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Trump Is on His Way to Corrupting American Democracy Beyond Repair

It turns out, most despots are not only twisted, but also incompetent.

President Donald J. Trump visits the Philippines, November 13, 2017
Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy by Brian Klaas (Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, November 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound:

It could never happen in America. Right?

Two years ago, in Minsk, I met with Mikalai Statkevich, a presidential candidate in Belarus—a country often called the “last dictatorship in Europe.” During his campaign, Statkevich had spoken out in favor of democracy and had organized a peaceful protest against the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. For those “crimes,” Statkevich was beaten, then abducted. Thugs from the ruling regime grabbed him, put a bag over his head, and forced him into a van. For an hour, they drove around without telling Statkevich where they were heading. His mind was racing. Was he being taken to a secluded forest to be shot? A dirt road to be beaten to death? Would he ever see his family again? As it turned out, Statkevich was tossed into a cold, dark, bare jail cell and left to rot. The regime allowed him to speak to his family for only one hour per year. Other dissidents from the opposition were tortured, handcuffed onto a medieval-style rack, and stretched until their bones cracked and they “confessed.” In that horrifying environment, Statkevich watched five years of his life slip by, day after bleak day.

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When Statkevich finished his story, both of us were shaken by what he had just told me. Then, Statkevich looked me straight in the eye and said: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You won’t realize what it’s worth until it’s too late.” I study despots. The president of Belarus is one; Donald Trump, the current US president, is not. But Trump is acting like a despot’s apprentice—an understudy in authoritarian tactics—who threatens to corrupt democracy beyond repair. A year since his election in November 2016, he has already done serious damage—and it could get much worse.

Trump is no Mussolini or Hitler, no Stalin or Castro. Anyone who makes those comparisons is an alarmist, belittling the suffering of millions at the hands of those tyrants. Trump is hardly an evil mastermind. Instead, he is a democratically elected leader, operating within the confines of one of the world’s most stable and robust democracies. His behavior is constrained by democratic institutions, and his decisions are scrutinized by a robust and free press. Even if he wishes it were otherwise, Trump cannot rule by decree. In fact, during his campaign, Trump promised to enact ten major pieces of legislation within his first 100 days. He has, so far, enacted none of them. How can a man who has struggled even to change the health care laws or build a wall be authoritarian?

Over the years, I have learned that most despots are not only twisted, but also incompetent. They are often bumbling, tragicomically unready characters who are defined not by their disciplined efficiency or effectiveness but by their reckless authoritarian instincts and impulses. Sometimes, those instincts are married to a destructive ideology, such as Nazism or Communism. But much of the time, despots are driven by narcissism, an unquenchable ego that yearns for fame, public adoration, and stardom. For many authoritarian leaders throughout history, their greatest fear was that they would be nobodies—once gone, soon forgotten.

Despots dread being, as Trump often says in his most stinging insults, someone “that you’ve never heard of.”

Take Paraguay’s longtime dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. He ruled the South American nation for thirty-five years, until a military coup in 1989 forced him into exile. During his reign, Stroessner wanted to make sure that everyone was constantly thinking of him. He erected a giant flashing neon sign with his name on it overlooking Asunción, the capital city. Photos of Stroessner were everywhere. His name was everywhere. He even renamed a city after himself: Puerto Stroessner. But he also wanted to make sure that you knew he was the best despot—like you’d never seen before. To make sure his subjects knew he was getting things done, bigly, he referred to himself as “El Excelentísimo.”

Stroessner’s ego was deadly. Challenging his cult of personality was dangerous. One senator who dared, Carlos Levi Rufinelli, was tortured six separate times. The regime used torture to enforce its narrative of what was true and what was false. “When they put the needles under your fingernails,” Rufinelli later recalled, “you tell them anything, you denounce everybody, and then they say, ‘See, you were lying to us all the time.’” In one particularly barbaric episode, Stroessner’s regime recorded the screams of a schoolteacher, Martin Almada, as he was being tortured for the “crime” of advocating for higher teacher pay. Thugs from the regime then called Almada’s wife and played the recording for her. Next, they delivered his blood-soaked clothes to her house. An attached note instructed her to come and collect his corpse. Her husband wasn’t actually dead, but she died of a heart attack at the shock.

Stroessner’s impulses grew more destructive because he was operating in a system that indulged rather than blocked them.

When people could have stood up to him, they backed down. Over time, Stroessner got away with worse and worse abuses. When someone with authoritarian instincts and autocratic impulses enters any political scene, there are three major ways to stop them becoming a despot.

