Q&A: Daniel Ziblatt on Trump and How Democracies Die

By Alex Mayyasi

Daniel Ziblatt has spent a career studying why democracies develop and how they die. Along with his co-author and fellow UC Berkeley alumnus, Steven Levitsky, he has done so from a perch at Harvard, and his focus has always been different places and times: Ziblatt is an expert on democracy in modern Europe, including the age of Hitler and Mussolini, and Levitsky specializes in Latin America.

Five years ago, a book called How Democracies Die by Ziblatt and Levitsky would likely have focused on Hitler, Hugo Chavez, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But these are not normal times—not for Harvard professors of political science, and not for the United States. How Democracies Die draws from these examples, but it focuses squarely on the United States and the risk of authoritarianism the authors believe is posed by Donald Trump. It is the result of an uncomfortable feeling among American political scientists, who usually study threats to democracy abroad, that the daily news rings all too familiar.

Readers will not find an anti-Trump screed in How Democracies Die. The book is more erudite than alarmist, and Ziblatt believes that Trump has done only modest damage to American democracy since assuming office. But that makes their clarity on the risk of both Trump and wider political developments all the more powerful. The idea of learning from history is cliche. But when you burst the myth of America being singular and unique, and fully embrace the idea that other countries’ past and present is a guide to our future, the results, even written soberly in the careful words of tenured faculty, are stunning, revelatory, and a call to action.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You and your co-author concede that writing the book reminded you that American democracy is not as exceptional as you sometimes believe. Why is that?

We tend to think that the U.S. has a distinctive creed that emphasizes equality and freedom. We believe that there’s a real attachment to it among American citizens, and that this somehow inoculates us from democratic decay. But in doing research for the book, we highlighted a subcurrent of demagogues who have been popular throughout American history.

Just in the 20 th century, we had Henry Ford in the 1920s, Huey Long in the 1930s, Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, and George Wallace in the 1960s. According to Gallup polls, these guys usually had 30 percent favorable opinions, which we can compare to Donald Trump’s 35 percent approval rating. So there’s been a continuous strand of demagogues, and what’s made the U.S. exceptional is that these guys have been kept far from power. But that has changed.

In politics and mainstream media, there’s been a real hesitancy to call Trump a demagogue or to call comments he makes racist. You don’t shy away from calling Trump an authoritarian or a would-be authoritarian. Are political scientists more united in calling Trump a demagogue? Or is what you’re doing controversial, even within your field?

I think it is controversial. But it’s important to distinguish between statements and actions.

In the book, we identify what we call an authoritarian litmus test, which is drawn from comparative politics research. It’s a set of indicators for a candidate, and if someone violates these norms, then it’s a warning sign that they may have authoritarian inclinations. The indicators are if a candidate, before he enters office, attacks the media, questions the legitimacy of elections, accuses a rival of being treasonous or criminal, or encourages or tolerates violence by his supporters. These are bad signs.

In American political history, we’ve happily never had a major party candidate do any of those things. Nixon was clearly critical of the media, but never so overt. What made Donald Trump’s candidacy so unusual is that he violated all four of those hallmarks of authoritarian rhetoric.

Those are the words. In office, he’s been very limited in his impact. A lot of people think fascism is around the corner—we’re not in that camp. We think the damage he has inflicted has been relatively limited. It’s only been one year though.

Henry Ford was a businessman turned popular political candidate, and he also used authoritarian rhetoric. So why did Donald Trump succeed where Ford failed?  

A major reason is that the way we select presidents changed. For the first two-thirds of the 20 th century, primaries and voters had very little say in the selection of candidates. Of course, in the general election, people voted. But in the pre-election period, party leaders selected candidates in so-called “smoke-filled backrooms.”

There’s a lot to criticize about this system: It was exclusive, not very democratic, and often produced mediocre candidates. But this was a filtration system or a system of peer review, where people who worked closely with politicians selected candidates. So when Henry Ford wanted to run for president, he was very popular with voters. But a survey done of party leaders showed he was very unpopular with leadership, so he didn’t even attempt to run.

After 1968, the introduction of primaries really transformed this. While I’d mostly say this was a good thing, it was double-edged, and it did open the door to the potential rise of demagogues.

The second big factor is the role of the Republican party itself. One of the things we discovered [in our research] is that whenever elected autocrats get into power, it’s because mainstream parties allow it and enable them. In the United States, leading Republicans, who openly despised Donald Trump and didn’t think he was qualified, tacitly gave him their support by not endorsing Hillary Clinton. This opened the door for Donald Trump to enter the White House.

Your writing is the first I’ve seen to make the case for smoke-filled backrooms, even if you lay out their downsides. But so much of America’s language and idealism is about democracy. So how do you advocate for a move that adds a guardrail of democracy by, say, giving party leaders more control over selecting candidates?

I want to be clear that I am a passionate advocate for democracy. In the selection of presidents, I think we should have as many people as possible voting. I by no means want to go back to the smoke-filled room. Voters should have a say in who the candidates are.

But before the general election, I think there is a case to be made that their views can be supplemented by the opinions of people who work up close with politicians. And this already exists; I’m suggesting a fairly modest thing. In the Democratic Party, there are superdelegates, who supplement the views of voters. I think that’s actually a good system. I know it’s coming under attack. But one thing to think about is that if the Republican Party had superdelegates in 2016, Donald Trump may not have been selected as the Republican candidate.

