Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt recently published How Democracies Die. In it, they give two “guardrails” in protecting democracies: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.
The first guardrail is the idea that differing political camps can disagree without viewing the other as the enemy, or being afraid of them. The second is the idea that actions aren’t committed in violation of spirit, even if it’s legally acceptable. An example of this might be strict voter ID laws that have the impact of disenfranchising black and Hispanic voters. Historically, this also occurred with poll taxes and other means prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to disenfranchise African American’s.
A particularly prescient example comes from President Trump’s Twitter feed in which he shared an election video with the hashtag #JOBSNOTMOBS, and another tweet blaming Democrats for Luis Bracamontes’ entry and re-entry into the United States. (The Sacramento Bee went on to fact check this ad, of which they concluded is highly partisan and mostly false).
I’ve been involved in politics for over a decade now. I’m used to attack ads. I’m not naive to their existence, and their purpose. I’ve also consistently believed that attack ads should be substantive, accurate, and fair — not laden with ridiculous notions and fabrications.
For a good rundown on presidential attack ads, the Atlantic has a good video that spans from 1952 to 2012. (My personal favorite is the 1964 ad put out by the Johnson campaign — which is metaphorically saying “if you don’t vote for me the world will end — literally.”)
Trump’s rhetoric since 2016 has been severely authoritarian, populistic from the far-right arena, and increasingly nationalistic. Nationalism isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it certainly is in the manner in which it is manifesting under Donald Trump.
“Make America Great Again” is an example of both populist language, and nationalistic language. It’s a perfect blend of things when he tweets “… Loyal citizens like you helped build this Country and together, we are taking back this Country — returning power to YOU, the AMERICAN PEOPLE”
Populism is about giving the “power” back to “the people” by some person perceived as being the same level as the common folk — except that often times that leader is an elite. Populism also tends to have an “out-group” that’s being removed from power. Trump ran on the idea that the “swamp” was going to drained — which is to say establishment politicians (namely Democrats and weak-willed moderate Republicans). To a lesser extent then, and a much greater extent now, that out-group is by and large illegal immigrants.
When Trump says “returning power to you, the American people,” in conjunction with false ads like the one regarding Bracamontes, the “mobs” ad, and promising to drain the swamp, he’s saying that America is under attack from within (by liberals), and abroad (illegal South American and Mexican immigrants).
No one should be surprise by Trump’s rhetoric, or that he would support these very false ads, but everyone should be concerned by this.
Back in May, I went to bat in arguing against Trump’s rhetoric on immigration (legal and illegal) in my piece No, The Left Doesn’t “Love MS-13” OR “How the ‘silent majority’ is really just a bunch of vocal racists.” I won’t bore you with hashing out the nitty gritty details again here, but suffice to say that Trump’s messaging on this issue does not match the actual severity of the problem. Put another way, the issue, which bad, isn’t so bad as to suggest that we’re under siege. Ultimately, Trump’s rhetoric on the issue serves only to massage the pleasure centers of his constituency — namely the ultra-right wing.
I digress on the immigration issue, and return to the issue of the ads in a broader scope. Trump’s painting a very violent Democratic Party, and equivocating Democrats with Antifa, which would be far more benign if it wasn’t in tandem with much of the rest of his rhetoric, and the fact that the last two years have seen a significant surge in fascist and anti-fascist fighting.
Ultimately, Trump is capitalizing on the heightened polarization and fear that has permeated the American public. Fear against immigrants. Fear against Democrats and liberals. This is unbecoming of a president. It has no place in a democratic institution.
So what of the “guardrails” of democracy as Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest are integral? I would say that these guardrails are presently badly damaged.
Power unrestrained begets more power, and a substantially lower capacity or willingness to avoid committing acts against the spirit of legal and social norms. An example of this is Senate Republicans not moving forward with the nomination of Merrick Garland for 310 days. Other examples include the use of nuclear options and the corrosion of Senate Rules in order to one-up the other party.
The near complete lack of Republican criticism of the president is a far better example of no guardrail as it relates to institutional forbearance. What may be legal may not be okay — and that’s the point. And Trump’s #JOBSNOTMOBS nonsense is an example of how mutual toleration seems not to exist, and is now actively being further derailed by painting the entire opposing party as violent criminals and hooligans.
To that end, America is under attack. From within, as voters in both parties increasingly fear one another, and congressional leaders are increasingly unable to compromise. From outside forces who would see to it that the bedrock of our democratic institution — voting — is damaged, manipulated, or swayed by propaganda. And from above, when our own president would see to it that his political opponents are not simply ideological adversaries, but public and political enemies of the state.
This is a sad day for democracy, and a sad day for America.