First, there’s preventing them from getting into power. Demagogues are a dime a dozen. They are harmless if nobody listens to them. Most would-be demagogues and despots just scream into the wind, because their dangerous fantasies are never married to real power. Stroessner or Stalin would have been “nobodies” had they remained an irrelevance on the fringe.

Second, the political system can block a would-be demagogue in power from becoming a despot. When a dictator seizes power in a place like Turkmenistan or Equatorial Guinea, there aren’t any serious checks and balances in place to stop them from becoming a tyrant. However, in many countries, such as the United States, robust institutions exist that were conceived and established to divide power rather than consolidate it. Those institutions are helpful at blocking the rise of a despot, but they are not failsafe.

If those institutions fail, the final roadblock to despots is the people. American-style checks and balances are not imbued with magical powers—they are only as strong as those who deploy them when democracy is under duress. Physically, the US Constitution is no more than ink on a piece of parchment. People, not institutions or documents, protect democracy. If the citizenry allows democracy to wane, it will.

Donald Trump has authoritarian instincts and reckless autocratic impulses that have already been boosted since he acquired presidential power. Still, American democracy is resilient. The democratic institutions and democratic values of the people are a serious bulwark against any effort to advance authoritarianism. For example, when Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that the United States should bring back torture because “it works,” politicians, journalists, activists, ordinary citizens, and even the military pushed back. He has dropped it—for now. Democracy in the United States will not fade easily. But it could still fade, ebbing away day after bleak day, until it’s too late. Well-established democracies like the United States don’t usually die with a bang. If authoritarianism is going to establish a beachhead on America’s shores, it will creep up on us, and democracy will go out with a whimper.

Democracy is fragile. Like a sandcastle, it takes a long time to build and even longer to perfect, but can be washed away with a single powerful wave—like a military coup d’état or a revolution. Thankfully, those powerful waves are unlikely in the United States. But democracy can also be eroded gradually, as each wave takes a few grains of sand with it, year after year. The Trump waves are the most serious threat to American democracy in modern history. Most of the main pillars upon which democracy stands firm—the press, rule of law, ethics guidelines, voting rights, election integrity, respect for independent institutions, and even a shared sense of what is true and what is false—are under attack. Trump is the one behind these attacks, using tried and true authoritarian tactics that are familiar to those who live under despots and dictators but not to citizens of the United States. Unfortunately, to those in the know, Trump’s practices seem chillingly familiar.

For the last six years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people on the frontlines of the global battle for democracy—in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and beyond the Iron Curtain of the former Soviet Union. I’ve met with former despots and dictators and the (surviving) candidates who challenged them; with torture victims and those who oversaw their torture; with journalists and government spin doctors; with top-level ministers and the rebels who sought to depose them; and with coup plotters and the generals who stopped them. From the Sovietized streets of Belarus to Thailand’s military dictatorship, and from the dysfunction of Madagascar to the toppled dictatorship of Tunisia, I’ve sought to understand how authoritarianism spreads and democracy dies.

Living in these countries for extended periods was a crash course in the tactics and methods of despots. I saw how they manipulate the truth, using lies as tools of control. I saw how despots abuse or destroy the press, silencing any independent sources of information that could undercut their lies. I saw how despots jail their opponents and pardon their allies. I saw how despots scheme to rig elections to ensure their own victories. I saw how despots scapegoat unpopular minorities, deflecting blame for their own failures. I saw how despots make a mockery of government ethics and indulge in kleptocracy, a regime of corrupt thieves who use political power to line their own pockets. I saw how despots reward their families, hiring based on bloodlines rather than résumé lines. I saw how despots politicize institutions that dare challenge them, turning popular anger toward the increasingly rare voices of dissent from within their regime. And I saw how despots whip their supporters into a rally-around-the flag frenzy of misplaced patriotism, wrongly equating people who oppose the government with people who oppose the nation.

There are now rumblings of these tactics in America. They are distant—for now. The horrors I’ve seen firsthand—of dissidents with spinal injuries and emaciated children scrounging for food in garbage piles—are the real and ugly face of authoritarian despotism. The United States, for all its problems, is nowhere near these human catastrophes or government failures. Claiming otherwise is hyperbole that minimizes far worse atrocities and abuses. But the death of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism start with complacency. In places where democracy has recently been destroyed, such as Thailand or Turkey or the Philippines, or where democracy is fading fast, as in Hungary, would-be despots have chipped away at the limits placed on their power. Left unchallenged, aspiring strongmen grow bolder. Citizens often don’t realize what is happening—until it’s too late.