It’s pretty clear you believe that Americans underestimated the threat Trump posed as a candidate. I’m interested in your discussion of how authoritarianism is now rarely the result of a coup and tanks and soldiers, but instead comes from a candidate being duly elected and then making autocratic changes in the name of defending democracy and derailing rivals with tax evasion charges. Since the slide to authoritarianism is almost imperceptible, what warning signs should we look for?

If we look at what’s happened in other countries, we see that democratic decay can take a long time. It was not clear in the early 2000s, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected in Turkey, that he would be authoritarian. So there are three main things to watch.

One common thing elected authoritarians do is capture the referees of the political game, including security services, law enforcement, and the judiciary. They try to turn them into political weapons (to go after their enemies) and shields (to protect themselves from criticism and from investigation). Another is they go after their opponents: They go after the media and critical civil society groups. And the third thing is to tilt the playing field by changing election laws and so on.

You argue that no constitution is sufficient to prevent democratic collapse—no constitution and set of institutions by themselves can prevent dictators.

Yes, our constitution is actually quite brief as a document. It doesn’t plan for every situation. Under the U.S. constitution, presidents, if they’re frustrated with Congress, can issue executive orders over virtually any issue. And that is legal. Or members of Congress could filibuster every piece of legislation or block every Supreme Court justice appointed by the president. There’s nothing preventing this.

The reason these things don’t happen has to do not with written rules but unwritten rules. We emphasize two norms. One is mutual toleration, in which political rivals and politicians treat each other with respect and regard them as having a legitimate right to compete and govern. A second norm is the norm of forbearance, which means under-using your legal powers. We think these two norms are really critical for the functioning of a constitutional system and checks and balances.

If these norms decay, and there’s some sign they are in the United States today, checks and balances become gridlocked and dysfunctional. You see escalating political battles without these norms.

You write in the book that at different points in American history, compromise on race—and this is compromise in the worst sense of the word—was what allowed the two parties to respect democratic norms and engage in politics respectfully. (Because they knew the really polarizing issue of racial equality and full democracy was off the table.) Should a cynic conclude that the lesson of history is that compromising on race has always been key to American democracy?

This paradox is something we didn’t begin the book thinking about, but we realized that these much-valued norms were forged in periods of racial exclusion. We say the United States is the oldest democracy in the world, but that’s really not quite right. The United States has been a democracy since 1965, I would say, with the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.

I think the challenge for the United States is to remain committed to democracy. Throughout history, there was this tradeoff, but I don’t think it was a necessary tradeoff. The question is how to combine equal and inclusive democratic politics with stable, democratic norms.

I sometimes imagine a counterfactual world in which the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were passed in 1948. So they would have been followed by 30 years of high economic growth, a period of compression in income inequality. Would we have had the same polarization?

Instead they were passed in 1965, and within seven years, you had a slowdown of the global economy and an increase in income inequality. And so it’s really the combination of economic inequality and increased democracy and diversity that has been this difficult combination. I think the great solvent may be economic growth and reducing economic inequality.

You describe how Republicans would pay a price for opposing Donald Trump. But there’s the destruction of our democracy on one hand, and a short term hit to a party’s prospects or an individual politician’s career on the other. You’ve written this erudite book, but do you ever want to just yell at people [like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan] and say, “Don’t you see the risk here?”

In retrospect, we can say it’s clear. But if one looks back to the 1920s, at liberal politicians who gave tacit support to Mussolini, or conservatives trying to decide how to deal with Hitler, they faced these political upstarts and had to decide the best way to deal with them. They may have thought, “If we ignore him, he’s going to get more popular. So let’s try to take him under our wing and control him.” It’s a calculation, and sometimes it’s the wrong calculation.

To be clear, I’m not comparing Trump explicitly to Hitler. I’m saying there’s a similar dynamic [of making a choice about an outsider candidate with authoritarian tendencies].

I think the courageous thing would have been for Republicans to separate from Trump and pay some electoral cost. People do act out of self-interest and opportunism. But I think there’s evidence that politicians can learn. In France in 2017, François Fillon, the republican, didn’t make it to the second round of the presidential election. So he endorsed Macron [a centrist with more liberal supporters] instead of Le Pen [a far-right, nativist candidate]. Something similar happened in Austria. When we did interviews with those people, it was clear they were referring back to earlier elections when they made the wrong decision.  

So my hope is that people will understand the stakes of this kind of decision, and understand that people have made the wrong decision in the past.

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In or around 1770 and 1780, Benjamin Franklin said we would a republic if we could keep it. Then in 2014, former Supreme Court Justice David Suter said that any ignorant society would lose it to someone like Trump. This book tells us why.
In or around 1770 and 1780, Benjamin Franklin said we would a republic if we could keep it. Then in 2014, former Supreme Court Justice David Suter said that any ignorant society would lose it to someone like Trump. This book tells us why.
Fortunately for America, we are not a “Democracy” nor have we ever been a “Democracy”. We are a Republic. Thank God for that. Trump’s rise to power is primarily due to the fact that large percentages of the working class agreed with him. 1. The U.S. Government is too big. 2. The Democrats are leading the country towards socialism. 3. Continued immigration will lead to greater blocks of votes for democrats. Those three things were prevalent in Trump’s message, and will remain prevalent until such time as the objective of the Democratic Party changes course and realizes that we ARE a Republic, not a Democracy.
The interviewer states that “you believe that Americans underestimated the threat Trump posed as a candidate”, but according to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Trump himself was one of those people who underestimated his chances – as he didn’t believe he would win, and was largely chasing fame and business opportunities after he lost. Further, as his campaign team thought it was probably best that he didn’t win, it was those closest to him who did correctly estimate the threat he posed. A double and deeply chilling irony.

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