My Plan to Survive the Trump Presidency

A call to action in defense of America

I am a political scientist and I say without hyperbole that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to American democracy. Inspired by a call to action for political scientists and historian Timothy Snyder’s 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency, here is my explanation of why Trump is particularly dangerous and how you can join me in defending American democracy.

Is American democracy a stool with no legs?

In my field, comparative politics, we have a loosely defined concept called democratic consolidation. A consolidated democracy is one that has matured to a certain level of stability that leads observers to assume democracy will continue unless there is some kind of severe shock. Although political scientists debate the exact processes that cause a democracy to become and remain consolidated, it reduces down to three factors that represent the legs of democracy. Like a stool, democracy is only as stable as its legs. If those factors are disrupted enough, democracy starts to deconsolidate and the stool can tip over.

The three legs of democracy are formal institutions like the rule of law, political parties, courts, and a free media that ensure free and fair elections, the political norms or standard behaviors of political actors that respect and accept those institutions, and a participatory and democratic political culture that values being aware of and informed about government and politics. The weaker these legs are, the greater the risk becomes that democracy will become unstable, topple over, or collapse entirely. Trump’s campaign, election, and administration have damaged all three of the legs upon which American democracy stands. That’s unprecedented and scary.

What can you do to keep the stool from tipping over?

1. Defend an Institution

Snyder explained this one eloquently:

Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

Individually, we can’t defend every institution. Collectively, if we focus on defending those institutions that mean the most to us individually and that we are best prepared to defend we can save them. Some of our most important institutions — news media and political parties — are floundering and whose failures contributed Trump’s election success.

My suggestions:

  1. Subscribe to a newspaper and read it as your main source of news. If you’re getting your news for free (or paying for it indirectly), you’re undermining an essential democratic institution.
  2. Give your time and money to organizations defending your chosen institution. I’m defending the rule of law by joining the ACLU.
  3. Become an active member of your local Democratic or Republican party. Seriously. The two-party system is the bedrock of our political system and we need to make them both stronger.

2. Sanction and Stigmatize Norm Violations, But Not Politics

Norms are social rules of behavior and are therefore enforced by social sanction and stigmatization. Trump seems immune to social sanction and stigmatization, but those around him are not. Use your disapproval and criticism to call out those who violate norms, but remember that reflexively denigrating politicians is a disservice. As Peter Wehner warns, “Skepticism is fine; caustic cynicism is not.”

I have found this weekly “Action Checklist for Americans of Conscience” a good way to focus my anger into action. In the end, it boils down to:

  1. Putting constant pressure on your member of Congress and your Senators on the issues you care about regardless of how you contact them.
  2. Have conversations with everyone you are comfortable talking with about what you plan to do and inviting them to join you.
  3. Schedule time each week to be active.

3. Be the Change You Want

The most difficult challenge to American democracy to address is our fractured political culture and competing understandings of what politics is for and for whom. By definition, culture is a collective institution and the only way we can really influence it individually is to treat others as we want to be treated. If you want a political culture that values participation, equality, empathy, inclusion, hard work, and humility, then live a life of participation, equality, empathy, inclusion, hard work, and humility.