by Daniela Hernández Salazar
Contributing Writer from the US
“We tend to think of democracies dying at the hands of men with guns. But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected leaders themselves. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in Germany. More often though, democracies erode slowly, in visible steps."
In February 2018, Harvard Law School Professor Michael Klarman identified ten democratic norms that President Donald Trump regularly violates. I have expanded on and updated each of his arguments based on the last two years of Trump’s presidency. In identifying and analyzing Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, I have also drawn significantly from “How Democracies Die”, a book written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two political scientists from Harvard University who study authoritarianism and democratization around the globe.
The following are extracts selected by the editor from the original article by Daniela Hernández Salazar which can be viewed in full here.
Separation of Power
(1) Trump fails to recognize the legitimacy of independent power sources within the government. To Trump, everyone in his administration owes loyalty to him, rather than to their oath of office.
Soon after his inauguration, Trump sought to ensure that the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA, would be personally loyal to him, in the hope of using these agencies as a shield against the FBI’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential elections.
Trump asked the FBI director, James Comey, for his loyalty and pressured him to drop investigations into his former national security director, Michael Flynn, regarding his ties to Russia. Trump then pressed former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo to intervene in Comey’s investigation. Trump later fired Comey and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions after they refused to protect Trump from the FBI’s investigation. Trump also threatened to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to oversee the FBI’s investigation.
(2) Trump has repeatedly launched verbal assaults upon federal judges who rule against him, thus challenging the independence of the federal judiciary.
Trump accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel of being biased against him because of the judge’s Mexican heritage and his appointment by President Obama. When Judge Jon Tigar invalidated Trump’s revised asylum policy on the grounds that it violated the plain meaning of the federal asylum statute, Trump denounced the decision and called him an “Obama judge.” This tirade earned Trump an unusual rebuke from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by President George S. Bush. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them,” Chief Roberts said, adding pointedly that an “independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
Trump has also openly defied the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court. The Trump administration announced on July 28, 2020 that it will continue to defy a federal court order compelling the full restoration of DACA, the program that allows 700,000 immigrants to live and work in the United States legally. By doing so, the administration has chosen to flout a decision by the Supreme Court, effectively rejecting the judiciary’s authority to interpret the law.
What should concern us all is not when politicians, government officials, and the press express their disagreements with judicial decisions, but when they attack the integrity, legitimacy, and motives of individual judges, attempting to paint them as partisan or political.
Freedom of Press & Expression
(3) Trump frequently attacks newspapers and other media outlets that are critical of him and has tried using the power of his office to silence his critics.
Freedom of press is a core tenet of democracy. Yet Trump constantly attacks the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a host of other news organizations that dare criticize him. Trump refers to any reporting he disagrees with as “fake news.” In a February 2017 tweet, he called the media “the enemy of the American people,” a term that mimicked one used by Stalin and Mao.
Trump has intimidated reporters he deems unfriendly by tweeting criticisms of them, calling for them to be fired, and even inciting violence against them. At one Trump rally, Secret Service agents had to escort NBC reporter Katy Tur to her car after Trump incited a crowd against her.
(4) Trump promotes violence for political purposes.
During a rally in Pittsburgh on September 22, 2020, Trump applauded police violence against journalists, calling it “a beautiful sight.” Trump has also encouraged violence against protestors. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump urged supporters to “knock the crap out of protestors,” expressed a fondness for the “old days” when a protestor would be “carried out on a stretcher,” and offered to pay the legal expenses of anyone who perpetrated violence against protestors.
Trump’s hateful rhetoric has consequences. Multiple studies released between 2017 and 2019 showed how hate crimes spiked during the first two years of Trump’s presidency.
report from the FBI found that hate crimes increased by 5 percent in 2016 and were up 17 percent in 2017. In 2018,
hate crimes reached a 16-year high, with a significant rise in violence against Muslims and Latinos. This
article provides a detailed timeline of instances in which Trump either promoted or failed to denounce violence throughout the last four years of his presidency.
(5) Trump has repeatedly used the power of his office to go after his adversaries.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised that, if elected, he would have his opponent, Hillary Clinton, thrown in jail. In October 2020, Trump went on an overnight twitter rant demanding his political rivals be jailed and criticizing Attorney General William Barr for not arresting his rivals quickly enough.
(6) Trump undermines the legitimacy of elections by making baseless allegations of election fraud.
The claim that voter fraud is widespread in the United States is demonstrably false. All reputable studies have concluded that levels of voter fraud in this country are either extremely low or nonexistent. Trump has repeatedly criticized mail-in voting even though he uses an absentee ballot to vote by mail in Florida. There is no meaningful difference between absentee voting and mail-in voting. Trump’s grievance is almost certainly tied to the fact that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail in the upcoming election than Republicans are.
In September 2020, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Trump also indicated that rushing through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is a key element of his strategy to staying in the White House.
(7) Trump is a pathological liar and his administration is one of the least transparent in American history.
The White House refuses to release visitor logs, so citizens have little way of discovering which lobbyists spend time at the White House. The administration also uses national security as a pretext to hide information regarding Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders.
Trump has also made more false or misleading statements than any president in American history. The Washington Post has tabulated over 20,000 false and misleading claims made by Trump since his inauguration, and the pace of Trump’s lying has dramatically accelerated over time. At one point just before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump was lying at a rate of thirty times per day. Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave up holding press conferences late in her tenure because journalists had become so aggressive in challenging her lies. Sanders’ replacement, Stephanie Grisham, never held a press briefing during her time as White House press secretary and only took questions from friendly media outlets such as Fox News and Brietbart.
