To many observers, the recent controversial anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from a “senior official” within the Trump administration revealing that “adults in the room” are doing their best to limit the fallout from the president’s “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions” seems cause for grave concern. But as a political scientist specializing in the politics of nondemocratic countries, my initial reaction was: “Things could actually be much worse.”
Despite Donald Trump’s instinctual grasp of today’s political zeitgeist and penchant for authoritarianism, Americans are at least lucky that he lacks discipline, strategy and a sincere belief in what he preaches. He is a demagogue whose reign might be toppled not by grand corruption or collusion with a foreign country but by something as tawdry as payoffs to silence a mistress.
In other words, Donald Trump is an authoritarian too incompetent to destroy democracy. In fact, there may even be a silver lining to the Trump presidency in that it has demonstrated how vulnerable our democracy actually is.
Chew on this
Imagine as a thought experiment a president who, like Trump, bears all the hallmarks of an authoritarian leader: weak commitment to democratic rules, unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of political opponents, encouragement of violence and minimal concern for the civil rights of opponents or a free press.
But unlike Trump, this leader, while almost certainly sporting a sizable ego, also cares at least as much about his or her movement’s cause, believes in a historic mission and has the discipline to avoid petty scandals - or at least expertly hide the evidence - that could disrupt a larger agenda.
Leaders who fit this description include Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, among others - all of whom in recent years undermined democracy after rising to power through democratic elections. These are, in other words, determined and skilled authoritarians.
America is in many ways not comparable to these countries. In particular, one might hope that its self-identity as the longest-standing modern democracy makes its democratic institutions exceptionally robust. But Trump’s electoral victory has shown us that what seems impossible in the evening can be reality the next morning, just as the examples of Venezuela, Turkey or Russia show how little time - less than a decade - is required for democratically elected despots to upend a democracy.
If a candidate who openly incites violence, exploits racist tropes and refuses to commit to the outcome of elections can prove victorious, then why should we rest easy believing that a Trump 2.0 - that is, a Trump minus the philandering and corruption - won’t be able to take an attack on democracy one step further?
Which brings us back to the silver lining and why America is lucky to have Trump, an authoritarian disturbing enough to awaken America to its vulnerabilities yet too incompetent to destroy democracy, rather than an American version of a wily Putin or Chavez. Foremost, Trump’s rise has laid bare the frailty of America’s formal institutions while also raising awareness of the critical role that norms and individual leaders’ decency (or at least patriotism) play in sustaining our democracy.
Previous presidents did not see fit to exploit the lack of formal rules about releasing tax returns or divesting assets, nor did they use national security as a pretext to silence critics despite the nearly unlimited power of the president in that sphere. Now these vulnerabilities in our political system are abundantly clear.
The Trump presidency also has fast-forwarded awareness of the threats that technological innovations such as social media pose to democracy, which cannot survive without citizens’ collective belief in shared facts. Trump, the media outlets that enable him and the echo chamber of Twitter and Facebook have constructed a nearly impenetrable alternative “reality” - a phenomenon that is eerily familiar to those of us well-acquainted with Putin’s Russia - in which Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s plea deal and the guilty verdict of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, barely happened and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections did not occur.
Previously, warnings about the darker side of the information age may have fallen on deaf ears. Now such concerns are mainstream. And Trump is serving as a political canary for a truly momentous future disaster: the extremist movements of both the left and right that will inevitably grow if large swaths of American citizens continue to feel left behind by globalization and ignored by political elites.
Wreckage left behind
To be sure, enduring the Trump presidency is an immensely costly way to receive these lessons. Not only are democratic institutions at risk, but Trump’s affinity for chaos also could provoke a major catastrophe such as a military conflict. Add to this the destructive legacy he will leave behind, including diminished stature on the international stage, the resurgence of white nationalism at home and the long-lasting impact of abandoning Obama-era efforts to mitigate global warming.
Yet the damage Trump can inflict may be limited by his own buffoonery - the poorly hidden mistresses, shoddy business practices coming back to haunt him, and his own messy understanding of the distinction between using deceit as a political strategy and actually believing the untruths one speaks. It seems increasingly likely that the remainder of Trump’s time in office will be largely consumed by defending himself against various scandals and possibly even criminal charges.
America’s institutions look like they might just be strong enough to weather Trump’s assault. But it would be naive to take our political system’s survival of the Trump presidency as evidence that American democracy will endure.
Instead, in a post-Trump world, whenever it comes, America must vigorously confront three of the foremost challenges to its democracy: loopholes in the rules constraining presidential power, disinformation amplified by new technologies and a yawning inequality gap that is fertile ground for political extremism.
If Americans use Trump’s presidency as a wake-up call - a 6.0 political earthquake that alerts us to our unpreparedness for the truly Big One - then at least we will be that much more ready to confront an even bigger threat to our political system when it inevitably arrives.
Jordan Gans-Morse is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of “Property Rights in Post-Soviet Russia: Violence, Corruption, and Demand for Law.” He was a 2016-17 Fulbright scholar in Ukraine.