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Fareed Zakaria on the most important lesson of the Trump presidency

“If this becomes the new norm, then we’re starting to look like Latin America 40 years ago.”

DOD Commemorates 16th Anniversary Of 9/11 Terror Attacks At Pentagon Memorial Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria noticed a disturbing trend: The governments of ostensibly democratic countries like Pakistan and the Philippines were rolling back press freedoms and the independence of their judiciaries — largely with widespread support.

In a widely cited essay for Foreign Affairs, he argued that the crackdowns weren’t a sign that these countries were becoming less democratic. Instead, he argued that they were becoming less liberal, meaning they were abandoning their commitment to rule of law, to the separation of powers, and to “the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”

Now, a year into the Trump presidency, Zakaria worries that the US itself may be headed down that same dark path, rapidly shedding the norms and traditions that have shaped and protected American democracy for more than two centuries.

Like others, he points out that Trump has fired an FBI director in order to undercut an investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Moscow, has staffed his own White House with family members of dubious qualifications and integrity, has regularly denounced the free press, and has refused to divest himself of his international business interests.

None of this is technically illegal, but most of it is what Zakaria defines as deeply illiberal, a phrase that has nothing to do with partisan politics. He doesn’t mean “liberal” in the sense of the Democratic Party. He means it in the sense of the shared values both parties have long professed to hold dear.

I asked Zakaria if the erosion of liberal democratic norms represents an existential threat to our system. He told me that he “didn’t realize how fragile liberal democracy is in the West — that this culture is something that can dissipate quite quickly.” America’s liberal democratic culture is still relatively robust, he says, but it’s under assault.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below.


Sean Illing

I think the crucial lesson of the Trump era is that democratic norms and customs are far more important than we imagined, and that institutions are perhaps less important than we thought.

Fareed Zakaria

I certainly agree with the first part, but I don't know that I would draw that corollary. The revelation for me has been just how important norms are. To put it in a different way, so many of the things that we now recognize as central to liberal democracy are actually not institutions but norms, practices, and the articulation of certain values. And I think this is something we all began to realize over the course of the campaign as Trump would violate one norm after the other.

So he would simply refuse to release his tax returns. We start to look around thinking, "Wait a minute, isn't there some kind of rule about this?" Well, it turns out, no. It was just a norm.

The way he treats journalists, the way he talks about news organizations, the way he intimidates people: All of this is corrosive of liberal democracy, but it’s perfectly legal.

Sean Illing

How much of our political stability rests on the observance of norms or unwritten rules?

Fareed Zakaria

Clearly more than we thought. One of the mistakes we all make, and I put myself very much in this camp, is that we tried to analyze things that are tangible, things that can be codified, like judicial institutions or electoral systems. But norms aren’t tangible. This is one of the reasons we find it difficult to discuss culture in the social sciences; it’s this warm, amorphous, fuzzy concept. Yet it clearly plays an enormous role in human affairs, and I think that's what we're watching here. We’re learning that cultural norms, cultural behavior, is absolutely crucial to our process.

Sean Illing

It’s astonishing that we haven’t learned this lesson already, given our failed attempts to spread constitutional democracy abroad.

Fareed Zakaria

I think that’s right. You can see it when you watch democracy being planted in non-Western countries. Democracy can work in many places — I really believe that. But it’s hard and complicated. If our system of democracy didn’t work in Iraq, it’s not because they didn’t have a good constitution or an independent judiciary or protections for the freedom of press. Western scholars designed the Iraqi constitution, after all.

The problem was that the cultural backdrop was different enough that even though you had those institutions, you did not have the positive culture reinforcing, or that positive culture took a long time to develop.

Sean Illing

I suppose the lesson here is that our institutions will similarly fail if they’re no longer reinforced by those cultural norms.

Fareed Zakaria

I didn’t realize how fragile liberal democracy is in the West — that this culture is something that can dissipate quite quickly. I really worry a lot that the next presidential election comes around and that the candidate will say, "Well, I don't need to release my tax returns. Donald Trump didn't." Then we have a new norm, which is that no president or candidate needs to do that. Or maybe the next businessperson comes along and says, "Well, I don't need to resign from my business. I don't need to really disengage from my businesses. Trump didn't." Then we have a completely different norm.