In the United States, we have not yet reached that tipping point. Americans are some of the luckiest people on Earth. We are born into a society of riches and freedoms. There’s poverty and inequality and injustice, but we are blessed with democratic avenues to redress those grievances. People can protest openly. We have a meaningful say in decisions made about our lives. When we speak out, we are protected, not tortured. Sadly, though, what we take for granted can be taken away.

The Founding Fathers of the United States anticipated that this moment would arrive. They designed a system built to withstand a divisive demagogue. They put checks and balances in place. They carved out a separation of powers that makes it difficult to consolidate power in a single person. But their enduring genius is being tested in ways they could not have anticipated. Americans are split, and despots are most likely to emerge when the political or economic system—or both—fractures. As a nation fractures, it creates an opening that an opportunistic, self-interested demagogue can exploit. That opening now exists in the United States, and Donald Trump is starting to exploit it.

So, how did we get here? Abraham Lincoln famously said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was right. Political polarization has spun out of control, as centrifugal forces push Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) America further and further apart. Partisanship has become more about tribal identity than about disagreements on how to govern American society. For many Americans, being a Democrat or a Republican is a fundamental character trait, not a flexible opinion. Today, that’s more problematic than ever before, because the gulf between Democrats and Republicans is wider than at any previous point in modern history. For both parties, the extremes have become more extreme—and there are more people who consistently express far-left or far-right views than at any point in recent history. Perhaps most damaging is the rising perception that those from the rival party are not just disagreeing compatriots but disagreeable enemies. In the late 1950s, a poll asked Americans whether they hoped their daughter would marry a Democrat or a Republican. The majority said they didn’t care either way; it was an unimportant characteristic of a potential partner. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they wanted their child to marry someone from their own political party. In such an environment, where acceptable love is defined by party affiliation, how can a democratic system—built on shared values and hard-fought compromise—thrive?

Several drivers are accelerating this American polarization. The menu of media options has lengthened considerably in the last few decades, so Americans can now self-select into partisan echo chambers that affirm their beliefs while demonizing their political rivals as enemies. Depending on which item you choose from the menu, you could think that the world is all blue skies or that the sky is falling. In a vicious feedback loop, our pre-existing biases shape the news we choose, and the news we choose reinforces our pre-existing biases.

That feedback loop is compounded by the rise of uncompetitive elections across the country. In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average margin of victory was a huge 37.1 percent—a figure you’d expect to see in the sham elections of North Korea, not in the United States. Only eight incumbent members of the US House of Representatives lost their re-election bids—in a body of 435 elected officials—even though polls consistently show that Congress is about as popular as cockroaches. Some blame can be put on gerrymandering, the cynical drawing of inkblot-like district lines to distort the will of voters. Some blame should be put on ourselves, too, as most of us move to places where people think like us—it is hard to imagine a competitive election between Republicans and Democrats in either downtown San Francisco or rural Alabama. And, of course, there’s plenty of blame due to the absurd pile of money being injected into American politics, where it’s hard to win without millions to spend. For a system that is supposed to be built on fairness and competition, these developments are damning.

As our elections become less and less competitive, politicians become more and more extreme. After all, if you were a politician running to get elected in a district that was 85 percent Republican or 85 percent Democratic, why would you ever compromise? You’d know that you could never lose, except following a primary challenge from within your own party. The smart and rational move is to vote rigidly along party lines and work against “the other side,” and these days that’s precisely what most politicians do. Their constituents become more extreme in turn. Many voters in solidly red or solidly blue districts stop voting. Why bother? They already know who is going to win. They disengage. Another powerful negative feedback loop.

Furthermore, there is a rising and justifiable backlash against the United States government for its failures to deliver economic prosperity to all citizens. Between 1935 and 1960, the average voter’s standard of living roughly doubled. Like clockwork, it doubled again over the next quarter century, from 1960 to 1985. But then, from 1985 to 2010, it stagnated. Since then, the average American hasn’t seen much improvement. At the same time, incomes for the richest Americans have soared. Economic growth has boomed, but wages have flat-lined. Economic inequality is now at historically high levels. Decades of steady GDP growth mask the hidden reality of a skewed economy. The rich are thriving; the rest are surviving. Parts of rural America are dying.