Democracy cannot succeed without a commitment to basic truth telling by political leaders.
Conflicts of Interest & National Security
(8) Trump uses the power of his office to advance his private interests at the expense of public interests.
Trump’s early decision to maintain his grip on his sprawling real estate empire — despite his pledge to put his business aside while in the White House — has created a vast web of potential conflicts of interest, accusations about his policies being driven by his business interests, and even possible violations of the law.
Though he stepped away from day-to-day operations of his businesses, Trump retains ownership in companies that do business with foreign diplomats, state-controlled companies, and state-owned television channels. As of early this fall, Trump himself has spent 293 days in office at one of his family businesses — nearly a third of his time in office. The Trump Organization has reportedly received at least $2.5 million in taxpayer money from the federal government, most of which resulted from trips by President Trump to his company properties, according to federal spending records obtained by The Washington Post.
(9) Trump regularly professes a bizarre admiration for dictators and human rights abusers, and has sided with foreign autocrats against traditional allies and domestic opposition.
Trump often brags of the “love letters” he has exchanged with President Kim Jong Un of North Korea, arguably the most murderous dictator in the world. Trump has praised Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte — who has ordered the murder of thousands of drug dealers and drug users and has bragged about murdering some of them with his own hands — for doing an “unbelievable job.” Trump offered a congratulatory phone call to Turkish strongman Recep Erdoğan — who has jailed thousands of political opponents and journalists — after Erdoğan was declared the victor in a fraud-driven referendum that conferred vastly expanded executive powers upon him. Trump has regularly called Mohammad Bin Salman a “friend” and exalted the “spectacular job” he has done in Saudi Arabia, despite Salman’s role in ordering the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Not only does Trump regularly profess his admiration for foreign autocrats, he has also taken sides with foreign autocrats against traditional allies and domestic opposition. Trump’s favored Russia over allied countries, even in the face of interference with the U.S. election. In January 2020, he urged G-7 countries for the third time to let Russia back into the group, but was met with a swift rejection.
(10) Trump poses a threat to national security.
Trump has imperiled America’s security by continuously mismanaging his national security team, dismissing or replacing — often by tweet — the secretaries of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, the Attorney General, the Directors of National Intelligence and the FBI, three National Security Advisors, and other senior officials in critical national security positions, many because they refused to cover for his misdeeds or demonstrate sufficient personal loyalty.
Trump’s financial situation has proven to be a national security concern in and of itself. Trump’s tax records show that he has continued to make money off of foreign investments and projects while in office; that foreign officials have spent lavishly at his hotels and other properties; and that, despite this revenue, he has USD $421 million of debt with massive payments coming due over the next four years.
As a result, officials and experts said that Trump has made himself vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments aware of his predicament, and put himself in a position in which his financial interests and the nation’s priorities could be in conflict.
The disclosures show that Trump’s position is more precarious than he has led the public to believe, and he faces the need for a substantial infusion of cash in the coming years to avert a potential financial crisis.
As a result, officials and experts said that Trump has made himself
vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments aware of his predicament, and put himself in a position in which his financial interests and the nation’s priorities could be in conflict.
Prominent scientists, economists, historians, Nobel Prize winners, national security experts, public officials, and republicans are urging American voters to reject Trump in the 2020 election.
For the first time in history, prestigious science publications such as Nature, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Scientific American are condemning a sitting president during his re-election campaign.
Additionally, 81 American Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine and over 80 scientists, including prominent climate experts, senior leaders in academia, public health experts, and members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, have signed letters endorsing Joe Biden.
More than 900 prominent economists from major institutions across the U.S., including Nobel Prize winners Paul Milgrom, Oliver Hart, and George Akerlof, have signed an open letter urging American voters not to reelect President Donald Trump on Election Day.
In December 2019, over 2,000 historians signed an open letter urging Congress to impeach Trump.
A group of 780 National Security leaders — including top officials who served in the Trump administration — have endorsed Joe Biden’s candidacy for President, citing Trump’s many national security failures.
In August 2020, over 70 former Republican senior national security officials released a statement endorsing Joe Biden for president.
In sum, Trump has attacked the media, trampled on congressional oversight, and sought foreign intervention into our elections. Like autocrats in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, he has sought to deploy the machinery of government for personal, partisan, and even undemocratic ends.
Across the government, officials responsible for law enforcement, national intelligence, defense, election security, the census, public health, and even weather forecasting are under pressure to work for Trump’s personal and political benefit — and, crucially, against his critics and opponents. Those who refuse are being pushed out and replaced with Trump loyalists.
Democratic backsliding in the United States is no longer a matter of speculative concern. It has begun. Well-regarded global democracy indexes — such as Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy, and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index — all show an erosion of American democracy since 2016. According to Freedom House’s ranking, the United States is now less democratic than Chile, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Taiwan, and Uruguay. What’s more, Freedom House’s judgment aligns with that of other groups tracking the state of democracy around the world.
As the 2020 election approaches, the authoritarian tendencies that were merely rhetoric in Trump’s campaign are now starkly manifest in his administration’s policy, politics, and near-daily assaults on the norms and institutions that keep democracy functioning.
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