Trump Almost Wrecked American Democracy But Also Showed Americans How To Save It

And here’s why they should pay attention.

Sikander Hayat Khan
Jan 3 · 6 min read
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Image by Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

When you previously heard the words “democracy is under attack,” you might have instinctively thought of someplace in the Third World. You know, the places where dictators live in palaces and the masses starve.

Which place do you think of now?

Sure, America was saved by a judiciary that wasn’t ready to tarnish its reputation and lawmakers unwilling to end their political careers. But that doesn’t mean American democracy wasn’t brought to its heels. Just think about this for a second — a president who lost tried to overturn an election. This is not a joke.

Because where is it going to lead to? More presidents doing the same? An America where losing doesn’t actually mean losing?

Those are what you call “flawed democracies” by the way; countries where people vote but whether those votes end up counting for anything is anyone’s guess. And while some countries may have simply accepted that to be their fate, for America, democracy is one of its most prized institutions. But do Americans realise the fact that it was nearly ripped apart?

Do they realise that Trump has opened the floodgates? That it is now easier for the dictators of tomorrow to hold democracy hostage? I get that there may be some Americans who want to write off Trump as a one-off. They want to believe that no one will try the same again. And I’m not saying they’re wrong. But that’s not the point. You see, you can’t guarantee things going either way. But what you can do is see that Trump has made it infinitely easier for the politicians who do. And that “lower barrier to entry” swings the odds in favour of the argument that someone will try it again.

Which brings us onto the next question — how long before one of them succeeds? You see, Trump’s quest for dictatorial power was blocked by America’s institutions. But institutions aren’t pure and angelic forces always looking out for you. They’re made up of humans — people who wanted to be in positions of authority. Is it inconceivable to think that one — just one — may be willing to do anything for authority?

You hear about this happening all the time. This judge was bought, that civil servant was bribed, that politician promised higher office etc. And up until now, you only heard of that happening in poor countries. But can’t it happen in America too? I mean, didn’t America just undergo the sort of coup that those countries go through time and again?

You see, the lines between what constitutes a “strong” democracy and a “flawed” democracy have become blurred. The past year has taught the world one thing — democracies, the world over, are the same. If you don’t protect them, if you don’t do your bit every single time, it doesn’t take much for them to suddenly fall apart. And I do mean that. Because a seriously unpopular president who lost re-election was almost enough to completely do away with one of the “strongest” democracies in the world.

And what does that say to future dictators? “It can be done.” What makes things worse is the fact that millions stood by Trump throughout. And not just them but politicians too. You see, if the country was unanimous, if Congress in its entirety stood against him, I could say there was hope for the future. That he really may have been a one-off. But what are you supposed to say when many didn’t even blink? What are politicians harbouring authoritarian aspirations supposed to think?

This could be easier than I thought.”

But I don’t know if enough Americans are going to see it. After all, America hasn’t been through this before. And it can sometimes take countries years, if not decades, before they wake up. Add to that the fact that America was only able to rally behind Biden this time because Trump was so “in your face.” By that I don’t mean obnoxious, but rather that he was hard to miss. He was right there — on tv, tweeting, and holding rallies. But what about once he’s gone? When the forces of authoritarianism work in the shadows rather than take centre-stage?

This is just another reason why democracies are always vulnerable. They require the people to always be on their guard. Because once you vote someone in — that’s it. That’s where you lose control. You hand them the power of the state and simply hope for the best. And now you know that the worst-case scenario isn’t just bad policy or incompetence anymore — it’s flat-out dictatorship. But it doesn’t end there either. Because if that dictatorship reaches the heights of power it craves, you’re not going to be able to vote it out of office either.

That’s the lesson Trump has dealt America: Democracy 101 — everything from how it works down to how it can be destroyed.

But — and this is a big but — he also taught America something else, albeit unintentionally. You see, Americans should now be aware that, yes, they were able to stop him — but only because they did it before it was too late. Had Trump been able to solidify his power further, or had he started working governors much earlier, or had he been America’s second dictator instead of the first, this could have been a very different story. And this is a lesson Americans need to learn before 2024. Because that novelty of “He’s stealing the election!” is now gone. It’s not going to come as a surprise next time. And that does two things: it makes getting away with it easier but also stopping it from happening in the first place that much more important.

Will Americans realise this? Will they look beneath the surface? Or will they cling on to the notion of how authoritarianism has “simply left” with Trump? Because the former will keep their democracy intact while the latter will be handing it over to authoritarians on a silver platter.

And that’s why the next election is crucial. Is America going to vote for democracy or let it fall by the wayside? Make no mistake — one election is enough to change a democracy for decades. Forget the Third World, the one in 2016 is good enough of an example. That one election led to a man taking office who four years later nearly ended the very democracy that handed him power.

That’s just another reason why Americans can’t hang on to the idea that everything changes for the better with Trump leaving office. Because it’s shortsighted. You can’t vote for politicians treating it as an experiment; that if they end up horrible, you’ll just throw them out. Because even when they leave, they’ll have opened the floodgates — they’ll have been “the first,” just like Trump has. It’s why you see dictators in the developing world become more corrupt as time goes on. When one steals foreign aid, the next one wonders if they can do the same but a little bit more. It sets off the kind of chain reaction you don’t want — the kind democracies can’t survive.

So if American democracy, as you know it, is to last, America needs to care. And I do mean it in the most literal sense. I always get the feeling that people in the West have a tendency to be indifferent to politics. That isn’t the case in poor countries. You know why? Because those people are aware of what’s at stake. They see the corruption, the rising inflation, the growing poverty and energy blackouts — every day. America doesn’t have problems of that magnitude. Add to that it has Wall Street and Hollywood to tell them that “everything’s okay” when it isn’t. This makes the job of the average American caring that much harder. Why should they when everything seems to be working just as normal?

Because if they don’t, they could be ushering in a time where everything isn’t.

And this ties in to that unintentional lesson Trump is leaving America with — vote before it’s too late. Because if Americans keep going on like everything’s rosy, it might end up being too late. You might have a second dictator in office. They might be able to go one step further than Trump did. And I know these things are never guaranteed, but that’s besides the point. Because it’s not a question of “will it happen” but “if it happens.” You see, if it does happen, and America was complacent, then where does that leave their democracy?

This is about prevention — not damage control.

Because once you let authoritarians in, you’re relying on their goodwill for the survival of your democracy. And — newsflash — authoritarians very rarely have goodwill.

Sikander Hayat Khan

Written by

Political opinion from a Law & Politics grad. Top Writer in Government & Politics. Twitter @SikanderH8

The Purple Giraffe

The Purple Giraffe reports on what is happening today; with a dynamic insight into politics, policy, leadership, culture, social issues, and the economy.

Sikander Hayat Khan

Written by

Political opinion from a Law & Politics grad. Top Writer in Government & Politics. Twitter @SikanderH8

The Purple Giraffe

The Purple Giraffe reports on what is happening today; with a dynamic insight into politics, policy, leadership, culture, social issues, and the economy.

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