Home / General / Yes, Trump is a Threat to Liberal Democracy. And You Should be Worried.

Yes, Trump is a Threat to Liberal Democracy. And You Should be Worried.


On Friday, the The New York Times published an opinion piece by Samuel Moyn and David Priestland entitled “Trump isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” The article has been generating a fair amount of chatter in my social-media circles. I find the piece kind of odd. Over on the Twitters, Yascha Mounk argues that it “dismantles a very strawy straw man,” and I think that’s a pretty good characterization. Given my own concerns about ongoing democratic backsliding in the United States—and the risk that Trump will worsen it both at home and abroad—I feel compelled to weigh in.

Moyn and Prieston argue, in essence, that the threat to US democratic institutions posed by Trump is relatively low and that an excessive focus on defending freedom and liberty will distract from solving the underlying economic problems that enabled Trump’s brand of right-wing populism to capture the White House.

Tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, has always been a powerful force in the United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger. It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out.

There’s a lot of slippage here, including between concepts like “liberal freedom and institutions” and “democracy.” This matters. A lot. It might be that a significant percentage of the American population thinks that Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, abolish Congress, and declare himself President for Life. But, at least in academic and policy circles, the biggest fear about Trump concerns moving the country toward illiberal democracy. As Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger noted back in November:

During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties

These worries do not even depend on Trump having some grand authoritarian design. They simply require a self-serving, thin-skinned, individual with autocratic dispositions to occupy the most powerful position in the most powerful democracy in the world: someone who, for example, will demonize opponents, vilify the free press while genuflecting toward the use of economic carrots and sticks to shape coverage to his liking, dispense with conflict of interest rules and norms, and fan the flames of extremism for personal gain. In other words, Trump’s ‘standard operating procedure’ is itself pretty dangerous. Mix in other steps, such as turning the Executive Branch into an ally of—rather than a check against—voter suppression, and I don’t think it requries much imagination to see the threat as very real.

So what do Moyn and Priestland have to say about this?

The initial fearful reaction to Mr. Trump’s election was understandable. He cut a new figure in recent politics. His indefensible slurs against his fellow citizens and offensive plans for the weak were a shock. His frequent breaches of political norms seemed to pose an imminent hazard for democracy. They may have been too chaotic to be truly sinister, but the danger seemed clear and present.

A little more than six months into the Trump presidency, though, it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained. Starting with the Trump administration’s original version of the travel ban, the president’s most outrageous policies have been successfully obstructed, leaving largely those that any Republican president would have implemented through executive order. The menace the commander in chief poses to the world, as his impulsive warning to North Korea suggested, may be another matter. But there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.

Working backwards, and at the risk of repetition, the idea that Trump would “seize power unconstitutionally” is simply not the preomdinate fear among analysts. My strong suspicion is that it is also not the major concern among liberal and progressive political activists. Regardless, it really is a “strawy straw man” when weighing Trump’s threat to liberal democracy.

Moreover, Moyn and Priestland have a strangely static view of the next 4-8 years. Yes, federal courts whittled down much of the travel ban. But three members of the Supreme Court were ready to approve the full ban, including Trump’s own appointment, Neil Gorsuch. It is entirely possible that, within a single term, Trump could select a replacement for Kennedy and at least one of the center-left justices. That would, in all likelihood, create a majority willing to sign off on policies like the travel ban.

Keep in mind that the Supreme Court already has a majority willing to roll back minority voting rights, empower plutocrats in the electoral process, and otherwise tilt the playing field toward the GOP. Now factor in the one area where the Trump administration has seen enormous success: lower-court judicial appointments. This is starting to look an awful lot like the recipe for hybrid regimes, no?

Finally, any account of the Trump administration’s consequences for liberal democracy must consider its efforts to remove the United States entirely from the democracy-promotion, human-rights, and overseas rule-of-law games. We are, for the first time since the end of World War II, facing an international system without a great power that even bothers to be a hypocrite on these issues. This could, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue, have serious implications for global liberal democracy.

Moyn and Priestland continue:

There is certainly evidence of Russian interference in the election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee is serious. But that hardly amounts to a long-term design on American democracy from some kind of fifth column, backed by Moscow’s “Authoritarian International” and propagated by fake news. Even if it were true that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting an illiberal putsch, he is still far from achieving this goal. Paranoia alone explains why fear that the republic is in imminent danger has been the dominant response.