I witnessed those changes firsthand when I was co-managing a campaign for governor in my home state of Minnesota during 2009–10. Our campaign crisscrossed the state, visiting all eighty-seven counties in eighty-seven days. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008–9, it was clear that the urban areas of Minneapolis and Saint Paul were booming again. The suburbs were rejuvenating. But the financial collapse on Wall Street decimated some of Main Street Minnesota beyond repair. Places like Aurora, Minnesota were once mining boom towns; now, all that’s left are shuttered windows, antique shops, and bars. Three decades ago, the iron ore mining industry directly employed 15,000 people in the state; now it’s down to 4,000. The median age in rural Minnesota has risen steadily, with young people leaving as soon as they move out of their parental home. These changes are real. They are devastating to the people who experience them.

Finally, there’s demographic change. As a result of immigration and natural demographic shifts, the United States is getting less white. That has elicited a cultural backlash from many Americans who see a more equal society as a threat to their privileged white place within it, or who just want things to go back “to the way they used to be.” Barack Obama’s election victory was a signal of how far the nation had come in making strides toward racial justice. But the racially-tinged backlash to his presidency underscored how far we still have to go.

The combination of these factors—tribal partisanship, media polarization, uncompetitive elections, the death of bipartisan compromise, political disengagement, economic decline, rising inequality, and demographic change—has created a perfect storm. As it swirls around American politics, authoritarianism finally has a chance to make landfall too. Angry citizens who think the other side is an enemy don’t have the patience for thoughtful compromise and reasoned debate about policy ideas. They want quick solutions—the “I alone can fix it” candidate, not the “incremental change” candidate. And, over time, millions of Americans have gravitated toward authoritarian attitudes. When the problems are this bad, they feel, screw checks and balances if they are a roadblock to the solutions.

In 2009, two political scientists even predicted the rise of someone like Trump by demonstrating that a new divide had emerged in American politics: not between right and left, but between classic liberals on the one hand (in the European sense of being in favor of liberal democracy, with all its rights and protections for minority viewpoints) and authoritarians on the other. Citizens with authoritarian attitudes are far less concerned with democratic procedure and far more concerned with getting their way. Voters with such attitudes exist on the right and on the left, but most of them have self-sorted into the Republican Party. In the process, they have created an ideological rift within the party—between authoritarian populists and more traditional conservatives.

The full extent of this rift was unclear before 2016. That’s because, as researchers noted, many people have what are called “latent” authoritarian attitudes. In other words, they will be more easily seduced by a candidate who plays up an authoritarian angle, even if they may not seek out that person themselves. If a candidate shatters accepted political norms and behaves like a strongman, they will flock to him like moths to an orange and yellow flame. Enter Donald Trump.

In 2016, political scientists began studying what caused people to back Trump’s surprising candidacy. Sure enough, they found that authoritarian personalities—most of whom were in the authoritarian populist wing of the Republican Party—were overwhelmingly drawn to Trump. Candidates from the more traditional wing of the party, like Jeb Bush, never really caught fire. Among diverse demographic factors—age, race, income, region, religion—having an authoritarian personality emerged as the most consistent predictor of support for Trump. He had captured the authoritarian vote and activated millions of “latent” authoritarian voters in the process.

Authoritarian voters imperil democracy. They are more likely to follow a leader than an agenda; they are more dogmatic and less persuadable than their classically liberal counterparts; and they are more likely to cheer as democratic norms are shattered. Of course, Trump’s base is not fully authoritarian; there are many people who voted for him to vote against Hillary Clinton, or because they believed in his pledges to “drain the swamp” or crack down on illegal immigration. Some liked Trump’s “fresh” brand of politics. Some liked the show. Some believed he was their only hope to resurrect rural America. Some just wanted to stick it to the Democrats. And some were, let’s face it, racists. But Trump’s base is nevertheless home to a disproportionate number of authoritarian voters, and they reward him for abusing and attacking the democratic system. If deporting illegal immigrants or punishing Hillary Clinton means cutting corners and disregarding the Constitution, so be it.

