On each of these markers, President Trump has taken actions to substantially deteriorate the quality and integrity of our institutions. Beyond his actions, his anti-democratic rhetoric has itself undermined long-standing norms, which are entirely dependent on the respect they are accorded by the presidency for any force they have to constrain others.
Moreover, in each of these areas, his attacks on democratic norms and institutions echo similar behavior by autocrats who have undermined democracies around the world in recent years, from Hungary to Turkey, Poland to Venezuela. This report highlights some of those parallels.
In a comparison that is especially striking, recall that in both Recep Erdoğan’s and Vladimir Putin’s first years of national leadership in Turkey and Russia, respectively, they were seen as democratic reformers. Erdoğan was to lead Turkey into the European Union as a model of Islamic democracy and Putin presented himself as the torchbearer of Russia’s shift towards democracy. It took several years into each of their reigns before their authoritarian tendencies were fully exposed. In contrast, President Trump has exhibited the habits and actions of a budding authoritarian in each area of potential democratic decline in just his first twelve months.
That he has done this is not necessarily a sign of deliberate planning. Quite the contrary. Trump seems to rely on autocratic instincts out of either a lack of understanding of or, lack of respect for, the norms and structures that have undergirded America’s constitutional democracy.
The Impact of Foreign Interference on Our Democracy
As Mr. Trump and longer-term trends threaten our democracy internally, we are also increasingly vulnerable to foreign interference. Russia is in the midst of a sustained campaign to undermine Western democracy, and American intelligence officials have now concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”
In short, we can no longer take America’s democracy for granted. In countries around the world, authoritarian leaders have dismantled democracies that once seemed stable. The turn away from democracy need not be premeditated; an incompetent leader with authoritarian tendencies can pose as much of a threat as one with a systematic plan to dismantle checks and balances. The worst-case scenario is that Mr. Trump uses a crisis — a terrorist attack, for example — to consolidate power. But even absent a crisis, he can still do lasting damage to America’s democratic norms and traditions.
Standing Up for Our Democracy — A Roadmap for the Future
Still, there remains cause for hope. Even under threat, the United States has strong and durable democratic institutions and a civil society that has proven itself ready and able to defend democratic ideals. We can prevent further backsliding during the Trump administration if each of our institutions — Congress, the courts, the civil service, the free press, law enforcement, and the private sector — makes protecting our democracy central to its work.
We also can lay the groundwork for a series of broader and more systemic reforms that address the longer-term challenges threatening our democracy. In this report, we lay out an initial roadmap for the kinds of reforms we might consider as a starting point for what we hope will be a broader discussion aimed at fleshing out the specifics. We now know that America is susceptible to a shift towards more authoritarian leadership. Now that the stakes have become clear, we must be prepared to enact reforms to reinforce and strengthen our commitment to the rule of law and, ultimately, our democracy as a whole.