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Will Trump break American democracy?

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President Trump Departs The White House En Route To California Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the decades after World War II, a big overriding question animated a large number of American social scientists: How could something like Nazi Germany have happened in a seemingly modern, advanced democracy? And if it could happen there, could something like it happen here too?

The answers were somewhat dispiriting. Americans, as a whole, were not all that tolerant. Many had authoritarian leanings. And ordinary people were capable of remarkable cruelty.

To take the totality of the findings, it seemed remarkable that despite the just-below-the-surface potential for authoritarianism, American politics did not dissolve into a maelstrom of illiberal intolerance and violence.

Sure, McCarthyism had its moment. And arguably, a lot of the South was never really much of a democracy until the 1970s.

But in broad national strokes, midcentury American politics trended to the bland, consensual, and technocratic. Dwight Eisenhower, not Joseph McCarthy, was president.

And so, in the postwar glow of rising prosperity and what appeared to be highly stable American democracy, social scientists stopped looking into the illiberal darkness of the human soul and moved on to other questions.

But these old questions about the tangle of thin blue lines and hard red lines that protect American democracy now seem relevant once more. With Trump as president, we find ourselves asking again: How strong is support for democracy in America really? Could Americans actually let an authoritarian strongman trample on our democratic norms?

The return of American authoritarianism

In the past decade or so, political scientists have returned to the topic of authoritarianism in America, boasting new measures and methodologies to overcome the previous round of criticisms. And once again, the same basic dynamics have shown up — individuals who hold “traditional” views on culture and race tend to also hold “authoritarian” views about strict parental discipline and hierarchy (these parenting attitudes that now stand in for broader authoritarian leanings). And under conditions of high threat, these authoritarian attitudes take on a more central role in our political thinking.

But if these attitudes always existed below the surface, what was it that kept us from asking big questions about them for decades and collectively worrying about their potential to disrupt society?

The short answer is that political elites successfully marginalized these attitudes. Whatever differences the parties and their leading candidates had, they retained a strong respect for the democratic process and the things that buttressed it — rule of law, a free press and other civil liberties, electoral integrity, and basic decency and respect for political opponents.

As political scientist Herb McClosky concluded in a 1964 article, the stability of American democracy depended on “political influentials.” These leaders, he wrote, were distinguished by:

their strong approval of democratic ideas, their greater tolerance and regard for proper procedures and citizen rights, their superior understanding and acceptance of the rules of the game and their more affirmative attitudes toward the political system in general ... the evidence suggests that it is the articulate classes rather than the public who serve as the major repositories of the public conscience and as the carriers of the Creed. Responsibility for keeping the system going, hence, falls most heavily upon them.

Whatever anti-democratic rumblings might exist among the masses, party activists and elected officials seemed to provide an adequate buffer, as preachers of and adherents to the democratic tradition.

This is not the case anymore. The Republican Party of Donald J. Trump is a far, far cry from the Republican Party of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

How worried should we really be? Quite a bit.

We can ask hypothetical questions about whether people would support postponing the 2020 elections if Trump said such a postponement was necessary to secure the vote and find out (distressingly!) that half of Republicans would agree. But put the emphasis on the hypothetical here. We don’t know what would happen because it would be so unprecedented. A lot would depend on whether Republican elites pushed back.

But here’s where we might want to worry: So far Republican elites haven’t pushed back against Trump. Maybe they will if he fires Robert Muller. But maybe they won’t.

Part of the problem here is that to the extent that authoritarian attitudes exist in the American electorate, they are concentrating in the Republican Party.

Here, a new Democracy Fund Voter Study Group report, “Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism” (which I wrote with Larry Diamond and Joe Goldman), sheds some discouraging light on the dark moment we may be in.

In this report, we focused on how people responded to the possibility of our country being run by a “strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.” About a quarter of Americans think this is a good system. That includes about a third of Trump primary supporters and 45 percent of Obama-Trump voters.

What do we know about these individuals?

For one, many want America to be a European (read: white) nation. In our survey, we asked people how important European heritage is to being American. While most respondents said it is not at all important (47 percent) or not very important (27 percent), 9 percent said it is fairly important and 8 percent said it is very important. An additional 9 percent said they “don’t know.” And those who said they think it is important or “don’t know” (presumably because they’re too ashamed to say) think a strong leader is good. They also aren’t great fans of democracy.