I know this is a short editorial in a national newspaper, but I’m not sure I would dismiss the real prospect of collusion—even in the nudge-nudge-wink-wink form we saw play out on television—between Russia and the Trump campaign quite so glibly. I certainly think the valence of this paragraph changes if we abandon the straw man of “tyrannophobia” that Moyn and Prieston offer. Beyond this, to the extent that Moscow’s information warfare played a causal role in Trump’s election, it’s already done more damage to the ‘liberal order’—including America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships—than Russia could ever hope to do via standard instruments of power politics. This doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of the United States, but it’s certainly bad for US national interests.

So why is paranoia a bigger threat than Trump? They write:

The sky is not falling and no lights are flashing red, but Americans have nonetheless embraced a highly charged, counterproductive way of thinking about politics as a “new Cold War” between democracy and totalitarianism. The works of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell have risen on the best-seller charts. Every news story produces fear and trembling.

History raises serious doubts about how helpful this tyrannophobic focus on catastrophe, fake news and totalitarianism really is in dealing with the rise of the populist right, of which this bumbling hothead of a president is a symptom. Excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law, could prove self-defeating. By postponing serious efforts to give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.

If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve. This approach to politics threatens to widen the already yawning gulf between liberal groups and their opponents, while distracting from the deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments.

The anti-communist politics in the United States of the early 1950s were rooted in assumptions that had much in common with those of anti-Trumpism today. There was, it was claimed, a serious risk to liberal democracy from American subversion within, in alliance with the Russians without, peddling seductive untruths. Other goals — like the creation of a more just and equal society — had to take second place to the country’s military posture.

Ironically, many who rallied to the anti-tyranny banner were liberals of a “vital center” who did so out of sincere belief in the need to create an American welfare state. Yet focusing on exaggerated threats to freedom and stigmatizing the communist enemy undermined their progressive goals. National Security Council Report 68 of 1950, for example, argued that the Cold War justified the reduction of nonmilitary expenditure by the “deferment of certain desirable programs,” including welfare. And while the New Deal was not dismantled, efforts to extend it — which still seemed a real possibility in Harry Truman’s early years in office — were denounced as pink tyranny, boosting state power at the expense of democracy. Casualties included attempts to create a national health care program. The consequences for American politics have been momentous.

On Twitter, Moyn comments on Mounk’s criticisms (which I echo many of here) by describing this piece as a “an attack on the empirical homogenization of unlike cases-an ’empiricism’ driving unhelpful alarm about US democracy’s collapse.” This strikes me as a bit ironic, given that the entire comparative logic here derives from the 1950s.

First, the net effects of the Cold War on domestic progressive causes are far from clear. Yes, it gave us McCarthyism, but Truman integrated the armed forces in the year following the crystallization of the Cold War. The negative effects of Jim Crow on America’s international image likely helped, rather than hurt, the cause of Civil Rights. The 1960s brought Medicare and Medicaid. Without the Cold War would the United States have universal health care, more progressive taxation, and more progressive policies over all? Maybe. But it’s a hugely complicated counterfactual to rest this argument on. At the very least, I’d like to see a deeper analysis of the causal role of anti-communist sentiment in derailing Truman’s health-care plan than provided in the link that they supply.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that the dissolution of the Cold War consensus probably made domestic political polarization worse while taking pressure off of Republicans to care about the attractiveness of the American political-economic model.

Second, Russia is a regional power with nuclear weapons, not a global competitor. It is very difficult to imagine a US-Russia repeat of the particular stew of existential rivalry that marked the 1950s and early 1960s, in which the future of mankind seemed to be on the line, and which led to the diversion of massive resources away from domestic priorities.

Third, Russia is not a communist state. It is rather implausible to suggest that, even if America were to succumb to a McCarthyite hysteria, it would take the form of “the United States can’t expand the welfare state, because that would forward the goals of Soviet communism.” Contemporary Russia is an example of inequality and kleptocracy—that is, precisely the kinds of things that progressives should, if we really need to go there, welcome a backlash against.