Although Trump has proved incompetent at governing so far, he has proved masterful at galvanizing authoritarian voters behind him. Furthermore, he has discovered one of the biggest vulnerabilities in America’s democratic system: how little of it is based on law. The Founding Fathers couldn’t have anticipated every future threat to democracy. They couldn’t imagine something like Facebook, let alone how foreign adversaries could use it to weaponize disinformation. They couldn’t anticipate reality television or the rise of a celebrity-obsessed culture, where people might know the names of Beyoncé’s three kids, but can’t name the three branches of government. But the Founding Fathers did realize that some unpredictable threats would emerge. That’s why they tried to create a system that would produce political norms—the expectations of politically acceptable behavior—to prevent catastrophic damage. Most aspects of American democracy are protected by these norms—the “soft guardrails” of democracy. There’s no law, for example, requiring presidents to release their tax returns, but convention says they must release them, so they do.

Until now. Trump is careening through the soft guardrails of American democracy, shattering them without a second thought. They aren’t constraining him. Instead, Trump is corrupting political norms, as Americans gradually come to accept previously unacceptable behavior. The Republican Party was complicit in this corrupting of American politics by allowing Trump to get so far without being denounced, and the Republican-controlled Congress is complicit today for allowing Trump’s authoritarian behavior to continue without consequences. Republicans seem to have a pre-ordained rotation of words that they use to respond to Trump. Some are “disappointed.” Others are “concerned.” And when things really get out of hand, they’re “troubled.” But for most in the party, their actions end with words. As a result, Trump keeps at it. In the process, authoritarian behavior is entering the political mainstream and becoming normalized.

Think about the first time you heard the term “fake news,” the first time you can remember Trump recommending that his election opponent be locked up, or the last time you read about Trump continuing to spread a lie even after being corrected. All of it was once, recently, shocking. Now it’s routine. After all, many people say, “that’s just Trump being Trump.” As crazy behavior becomes routine, it makes it easier for politicians to get away with previously out-of-bounds actions. Citizens become numb to the violation. It shatters longstanding political standards and the mores that hold our political system together.

When Trump first issued a travel ban to seven Muslim majority countries, a little more than a year after calling to ban all Muslims from entering America during the campaign, there were spontaneous mass protests at airports across the country. When he reissued a slightly modified travel ban a few months later, there was no such immediate response, and no protests were sparked at airports. Americans had just accepted it. Similarly, when Trump drew false moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and those who were protesting them in Charlottesville during the summer of 2017, there was mass outrage—but when he said almost the exact same thing about Charlottesville a month later, it barely made headlines.

This is one of the most insidious features of authoritarianism: it beats people into submission because you can’t fight 100 battles all at once. Citizens are forced to pick and choose. Authoritarian leaders are aware of this fact and they exploit it to their own cynical ends. But as the normalization of unacceptably authoritarian behavior proceeds, the threat to American democracy grows. Normalization is like fertilizer to despotism. As people accept previously unacceptable behaviors as a new normal, creeping authoritarianism slowly but surely uproots democratic traditions.

Such gradualism is why creeping authoritarianism poses the greatest threat to democracy in the United States. If someone tried a blatant power grab, as with a military coup d’état, it would be repelled immediately. And if someone who was obviously a dictator tried to become an American despot, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would grow a spine. They would block such a power grab, because it would be obvious. But with creeping authoritarianism, things aren’t so clear-cut. For political leaders and citizens alike, the change occurs so incrementally that it’s harder to stand up to it—particularly while Trump’s showmanship dazzles and distracts. Authoritarian abuses that would dominate weeks of news cycles in normal times seem like blips instead. A day later, it’s onto the next Trump outrage. We can’t keep up, and we get tired of trying to keep up. Trump is counting on that and exploiting it for political gain.

He is also exploiting the fact that the United States is a divided country. But we should at least be able to agree on the importance of democracy. That’s why we should focus on the nonpartisan value of democracy itself, rather than making partisan critiques. It's not about tax policy or health care or the legitimate debates that should, in a healthy democratic society, be the source of divisions between citizens. Instead, try using what I call the Romney/McCain test. If Mitt Romney (the losing Republican candidate in 2012) or John McCain (the losing Republican candidate in 2008) would likely have taken the same tack as Donald Trump on an issue, then it’s probably just part of the ebb and flow of democratic politics. Both men probably would try to lower corporate taxes. Neither of them, however, would call to ban Muslims from entering the country. Neither of them refused to release their tax returns, because they both believe in the democratic value of transparency. Neither of them would be more vocal in their criticism of Hillary Clinton than of Vladimir Putin. Neither of them would struggle to forcefully and unequivocally condemn neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan—nor did they, after Charlottesville. Trump fails the Romney/McCain test on almost a daily basis.

