Over the past week, Donald Trump publicly demanded that former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley be put to death for having confided to a journalist that Trump, as president, had proposed shooting peaceful demonstrators and a variety of other crimes. He threatened government retribution against media companies that publish reporting he doesn’t approve of. (“I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events. Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE?”) And, of course, he continued his drumbeat of false claims of having legitimately won the 2020 election. This was all in a week.
During the same week, two of Trump’s most prominent Republican critics dismissed the idea of opposing him in the (overwhelmingly likely) prospect Trump wins the nomination. Georgia governor Brian Kemp pledged himself unreservedly to back Trump over Biden. “Despite all of his other trials and tribulations, he would still be a lot better than Biden,” Kemp told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “And the people serving in the administration would be a lot better than Joe Biden. And it has nothing to do with being a coward. It has everything to do with winning and reversing the ridiculous, obscene positions of Joe Biden and this administration that literally, in a lot of ways, are destroying our country.”
In an interview with the Texas Tribune, New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu warned Republicans would be “crushed” if Trump wins, but refused to say he wouldn’t support Trump’s candidacy. Instead, Sununu confidently asserted that Trump is “too dumb to be a danger to democracy. Let’s not give him that much credit … I want everyone to relax. It’s all going to work out.” Sununu reasoned, “Asshole leaders come and go, but our system stands strong.”
Here we see the assumptions about Trump that have prevailed among the Republican elite: He is a coarse and unpleasant man (an “asshole”), but not an existential danger to the republic; the primary victim of his political ascent is the Republican Party itself, which will needlessly suffer electoral penalties from his lack of discipline; and nothing Trump could do could ever be worse than a normal, mainstream Democratic Party administration.
How important are the decisions by figures like Kemp and Sununu? If you believe Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which you should, the answer is: extremely important. Levitzky and Ziblatt have co-authored two books — How Democracies Die, in 2018, and their new follow-up, Tyranny of the Minority — which both emphasize that authoritarian threats to democracies rise or fall on the decisions made by “semi-loyal democrats,” the would-be authoritarian’s cross-pressured allies.
How Democracies Die compiles a series of historical examples of authoritarian challenges to democratic systems. The most famous case study occurred in Weimar Germany, where right-wing politicians distrusted Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement but decided to enter a coalition with the Nazis, which they believed they could control, rather than allow their Social Democratic enemies to hold power. They chose power over democracy.
And while no other authoritarian leader was as dangerous as Hitler, a similar political dynamic determined their success. Their ideological allies had to choose between democracy or power. How Democracies Die describes several historical episodes, and Tyranny of the Minority has more. The most redolent is a 1934 incident in France in which right-wing mobs stormed Parliament, chanting, “Hang the deputies!” While some French conservatives deplored the attack, the primary response by the French right was to laud the rioters as martyrs, justly outraged at the threats from the left and unfairly prosecuted by the police. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t even need to remind readers of the symbolism contained by the fact that this incident took place on February 6. The history rhymes.
The two books differ in the advice they offer to loyal democrats facing down an authoritarian challenge. How Democracies Die focuses on maintaining governing norms, and treats almost any departure from old practices as an assault on democracy. The authors even treat the filibuster as a valuable defense of minority rights, simultaneously lamenting its excessive use (they wish Senate minorities would reserve filibusters for rare episodes, as they did in the old days) and attacking proposals to end it as undemocratic.
The sequel, Tyranny of the Minority, corrects this analytic error, drawing a proper distinction the authors previously missed between democratic norms and anti-democratic norms. The American political system is replete with undemocratic features that not only give political minorities necessary protections but allow them to actually exert majority power. The filibuster, the rural bias of the Senate, gerrymandering, and the Electoral College all hand white voters disproportionate power and create the possibility of minority rule.
But having undertaken this necessary correction, the authors proceed to an overcorrection. Tyranny of the Minority argues that not only is democratic reform permissible, or even desirable, it is the principal strategy to protect against authoritarianism in the United States.
