The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump does not understand democracy

A gas station sign in Worthington, Pa. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
6 min

For decades, Donald Trump’s only boss was Donald Trump. As head of the Trump Organization, the real estate magnate did what he wanted with near-total impunity, hemmed in only by (surprisingly malleable) legal or contractual constraints and by his thirst for media attention. He was, in geopolitical terms, an autocrat. He was an all-powerful leader who spent years convincing himself and the world that the company he inherited from his father was something he’d been granted on merit.

He was active in politics only in the way that many wealthy people are. He made campaign donations when asked, getting letters from prominent officials such as Hillary Clinton that he cherished. At other times, he offered contributions more strategically, aiming to get laws or licenses to break his way. In the 2016 election, he pointed to this as his salient experience in politics: He knew how to work the broken system.

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What Trump wasn’t was a champion of American democracy. There’s no indication he held even a minor curiosity about the country’s history, even telling talk show host Stephen Colbert at one point that he didn’t know what the stripes on the U.S. flag represented. Patriotism is a core part of Trump’s politics, but it manifests only in a superficial, America-is-the-best sense.

The first political contest in which Trump participated was the 2016 Iowa caucuses. He was expected to win but didn’t, so he began claiming that the winner, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), had cheated. Trump won New Hampshire a week later, largely burying those complaints, but the response was telling. Most elected officials who reach the point of contending for the presidency have been through other campaigns in the past, have been immersed in democracy and American democratic systems. Many or most have lost races, understanding such losses only as roadblocks.

Trump had none of that, just the autocracy of the Trump Organization. He expected power to be something he could seize, something that, like the Trump Organization, he had earned. And then 2020 happened.

On Tuesday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity aired a snippet of an interview with Trump focused on foreign relations. (Hannity’s full show on Monday carried more of the conversation.) In it, Hannity also asked Trump about former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s suggestion that presidential candidates be tested for cognitive abilities.

“I’d like to see it for anybody running for president,” Trump said. “I think somebody from running for president, taking a cognitive test—”

Then he transitioned.

“You know, they do it in China,” he said, a smile spreading over his face, “but it’s done in a different way. They have a caste system. And the smartest person gets to the top. The smartest and most vicious.”

What Trump appears to have been trying to describe is the stratified system of political ascent in the Chinese Communist Party, in which potential leaders work their way up through the ranks to power. It’s a system that includes ostensible elections, but superficial ones; in March, President Xi Jinping won a third term in office by a unanimous vote of the country’s toothless parliament.

China is eager to present its system as a form of democracy comparable to — or, really, superior to — the U.S. system. Its state-run media deride America’s “fake democracy” in favor of “Chinese democracy.” That rhetoric has been energetic this week as President Biden hosts various international leaders for a summit focused on encouraging democracy internationally.

It’s a pressing concern. The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden recently published a report sharing its assessments of the state of democracy in various countries. Its “liberal democracy index” — a composite of measurements meant to determine the extent to which residents of various countries can participate in leadership decisions in an informed manner — shows a dramatic shift away from democracy and toward autocracy over the past two decades. In 2002, 43 countries were becoming more democratic while only 13 were growing more autocratic. In 2022, those figures had reversed almost exactly.

Biden has made this fight a core part of his presidency, leading him to again host a Summit for Democracy. Of course, his aim isn’t simply to bolster democracy internationally. It’s also to stem the autocratizing of the United States, as manifested most obviously by Trump.

Trump’s praise for the Chinese system, after all, wasn’t praise for “Chinese democracy.” It was simply praise for a process in which ruthless actors can scramble for power and climb their way up to the top. He implies that it’s inherently meritocratic, which itself is a misread of the system, but it’s obvious why he sees that process as appealing. He’s been rejected by a majority of American voters two elections in a row but has thrived in the cutthroat realm of Republican primaries. He, like Xi, has become the leader of his party through cunning and a willingness to say whatever it takes.

Xi is only one of the autocratic leaders Trump celebrates. Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and endorsed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He has hailed his friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and touted the leadership of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

The V-Dem Institute’s measure of liberal democracy shows that all of these leaders presided over autocratizing or fully autocratic governments. It also shows that its measure of liberal democracy in America (top left on the chart below) plunged sharply once Trump was elected in 2016, recovering slightly in recent years.

Again, it’s not surprising that this is Trump’s view. He came into politics from outside the political system. His view of democratic elections was not of an electorate empowered to choose its leaders but, instead, a process to be manipulated for power. His response to his loss in 2020 was not to graciously accede but to rail against what he called its unfairness. He continues to insist that the election was rigged — despite the complete lack of evidence to that effect — largely because he doesn’t recognize an election that obstructs his access to power as something to be respected.

He was the autocratic leader of the Trump Organization and, save a bankruptcy or two, that worked out. Why not be the autocratic leader of the United States?