Meanwhile, he is excelling in his apprenticeship to despots. Trump has blurred the line between fact and falsehood, subverting the truth for his own opportunistic ends. He has attacked the press relentlessly, demonizing journalists who form a key pillar of democratic government. He has politicized the rule of law, calling for his defeated election opponent to be locked up while pardoning political allies who have been convicted of crimes. He has acted as Vladimir Putin’s apologist-in-chief after his campaign sought to collude with the Russian government to win the election. He is seeking to distort future elections by suppressing votes. His administration has flooded “the swamp” with ethics violations rather than draining it of them. He has politicized nonpartisan institutions, labeling them as part of a sinister deep state plot against him. And he has engaged in nepotism, putting his unqualified daughter and son-in-law at the highest echelons of the federal government. He even hired his son’s wedding planner to oversee federal housing in New York and New Jersey—cronyism at its worst.

These authoritarian machinations have prompted not just Democrats but also Republicans such as John McCain, Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake, and Meg Whitman to worry about the threat that Trump poses to self-government in the United States. During the 2016 primary campaign, Romney even went so far as to invoke the wisdom of John Adams’s warning against the threat posed by demagogues and despots: “There has never been a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” In case there was any doubt who he was talking about, he ended his speech by saying, “[Trump] has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”

Finally, Trump doesn’t stop at attacking democracy on home soil; he’s also undermining it abroad. Trump has had adoring things to say about strongmen across the globe, from Turkey to the Philippines. His foreign policy has tried to scrub democracy from the mission statement of the US State Department. But what can you expect from a man who has tweeted about “ratings” more than 300 times, but human rights only once—to mock them?

The threat that Donald Trump poses to democracy is real. Ronald Reagan was right when he said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Recent research from Yascha Mounk at Harvard and Roberto Stefan Foa from the University of Melbourne has shown that young people take democracy for granted in the United States. Three in four Americans born in the 1930s—the generation that witnessed the horrors of totalitarianism—believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy. Fewer than one in three Americans born in the 1980s agree.

Americans mistakenly tend to think that we are immune from authoritarianism. It could never happen here. But in the run-up to World War II, 20,000 Americans packed Madison Square Garden for a pro-Nazi rally. Swastikas were raised alongside portraits of George Washington, and the pre-war isolationist movement pledged to put “America First.” While the US didn’t ban Japanese people from entering the United States “until we figure out what the hell is going on,” as Trump has suggested for Muslims of all nationalities, America’s government did round up Japanese-Americans and shut them in internment camps. People involved in those black marks on our history are still alive. It’s not as distant as we sometimes think.

Where do we go from here? If he makes it to the end of his term, there is still a lot of Trump left. Can our democratic sand castle survive years more of these authoritarian waves? And if it doesn’t, what are the most likely scenarios for where we’ll end up by 2020 when Trump is supposed to be up for re-election?

As I see it, there are four plausible scenarios, ranging in order from the optimistic to the cataclysmic. First, the Trump Vaccine. If the backlash against Trump is robust enough, he could end up acting like a vaccine for American democracy. Perhaps he will galvanize enough opposition that more political norms are enshrined into law and civic engagement becomes resurgent. In this hopeful scenario, citizens deploy to the ramparts and defend democracy.

Second, Democratic Decay. This is the most likely scenario. America’s democratic sand castle doesn’t get washed away, but it is severely damaged as wave after wave hits its walls. The damage will be gradual, but it will add up. Even if Trump’s presidency is a failure, he can still poison the minds of millions of people to hold authoritarian views. That damage will take decades to repair—if it is possible at all.

Third, the Forerunner. In this scenario, Trump paves the way for an even more dangerous successor. This person, a Trump 2.0, will have the authoritarian instincts of Donald Trump but the polished smoothness of Barack Obama and the people skills of Ronald Reagan. With Trump normalizing authoritarian behavior, Trump 2.0 can do even more damage.

Finally, there is the prospect of American Authoritarianism. If a person like Donald Trump is in office in the aftermath of a mass casualty terror attack, a widespread war, or a nuclear nightmare, it is plausible that American democracy could die with a bang. This is, thankfully, the least likely scenario. But it is not impossible.

Democracy is worth defending. It’s time we all heed the words of Mikalai Statkevich: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You won’t realize what it’s worth until it’s too late.”

Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

This adapted excerpt was used with permission from The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, where he focuses on democratization and political violence. He has advised several national governments and major international NGOs, including International Crisis Group, the Carter Center, and One Earth Future. Klaas received his doctorate from the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Despot's Accomplice and The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy.