Don’t be fooled by Trump

Donald Trump, photographed by Gage Skidmore

Well, Donald Trump is offended now. After Joe Biden said on January 6 that Trump’s attempts at subverting elections are like “a dagger at the throat of democracy,” Trump responded. He helpfully cleared things up, releasing a statement that claimed, “Remember, I am not the one trying to undermine American Democracy. I am the one trying to SAVE American Democracy.”

It would be nice if Trump was really interested in saving democracy, but he’s simply following the authoritarian playbook. He’s saying what most aspiring dictators say. When’s the last time you saw a politician announce that he hates democracy and wants to dismantle it? Instead, history more often gives us figures who claim to be embracing democracy while they’re really smothering it to death.

The grand tradition of claiming to save democracy while you’re killing it goes back at least two millennia. Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, ruthlessly took power, killing his enemies in gruesome ways. He stripped the Senate and elected officials of their power and made sure that he had full control of the sources of power that really mattered in Rome. The Roman Republic, a form of government that had allowed Roman citizens to have a say in their government for five centuries, died with him.

The one thing Augustus didn’t do was announce his actual goals — ending the Roman Republic. Instead, he portrayed himself as a traditionalist who would take Rome back to its venerated traditions. When he hunted down the senators who had assassinated Julius Caesar, he framed it as saving the republic — he later said that the tyrant-killers had “waged war on the state… [I] set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction.”

Augustus made a number of gestures to demonstrate his love for the republic. He ostentatiously declined the most visible forms of power so that he could take control of what really mattered — the military and the economy. He asked to be called “first citizen” rather than “emperor.” But by the time he died, after four decades in power, the republic had long since ceased to function.

It’s not just ancient authoritarians who created undemocratic systems while claiming to be saviors of democracy. Benito Mussolini said that the fascist governments in Italy and Germany were “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today.” Joseph Stalin called his 1936 constitution and the subsequent elections “thoroughly democratic.” Meanwhile he was conducting the Great Purge, in which many of the drafters of that constitution were imprisoned and killed. Hitler himself called Nazi Germany a “beautiful democracy.” I doubt that any objective observer would call any of these systems actually democratic.

Modern dictators also pay lip service to democracy while chipping away at its core. Vladimir Putin, after all, runs for election under Russia’s constitution — it’s just that anyone who could conceivably beat him is harassed or imprisoned, and the vote tallies are likely rigged. In countries like Russia, Hungary, and Turkey — all places ruled by autocrats whom Trump has praised — democracy has crumbled slowly. In many “elected autocracies,” the rulers end up in the same position Augustus created for himself 2,000 years ago. The veneer of democracy remains and the leader claims that his rule is the will of the people, but the people no longer have a meaningful say in the course of the government.

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, scholars of “democratic backsliding,” write:

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy — packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.

Authoritarians like Trump will always say they’re trying to protect democracy. But democracy doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it does to most of us. In a real democracy, people have meaningful rights and real opportunities to influence government.

To Trump, democracy may mean that government expresses the will of the people. But, as he’s shown time and time again, the only “people” who count in his eyes are those who support him.

So don’t be fooled — Donald Trump isn’t here to save democracy. He’s here to destroy it.