A respected watchdog group on human rights is sounding the alarm: President Donald Trump poses an existential threat to American democracy, perhaps the greatest challenge it’s seen in modern history.
“Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections,” Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz writes in a special section of this year’s report, released on Tuesday morning. “We cannot take for granted that institutional bulwarks against abuse of power will retain their strength, or that our democracy will endure perpetually. Rarely has the need to defend its rules and norms been more urgent.”
Freedom House is a respected bipartisan watchdog group that compiles an annual report on the state of democracy and human rights around the world. This report, known as Freedom in the World, is widely cited by policymakers and academics who study democracy. It’s a serious endeavor done by serious analysts — and this year, it’s heavily focused on Trump.
The report has been paired with a full court press, including op-eds in the Washington Post and the New York Times, highlighting Freedom House’s concern with the threat to American democracy under Trump. In essence, a nonpartisan human rights group is picking a major fight with the president.
This is an argument against the group’s own interest. Roughly 85 percent of Freedom House’s annual revenue comes from federal grants, per a 2016 audit report. If a vindictive Trump or his allies in Congress went after the organization, the consequences for its bottom line could be dire.
The fact that Abramowitz is willing to take that risk illustrates just how worried the group is about the survival of American democracy.
Why Freedom House is worried — and you should be too
Freedom House’s system ranks countries on a 0-to-100 scale, with 0 being fully authoritarian and 100 being perfectly democratic. Countries gain points based on the freedom of their elections, respect for basic rights like freedom of speech, the quality of their independent press, and other core liberal democratic rights.
The US, for all its problems, has historically done quite well on these metrics when compared to the rest of the world — scoring above 90 along with other advanced democracies. But its score has been in slow decline since 2009, due to things like the rise of hyperpartisan media, political polarization, and state-level restrictions on voting rights.
Then there was a noticeable dip in 2018, from 89 to 86, which Abramowitz attributes largely to Trump’s influence. The US is currently below Italy, a fairly dysfunctional democracy with a governing coalition that currently includes the far-right Northern League.
“The total score of 86 still places the country firmly in the report’s Free category, [but] the current overall US score puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom,” he writes.
The reason this is so worrying, according to Abramowitz, is that Trump is following an established playbook from countries like Hungary and Venezuela where elected leaders have subverted their country’s democracy. Trump’s rhetorical and policy attacks happen to focus on the same institutions — the ones that help safeguard democracy.
“His attacks on the judiciary and the press, his resistance to anticorruption safeguards, and his unfounded claims of voting fraud by the opposition are all familiar tactics to foreign autocrats and populist demagogues who seek to subvert checks on their power,” Abramowitz writes.
These tactics take time to work, and are most effective when there’s limited public attention. The following chart from the report compares the US under Trump to several other countries that have elected leaders with authoritarian inclinations; you can see how America is still on the early side of the democratic decline inflection point:
This is why, according to Abramowitz, it’s important to sound the alarm now — before things start to get worse.
“The fact that the [US] system has proven durable so far is no guarantee that it will continue to do so,” he writes. “Elsewhere in the world, in places like Hungary, Venezuela, or Turkey, Freedom House has watched as democratic institutions gradually succumbed to sustained pressure from an antidemocratic leadership, often after a halting start. Irresponsible rhetoric can be a first step toward real restrictions on freedom.”
I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, to get a deeper sense of why it is that the authors see Trump as being uniquely threatening — the report goes into some detail on factors ranging from his attacks on the press as “the enemy of the people” to his systematic disregard for anti-corruption norms. But the short version is this: Freedom House is more than a little worried.
“Ours is a well-established and resilient democracy, and we can see the effect of its antibodies on the viruses infecting it,” Abramowitz concludes. “Yet the pressure on our system is as serious as any experienced in living memory.”