Two political scientists from Harvard University have identified four warning signs that indicate if someone poses a dangerous authoritarian risk to a nation. No U.S. politician, at least dating back to the Civil War, has come close to ticking off all four boxes, one of the authors told Newsweek—until Donald Trump came along.
Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have authored the new book How Democracies Die, which details the warning signs Trump showed as a candidate. In a healthy democracy, they argue, those traits should have derailed his bid for the presidency.
"Trump was easily identifiable as someone who is not committed to the democratic rules of the game," Levitsky told Newsweek on Thursday. “There is real cause for concern for the health of our democratic institutions.”
The four markers are:
- Rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules.
- Denying the legitimacy of political opponents.
- Encouraging or tolerating violence.
- A readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media.
"Those are things that democratic candidates in the U.S. simply do not have," Levitsky said. At least, until Trump.
The checklist is meant to be a litmus test for candidates—not incumbents—for good reason, Levitsky said.
“Once they’re in office, it’s too late,” he said. “The point is the best way to stop an authoritarian is to prevent them from getting into office in the first place. Once they get elected to office, it gets much more difficult to stop them.”
In modern times, countries don’t typically collapse into authoritarian rule all at once. Countries like Venezuela and Turkey voted for rulers like Hugo Chavez and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, respectively. They then devolved, with the consent of their constituency, into authoritarianism.
The slow march toward dictatorship was also the case in Russia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Ukraine and other countries around the world.
“This is how democracies now die,” the authors write. “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”
For this reason, Levitsky says responsibility for the 2016 U.S. election results largely belongs to the Republican party’s leadership.
“The main responsibility lies with the candidate’s party. It’s up to that party, in this case the Republicans, to do everything possible to keep that candidate out,” he said.
“They faulted and they abdicated their responsibility,” Levitsky continued. “You needed to make it clear to voters this was not an ordinary election, that one of the two candidates was a threat to our institutions, was a threat to the office."
This reticence to disavow Trump—or, more generally, the political will it takes to transcend partisanship—is perhaps the more pressing issue in politics, the professor said.
“To some extent, Trump is symptomatic rather than the cause of the weakening of our democratic norms,” Levitsky said.
"They should have endorsed Hillary Clinton," he said. “But by not doing that, by hiding under their desks, they made it a normal election in which Democrats supported Hillary Clinton and Republicans supported Donald Trump and it made it a toss-up election.”
So, is the U.S. on the path towards autocracy or a banana republic? Not according to Levitsky, despite having an authoritarian occupying the Oval Office, he says.
“We’re very fortunate in this country to have a robust political institution, a strong and robust opposition party in the Democrats,” he said. “The damage Trump is likely to do is much, much more limited here than in countries like Turkey or Venezuela.”
That’s not to say Levitsky isn’t concerned.
“We face this longer-term problem of our democratic norms weakening. I remain concerned,” he said.