American democracy survived Donald Trump’s onslaught. His attempted coup, if we can call it that, ultimately amounted to little more than bluster, comedy, and, finally, on the 6th of January, rage. The invasion of the Capitol Building by enraged Trump supporters was a fitting closing scene of his presidency, for Donald Trump had spent the previous four years cutting deep scars into American democracy. What better way to conclude his term than by inciting an extremist mob into assaulting the figurative seat of American democracy itself? There has, perhaps, been no clearer indication of just how low Trump has brought the United States of America and its democracy.
With tens of millions of people voting for a tyrant-in-the-making, America’s flirtation with authoritarianism could, in different circumstances, have proved fatal for its democracy. Had democracy fallen, it would not have been an anomaly. Rather, it would have fit in with a well-established global trend. According to Civicus Monitor, an alliance of groups that assesses civil liberties across the globe, 87% of the world’s population now live in nations deemed “closed”, “repressed” or “obstructed”, a 4% increase on 2019. Some academics now characterize recent years as amounting to a “democratic recession”.
The term reflects the fact that multiple democracies across the world have, for decades, been drifting toward authoritarianism. A prime example is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Democratically elected, Putin has spent his time in power eroding democracy to the point that Russia can now be said to be under autocratic rule. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is another example. He has concentrated power in his own hands, imprisons journalists, shuts down newspapers and wages war on Turkey’s Kurdish population. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is yet another leader with a democratic mandate who has embraced authoritarianism. He rules with an iron fist and has encouraged the murder of thousands of people, part of a vicious and ongoing crackdown on the illegal drug trade.
The liberal world is not immune to such threats and some nations in the EU have also been sliding toward authoritarianism, with Hungary under Viktor Orbán presenting the clearest example of this. Many now argue that Hungary is no longer a democracy. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has fundamentally undermined the independence of the judiciary, meaning that country is yet another whose democratic institutions face assault.
Donald Trump placed himself firmly in the growing authoritarian camp by forming and strengthening alliances with authoritarian rulers across the world. In the Middle East, he cultivated close ties with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has referred to Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el Sisi as “my favourite dictator”. In Europe, he condemned the leaders of liberal democracies, such as Angela Merkel, while heaping praise on illiberal leaders of Hungary, Poland and Turkey. And let us not forget that Donald Trump at times appeared particularly enamored of Vladimir Putin.
That Trump sought alliances with autocratic leaders should be no surprise for he has much in common with them. Trump shared with such leaders the following traits: a disdain for democratic institutions, a representation of himself as protector of the nation against threats from outsiders or enemies; a portrayal of himself as anti-establishment; and, finally, a willingness to undertake what would normally be considered unpalatable measures in order to fix supposed societal ills.
Of course, Trump differs from autocrats like Putin, Erdoğan and Orbán in one crucial way. They win elections, stay in power, and strengthen their grip over their nation’s governments. Trump, by contrast, is an electoral loser whose people have kicked out of office. He is now a failed autocrat.
Successful autocrats engage in a long-term project to achieve their goals. Putin, for example, was no dictator when he assumed the Russian presidency. He did, however, have a plan to become one. After taking power, he expanded the security services, dismantled or captured electoral institutions, and cracked down on the media. As his authority grew, Putin used intimidation tactics, including murder, to bully his opponents into submission. Putin’s evolution from democratically elected president to outright autocrat was gradual but nonetheless deliberate. A similar process is occurring with Erdoğan, Orbán and several others.
Donald Trump clearly did not have the attention span to undertake a systematic long-term power grab. Trump made a clear attempt to overturn the election results by declaring himself the winner and alleging widespread voter fraud, but this attempt was so ill-conceived that he stood little chance of retaining the presidency. His legal challenges resulted in dozens of dismissed cases and by the start of 2021, he was an increasingly isolated figure.
This is important since in the networked world of politics, power is not manifested in the individual alone. Instead, it is formed by the connections that individuals make. This is true even of the most autocratic of leaders. In terms of network science, the most politically powerful individuals can, in the words of the author Sandra Navidi, be thought of as “super-hubs” in that they are “the most well-connected nodes” in the political network. True power, therefore, is best exercised in “association with other powerful people”. Overturning such a decisive electoral defeat would have required Trump to place himself as the “super-hub” of a network of similarly motivated political actors. Significant sections of the American elite would need to have been on board, as would the Republican Party establishment, key actors in the Justice Department, a number of judges, and much of the media.