Levitsky and Ziblatt trace the rise of Trump to the Republican party’s Obama-era panic about the diversifying electorate. In 2012, they note, exit polls showed that Mitt Romney won a greater share of the white vote than Ronald Reagan had in 1980, yet Obama still won comfortably thanks to landslide margins among nonwhite voters, whose numbers were growing inexorably. Panicked at the prospect that a diversifying electorate would consign their party to minority status, they argue, Republicans turned against democracy itself.
The rise of Donald Trump was an expression of this racialized panic. His “success showed that white identity politics was a winning formula within the party,” they argue. It follows that the answer is to deepen democratic reforms, forcing Republicans to compete for majorities in a multiracial electorate. “Only when the Republicans can legitimately win national elections again will their leaders’ fear of multiracial democracy subside,” they argue. “As long as the Republican Party can hold onto power without broadening beyond its radicalized core white Christian base, it will remain prone to the kind of extremism that imperils our democracy today.”
There are elements of truth to this narrative. During the Obama era, Republicans certainly believed that the country was changing beneath them, that 2012 was their last chance to win a majority before demographic oblivion set in, and that the exit polls revealed a need for them to move left on social policy to win over nonwhite voters. I wrote a number of columns based on this premise.
But more recent events have cast serious doubt on that narrative. The 2012 exits that shaped so much consternation on the right, and celebration on the left, were erroneous. As Nate Cohn later explained, the electorate had more white voters than exit polls suggested, and Obama had won a larger share of the white vote, especially in the North, than the exits estimated.
What’s more, while it is undeniably true that Trump expressed racist sentiments that would have been unthinkable for a Republican leader not long ago, it is paradoxically true that he has managed to attract higher levels of nonwhite support than those previous Republicans. Indeed, polls show that Trump is continuing to gain support from Black and Latino voters, gains that, if they materialize at the polls, would give him a chance to win the national vote outright.
The best explanation for this paradoxical state of affairs is that Black and Latino voters have more moderate views than the (mostly white) college-educated voters who dominate the Democratic Party. Progressives set out to move the party left over the past decade and have celebrated this achievement. Polls show that voters are more likely now to see Democrats as too liberal than they are to see Republicans as too conservative. Naturally, some of their most moderate voters, who are disproportionately nonwhite, have defected at the margins.
Since these trends have put a nakedly authoritarian demagogue on the precipice of regaining the presidency, this is indeed a crisis for democracy. But it is not a crisis that can be understood through the lens of interpreting Republican politics solely as an expression of white grievance, nor is it one that can be contained entirely by majoritarian principles. The Trump-era party seems very able indeed to remain mired in racial-grievance politics while legitimately competing for a national majority.
So where does this leave both democrats and Democrats? (The two distinct terms — signifying, respectively, believers in self-determination and supporters of the Democratic Party — are increasingly coterminous.) The Democratic Party needs to grasp that the emergency presented by right-wing authoritarianism requires them to prioritize winning and to think realistically about the steps they need to take to do so. It is a pleasant fiction to believe that submitting to the desired position of every progressive activist group will galvanize the party’s base without cost, but reality has presented more discouraging trade-offs. To dismiss all actual or potential Trump supporters as incorrigible racists or white-adjacent or as the unwitting pawns of racists is to choose ideological purity over winning.
Of course, winning every election is an impossible goal for any political party. The dark reality is that the Republican Party is increasingly converging on the belief that Trump’s main failure was not to have tried to use the government to shut down independent media and prosecute his enemies, but to have been unable to carry it out.
The best prophylactic against this threat would be for Democrats to string together enough victories that mainstream Republicans feel compelled to disavow their extremist factions, rather than trying to merely co-opt them under more competent leadership.
It seems more likely, however, that they will manage to regain power without any such reforms. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s research shows with bleak clarity that the only thing standing between America and autocracy is the moral conscience and democratic ideals of the Republican partners of this government. But the Republicans who genuinely object to authoritarianism have all been driven out of the party. Those that remain simply regard partisan defection as an unthinkable breach, even if the alternative is electing a literal raving-mad criminal who is openly vowing to use the presidency as an instrument of vengeance.