Similarly, among those who think it’s time to increase the surveillance of mosques, or think it’s important to target Muslims at airport screenings, chances are significantly higher that they also think we ought to have a strong leader.

We also found that people who perceive higher levels of disorder in their own communities (we asked people whether crime, drugs, and alcohol are problems in their community) were more likely to support a strong leader.

It’s hard to tease out causality here, but a general finding in the literature on authoritarianism is that when people feel a sense of a physical threat, particularly if it’s racialized, they are more likely to manifest authoritarian attitudes.

So to the extent that both Trump’s “American carnage” rhetorical flourishes and Republican campaign ads emphasize pervasive disorder and racial threat, these attitudes might be activated even further.

We also found those who distrust experts are more likely to support a strong leader and to be less supportive of democracy. This has been another Trump and increasingly Republican push point: You can’t trust the experts; you can’t trust the establishment. And if you can’t trust them, whom can you trust?

Again, we can’t evaluate causality because we don’t have panel data on these questions about public support for of our democracy. But we can certainly speculate on the connection. If experts can’t be trusted, then how do we know whom to trust? Such a world seems uncertain, chaotic.

One note of caution here for scholars of authoritarianism. The report also looked at the parenting scale that’s now the standard measure for authoritarianism. There’s a clear correlation between authoritarian parenting and support for a strong leader, but more than two-thirds of those who hold high authoritarian parenting views reject a “strong leader.” So while there’s clearly something here, we should be careful about overinterpreting from authoritarian parenting attitudes.

The bottom line is this: The forces of authoritarianism are collecting in the Republican Party, and the chaos-and-threat rhetorical politics of Trumpism are key correlates of anti-democratic attitudes. The more Trump and fellow Republicans stoke fears of immigration, of Muslims, of crime and drugs and “American carnage,” and the more they disparage elites and experts, the more they are increasing attitudes that correlate to anti-democratic views.

We may be heading for a conflict between the power of partisanship and the attachment to democracy

When we conducted this survey in July 2017, we found that the vast majority of Republicans and conservatives opposed a strong leader who didn’t have to bother with elections, and the vast majority reaffirmed their preference for democracy. This is obviously good news.

The big lingering question remains: What happens if these views collide with partisan loyalty? What happens if Trump fires Muller? What happens if he refuses to accept election results and calls “fraud” or foreign interference? What happens if he proposes postponing an election?

We don’t know. We’ve never had this clash. That’s because we’ve never had such a powerful political leader with so little respect for basic democratic processes. And when there is a genuine anti-democrat in charge of a party, we don’t know how strong people’s stated attachments to democracy really are, especially if they conflict with their partisan loyalties.

And, most frightening, in a time of extremely high partisanship, driven more and more by affective loyalties and fear of the other party, we don’t know how much democratic transgression Republicans (in Congress, the media, and in the mass public) would tolerate if it meant keeping Democrats from gaining power.

In a two-party system, there is no other option for those who don’t want Democrats to gain power. There might soon be no party of conservativism and liberal democracy. If so, voters will have to pick one or the other.

Much of what might happen in such a moment will depend on what political leaders and media elites say and do. But political leaders pay close attention to what their voters think, and media elites pay attention to what their audience wants.

Some Republican elites have spoken out against Trump. And for the most part, they’ve found that speaking out just marginalizes them among Republicans — a worrying sign. And voters elected Trump, remember.

Many futures are possible here. One can look to the encouraging numbers overall in our report: Across all respondents, and especially young people, support for a strong leader is down to its lowest level in two decades, presumably as a backlash to Trump. These numbers could make us feel optimistic that Americans are reconnecting with our democratic traditions after all.

But the polarization of attitudes and concentration of authoritarian leanings in the Republican Party are also cause for worry. The American public has never been the bulwark of tolerance and procedural democratic liberalism. It’s just that we’ve always had elites who cherished these values enough to champion and preserve them and, most importantly, keep them from the unpredictable maw of partisan conflict. We are now in new, uncharted territory.