To put it bluntly, Trump was too egotistical to realise this. Instead of cultivating a substantial and well-connected power base, Trump alienated potential allies and surrounded himself with loyal but useless sycophants. From the moment Fox News gave an uncharacteristically early projection of a Biden victory in Arizona on election night, it was clear that Trump had not assembled the network required to stage a coup. As senior figures in the Republican Party largely stayed quiet, and as the right-wing media withdrew their support, it was clear that Trump was more “super-dud” than “super-hub”.
It could be argued that the real opportunity for Trump to augment his political power came not with the election, but with the months preceding it. The Covid-19 pandemic could have been the perfect opportunity for an authoritarian like Donald Trump to cement his grip on power. As the pandemic tore across the country, the US faced its biggest peace-time crisis since the Great Depression. Authoritarians usually thrive in such crises as the fear and chaos that result can be a perfect opportunity for the enhancement of political power. When we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances, we are perhaps more willing to accept extraordinary measures.
Authoritarians across the world have exploited this calculation. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán used the pandemic to justify what is increasingly looking like the EU’s first non-democratic state. He has been given the power to ignore parliament, suspend laws and lock up those deemed to be spreading “false information”. In the Philippines, the legislature has granted Duterte emergency powers to tackle the pandemic, powers that rights activists say are “disturbingly vague”. Putin too has used the pandemic to tighten his grip on the reins of power, for example, by persuading the Russian legislature to make changes to presidential term limits, potentially allowing him to stay in power into the 2030s.
Donald Trump, by contrast, did not embrace the pandemic and seemed incapable not only of protecting his nation but also of exploiting what many consider to be an ideal situation for autocratic leaders. Trump almost pretended as though the virus did not exist and was widely criticised for not using his considerable authority to tackle the pandemic. He was slow to declare the crisis an emergency and often totally abdicated responsibility, preferring to have state governors deal with the response. In short, he demonstrated weakness in what might have been an ideal situation for the type of authoritarian strongman he portrayed himself to be. The only time he looked like a true authoritarian during the crisis was when he himself became infected. Recovering quickly, he appeared, Mussolini-like, on the White House balcony and proclaimed his personal domination over Covid-19, seeking to present himself as almost invincible.
Of course, Trump was not invincible and subsequently suffered an electoral drubbing at the hands of Joe Biden. Following this decisive loss, he launched one final yet haphazard bid to cling to power. By the time that Rudy Giuliani mistakenly and hilariously held a press conference in the Four Seasons Total Landscaping garden center, Trump’s coup attempt had descended into total farce.
Nobody was laughing, however, when Trump incited a mob to attack the Capitol Building at the very moment its occupants were on the verge of certifying Biden’s victory. Yet even this attempt to derail democracy, sinister as it was, had no real aim bar the elucidation of the rage with which Trump had filled his cult-like following. The riot constituted Trump’s last stand and although the personal safety of senators and congressmen was undoubtedly threatened, the continuation of democracy itself was not. Still, that Trump could mobilise such dangerous extremists with a couple of tweets and a few incendiary words demonstrated the terrifying power that he had at his disposal. It is a disturbing thought to consider that a far more competent autocrat might use such power in a much more systematic and planned way.
Trump, thankfully, is nothing more than a failed autocrat. He may have had clear authoritarian tendencies, but he did not have the cunning nor the aptitude to install himself as an autocrat in the manner in which other comparable leaders have done. In short, his lust for power was not matched by an ability to do what was required to take it.
For that we can be grateful. However, we must remember that democracy usually does not die with the type of outburst we witnessed on the 6th of January. Instead, it undergoes gradual decline, with democratic norms slowly disintegrating over time. With that in mind, it is clear that Trump has greatly contributed to the US’s own democratic recession. Perhaps most dangerously of all, he has demonstrated that someone who publicly advertises his own intentions to subvert democracy can still garner the votes of tens of millions of people. A taboo has been broken and prospective candidates need no longer pay even lip service to American democracy.
Throughout the world, democracies have been falling and sinister men who know how to take power for themselves have been doing so. Even within the EU, perhaps the last bastion of liberal democracy, there is one country that can probably no longer be considered democratic. Hungary is unlikely to be the last liberal democracy to fall to right-wing populism. All that will be required is the right leader to tap into the widespread resentments that exist and successfully exploit the weaknesses of contemporary democracy. Thankfully, Donald Trump was not that leader.
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