of the people.” Trump defended Saudi Arabia’s government after it murdered Jamal Khashoggi, then went on to endorse beating up journalists. Days later, a die-hard MAGA disciple sent pipe bombs to Trump’s favorite media targets. All presidents loathe the press; Trump is the first who has publicly condoned acts of violence against journalists.
Trump has even tried to undercut the integrity of elections, both by spreading lies about voter fraud to sow doubt in the system itself and by doing nothing to deter foreign attacks aimed at disrupting U.S. elections.
Second, Trump has taken a buzz saw to democratic norms, the soft guardrails of democracy. Democratic norms — the unwritten guidelines of political behavior — give meaning to democratic institutions. Without the norms, the institutions might as well just be ink on parchment. Trump has violated countless ethics norms while simultaneously introducing a level of nepotism and cronyism more befitting of Uzbekistan than the United States. It’s hard to decide which screams “banana republic” more: the president’s unqualified daughter helping to pick the next World Bank president, or putting Eric Trump’s wedding planner in charge of all federal housing in New York and New Jersey?
Third, and most important, Trump has injected authoritarianism into the bloodstream of the Republican Party. Polls have shown that a majority of Republicans now agree that the press is an “enemy of the people” rather than “an important part of democracy.” Less than half of Republicans now have a favorable view of the FBI, a drop of 16 percentage points since Trump took office. And 74 percent of Republicans wrongly believe Trump’s lies that voter fraud is widespread, rather than the truth. (It’s vanishingly rare.) Even when Trump leaves office, those destructive views will linger.
That’s why the most chilling part of the president explicitly praising a congressman for violently assaulting a reporter wasn’t the depraved comment — it was the crowd. The thought of violence against journalists — who they saw as the “enemy” — sent the red-hat-wearing mob into a frenzy. They cheered and whooped and clapped with glee.
American democracy has decayed during Trump’s time in office, even though his deficit of discipline and surplus of scandals have weakened him considerably. But the biggest tests are yet to come: How much more damage will Trump do if he faces impeachment or indictments? Can the pillars of democracy be salvaged if the new normal involves 40 percent of the country yelling their approval every time a politician hits them with a sledgehammer? And will the next Republican nominee be a slicker and savvier demagogue who can capitalize on the groundwork laid by Trump? I don’t know the answers. But as someone who has studied how democracy dies across the globe, I remain deeply worried about Trump’s America.