To many observers, the recent anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from a “senior official” within the Trump administration revealing that “adults in the room” were 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, I had an different initial reaction: “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.
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 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.
Leaders who fit this description include Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin — all of whom undermined democracy after rising to power through democratic elections. They are determined and skilled authoritarians.
In many ways, America can’t be compared to these men’s countries. In particular, one might hope that America’s 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 and Russia show how little time — less than a decade — it takes for democratically elected despots to upend democracies.
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.
The Trump presidency also has fast-forwarded awareness of the threats that technological innovations can 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.”
To be sure, enduring the Trump presidency is an immensely costly way to receive these lessons. Yet the damage Trump can inflict may be limited by his own buffoonery — the poorly hidden mistresses, shoddy business practices and his own messy understanding of the distinction between using deceit as a political strategy and actually believing the untruths one speaks.
America’s institutions look as if 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 — 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. Tribune News Service distributed this column.