If this becomes the new norm, then we’re starting to look like Latin America 40 years ago.

Sean Illing

Well, we’re less than a year into Trump’s presidency. Do you think our democratic institutions are succeeding in safeguarding civic and political norms?

Fareed Zakaria

I’m an eternal optimist about America, and maybe that’s because I’m an immigrant. So I tend to look at this with the glass half full. We are seeing many of these institutions that we've talked about fighting back in various ways. If you think about the judiciary, if you think about the press, if you think about the professional bureaucracies in Washington and elsewhere, I think you're seeing pretty impressive resilience. You see people within those organizations trying to do the right thing, refusing to be bullied.

But I worry about how much of that comes from how incompetent Trump has turned out to be. Imagine if he had begun with a big populist program like infrastructure, had really tried to present himself as neither left nor right. What if he got a few big wins rather than big losses he’s had with failures like health care? What happens when a popular Trump tries to do many of the same things that an unpopular Trump does? What happens if his approval ratings are 45 or 47 percent and he does these things?

Sean Illing

Every system has its vulnerabilities, but certainly one of ours is the presidency. If an indecent or corrupt or tyrannical person manages to win the presidency, that person has the ability to wreak unimaginable havoc, particularly in a polarized climate like this where there are few incentives to break with your own party.

Fareed Zakaria

I think that's a very important point. One of the consequences of the political polarization and congressional dysfunction, which is really at record levels, is that the presidency has become even more powerful. It has been given more discretion, more latitude — by the courts and the public. There’s this sense that someone has to do something, and that turns out to be the president. Bush exploited this in his foreign policy. Obama overreached in similar ways. I think all of this is a real danger.

We’re very far from what the American founders intended in terms of presidential powers. Now, some of that, I think, was inevitable and necessary. But the gradual expansion of executive power means that we’re extremely vulnerable to a dictatorial president.

Sean Illing

We tend to assume that politicians will be restrained by the pubic, that there will be consequences for outrageous actions, but that’s not really true in this era of negative partisanship, in which people hate the other side more than they support their own.

Fareed Zakaria

Yes, and people often tell me, “Just be patient and let liberal democracy work itself out.” The assumption is that liberal democracies ultimately self-correct. So we can expect public passions to rise and then cool. The public might even become enamored with a populist demagogue, but they won’t stay enamored.

But the danger is what if that takes 20 years, and in that period you have erosion and a dismantling of liberal norms and institutions? I keep looking at this situation and thinking, “How much of this is going to get unraveled and how much of it will we be able to put back together?” Because many of these norms, many of these things that have enriched and ennobled our democracy, have taken a long time to take root in our culture. Which is to say, they can’t be easily rebuilt.

Sean Illing

Political theorists like Yascha Mounk have been sounding the alarm for months, saying we’re in the midst of a decline in liberal democracies. Do you see Trump as a manifestation of a process already underway?

Fareed Zakaria

I do think it's fair to say that we're experiencing a collapse of authority. That has affected almost every aspect of life, and outside of the military there really is no institution of ours that has not been affected by that. That collapse of authority, and particularly the collapse of the distrust of political authority, is a huge part of this story.

If you think about what has happened over the last 25 years in the minds of so many people, you have a political elite that has governed the country into one disaster after another. So people look at this elite in a very different way than they did in the ’40s or ’50s or even the ’60s. Was it Vietnam that changed things? Watergate? Inflation? Outsourcing? Wage stagnation? I don’t know.

But the real story seems to be a collapse of faith in political authority, not an embrace of autocracy.

Sean Illing

We’re probably not spending enough time worrying about these trends. You can’t sustain a liberal democracy if the citizenry is both fragmented and distrustful of its governing institutions.

Fareed Zakaria

A nation is more than an economy. There is a community, there is a communal aspect to any robust nation. Our civil bonds have frayed, and I’d argue that they have largely frayed because structural and economic forces have tended to segregate people, particularly on the basis of education.

That sorting mechanism has segregated American society enormously. Geographic segregation then piles on to that. We live close to people who are more and more like us. You then add to that the realities of immigration and globalization. All of a sudden, you feel like this is a country where people are living very distinct and separate lives. Then you come to the realization that for a political project to work, you need a political community.

And we don’t really have that anymore. Maybe we should all move to Kansas.

Sean Illing

Or Canada.

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