Experts who warned Trumpism could destroy US democracy in 2018 are even more worried now: ‘We weren’t alarmist enough’

Experts who warned Trumpism could destroy US democracy in 2018 are even more worried now: ‘We weren’t alarmist enough’
President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 Japan Summit Saturday, June 29, 2019, in Osaka, Japan. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

When Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, “How Democracies Die,” was released in January 2018, critics of the Harvard University political science professors described them as alarmists. The book had a dire warning: the United States’ liberal democracy was in danger because of Trumpism. But two years later, Levitsky and Ziblatt have not backed down from that message — in fact, they are now saying that they should have been more worried in 2018.


Levitsky told HuffPost, “Joe Scarborough ridiculed it on TV, saying, ‘These guys are alarmists.’ It turns out we weren’t alarmist enough.”

Scarborough, the Never Trump conservative who hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” is no fan of President Donald Trump — who he bashes consistently. But when “How Democracies Die” came out, Scarborough argued that the United States’ democracy was robust enough to withstand Trump’s train wreck of a presidency. Scarborough, in a March 15, 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post, argued that American democracy was much stronger than Trump’s chaotic administration.

Journalist Travis Waldron, in HuffPost, notes that Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t the only “political scholars” or “political leaders” who are “warning that 2020 is a referendum not just on Trump, but on the nation’s democratic experiment as a whole.” But Levitsky fears that too many Americans aren’t as worried as they need to be.

“People are getting killed over politics,” Levitsky told HuffPost. “There’s questions about whether the election will be free. Law enforcement bodies are being manipulated to protect allies of the president and go after rivals of the president. Things are happening on various fronts, and we’re not putting it all together and realizing that our democracy is on the line.”

Liberal democracies don’t necessarily come to power because of an armed coup d’etat or golpe de estado: in some cases, authoritarians are voted into office and gradually undermine a country’s checks and balances. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an obvious example. And Waldron cites Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as an example of a far-right authoritarian who was elected in a liberal democracy, warning that democracy in the U.S. is also in danger.

“Republicans in Congress have done whatever they can to protect Trump,” Waldron explains. “They blocked his removal from office after House Democrats impeached him and have kept administration officials from facing consequences for shirking their oversight duties. Without those checks, Trump has proceeded to do whatever he wants: fire inspectors general, attack the judiciary, violate laws and profit off his own office.”

Levitsky told HuffPost, “U.S. democracy has proven weaker and more vulnerable than I thought.”

Amy Erica Smith, a political science professor at Iowa State University, warns that some countries pretend to be democratic and have elections but are actually authoritarian states — or as she calls them, “hybrid regimes.”

“The number one defining feature of a hybrid regime is that the incumbent is using ― and I’ll say ‘his’ because almost always ‘his’ ― all of the benefits that come from office to get himself reelected in an unfair way,” Smith told HuffPost.

Waldron points to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian President Viktor Orbán as examples of authoritarians who pretend to hold fair elections and argues that Trump is trying to do the same type of thing in the U.S. “through his efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service and discredit the election as fraudulent before it even takes place — an admittedly odd tactic for a leader already in power…. Trump’s attacks on democracy are in effect the final shattering of the idea of American exceptionalism.”

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