In some respects, the threat of anti-democratic forces might force efforts to address economic inequality, not distract from it—a point made by an undergraduate on the Mounk-Moyn thread:

The problems with the Cold War analogy just compound as the essay continues:

The absolute priority given to liberal fundamentals also promoted serious misunderstandings of the rest of the world. Capitalism (though not democracy) had to be defended at all costs, while foreigners were commonly viewed as subject to brainwashing, manipulation and mass irrationality — just what we fear today in the United States itself. And while those assumptions led to terrible mistakes and cost millions of lives in American military interventions, the end of the Cold War only reinforced the tyrannophobic worldview in an even purer form — now including liberal democracy and even freer markets.

My only prior comment on the piece, over on Facebook, was “if we focus on protecting democratic institutions, we’ll get McCarthyism? Wut?” The problem here isn’t simply that the supposed “tyrannophobia” of the liberal and left (nor that of the “vital center”, were we to successfully reconstitute it) operates in a geopolitical and ideological context completely different from that of the 1950s. It’s that the closest analogy to McCarthyism—a xenophobic, paranoid movement that argues for defending democratic sovereignty by adopting illiberal means—has a serious foothold in the Trump administration.

Put simply, the politics of Trumpism—the same politics that threaten democratic backsliding—also threaten to create the conditions that scare Moyn and Priestland. It’s not Russiophobia, or overwrought forms of anti-communism, that we need to worry about it. It’s Islamophobia and white ethnonationalism. Their diagnoses is completely wrong. Liberal and left-wing “tyrannophobes” are, as far as the analogy has any purchase, mobilizing against a replay of the 1950s—but, this time, the intellectual descendants of the Birchers are inside the Executive Branch.

They continue:

The rude awakening has been a long time coming, and even now has not fully occurred. The 2008 financial crisis failed to dent the political establishment’s complacency, even though it had become very clear that market-friendly policies were helping to destroy the social mobility and economic opportunity that underpins a well-functioning democracy.

And while the shock of the 2016 election caused unprecedented soul-searching, tyrannophobia is blinding many to the real warnings of the election: A dysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention if recent electoral choices are to be explained — and voting patterns are to be changed in the future. Yet there is too little recognition of the need for new direction in either party. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York recently declared that the Democrats have merely failed to get their message across. Many Republicans are convinced that the party can correct its Trumpian aberration by reasserting the status quo ante of free markets and social conservatism. Neither side, it would seem, is ready to depart from its prior consensus.

The threat of tyranny can be real enough. But those who act as though democracy is constantly on the precipice are likely to miss the path that leads not simply to fuller justice but to true safety.

Of course, I’ve so far operated under the assumption that their underlying causal claims are correct: that implementing social democracy in the United States is the best way to prevent the asencedency of the populist right. The experience of actual social democracies, such as Denmark and Sweden, suggest some healthy skepticism. So does growing evidence about the dynamics of the 2016 election.

I would certainly like a progressive “new nationalism” that tackled inequality and increasing political oligarchy, and did so in an inclusive, civic manner. I’d like a “New New Deal” for the world that remakes international liberal order to promote equality and economic democracy. Sure, I think all of this would probably help combat Trumpism and some of its root causes. But there’s a serious risk of the pundit’s fallacy going on here. History does not unequivocally show that economic inequality is a necessary or sufficient condition for right-wing authoritarianism. It certainly does not show that our best bet, in the face of the threat of democratic backsliding, is to let institutions take care of themselves so that we can devote all of our attention to progressive economic policies.

At heart, Trump forces us to make a wager: are American liberal democracatic institutions self-regulating, or are they precarious, held together through norms and practices that can be chipped away? Given our experience with regional racial autocracy, machine politics, civil war, serious illiberal movements at the national level, and more recent developments in state and federal governance, I think complacency is extremely risky. Heck, imagine what American political institutions would look like if Nixon hadn’t recorded every conversation in the White House, or if the Republicans in congress had held the line for him a bit better.

I find it particularly difficult to accept this risk when it is justified by arguments that seem to me at least somewhat in tension with one another. To believe Moyn and Priestland, we have to simultaneously hold that (1) the underlying threat to democracy is so grave that we need to radically alter our economic model and that (2) institutions are strong enough to prevent significant democratic backsliding under the most radical right-wing government in the postwar period. That is, we have to believe that Trump is a prelude to a much larger explosion of authoritarianism in the United State, and that what happens to the United States under Trump will not significantly shape either the likelihood of that explosion or its ability to usher in illiberal democracy. It’s possible for both to be true, but it’s not likely.


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