You might think it’s aristocrats and the rich who most threaten democracy. But actually democracy tends to die the hands of angry working people, who turn against elites and their own constitution and follow an authoritarian leader. That leader destroys democracy, or injures it so much that it begins to die.
Populist tyrants regularly threatened democracy in the ancient Mediterranean. Tyrants like Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse (405 BC+) and Lachares of Athens (300 BC+) rose to power as populist demagogues, then overthrew democratic constitutions. The Mediterranean’s greatest ancient republic died the same way. Julius Caesar led the working classes against the Roman Republic’s troubled aristocracy, and he ultimately used elected office to seize unconstitutional power. And though Caesar didn’t finally destroy the Republic, he paved the way for his great-nephew, Augustus, the first emperor. (None of these ancient states qualifies as fully democratic, as we use that term. But they were democratic for their time, until the rise of the authoritarians.)
Hitler and Mussolini fit the pattern too: authoritarians leading angry working people against the elites, attacking democracy as corrupt, and initially taking power through elections. So do a long list of more recent dictators, particularly in Africa and Latin America. They’ve used the people’s anger against colonial powers or their fear of communism to seize total power.
American democracy had never even started down this path, until Donald Trump. Populists like Andrew Jackson and FDR led working people against the elites, but without threatening authoritarian rule or attacking the Constitution. So Donald Trump brings something new to American politics, though the ancients would’ve recognized him quickly. Mr. Trump leads a movement of working people angry at the nation’s leaders. He’s contemptuous of the old Constitution — calling for greater presidential power, along with religious discrimination, torture, and restrictions on the press — and he attacks our democracy as corrupt. He even talks like a tyrant: “I alone can fix it.” Mr. Trump probably can’t create a dictatorship in America. But as an authoritarian president, he could erode democracy. Turkey’s democracy started down that path this year, as did Russia’s with the rise of Putin, who Trump so admires.
What would it take to get a President Trump out of office in 2020, if he loses the next election and claims it was corrupt? What would it take to prevent voter intimidation, if the man commanding the federal police and military encourages it? Would a President Trump enforce court decisions he claims are corrupt, or protect the civil rights of his political opponents? This is how democracy begins to die.
Painting: Leo von Klenze, Ideale Ansicht der Akropolis und des Areopags in Athen (1846) (cropped)
© 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.