The unspeakable has happened: Donald J. Trump has been elected president of the United States. The commander in chief, the most powerful man on earth, the supposed leader of the free world is now a man who holds liberal democracy in contempt.
It’s difficult to say what the next years will bring. For all his venom, Trump is no ideologue. He has not worked out a plan for how to subvert American democracy or destroy liberal institutions, if only because he has not much of a plan at all. So there is an outside chance that he will prove to be a surprisingly conventional—or simply a historically ineffective—president.
But that seems unlikely. In my recent work, I have shown that citizens have increasingly turned against liberal democracy, especially in the United States. The traditional checks and balances that are supposed to safeguard our rights are at best imperfect bulwarks against a president determined to amass power. In many countries around the world, the consequences are already visible: Illiberal democracy, a system in which the people rule but the rights of unpopular minorities are routinely violated, is on the march.
And if one thing is clear about Trump, it is that his instincts are deeply authoritarian. The political scientist Juan Linz listed the warning signs long ago. As described by the Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, they include “a refusal to unambiguously disavow violence, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of an elected government.” Trump, they write, passes this anti-democratic litmus test with flying colors:
He has encouraged violence among supporters (offering to pay their legal fees), pledged to jail Hillary Clinton and take legal action against unfriendly media, and suggested that he might not accept the election results. Such acts are unprecedented among major American candidates, but they are precisely the kind of behavior that Linz and other scholars have identified as preceding democratic breakdown in interwar Europe.
Of course, for all we know, Trump may never attack the freedom of the press. He may never order his underlings to commit illegal acts. He may never decide to disobey a ruling by the Supreme Court. He may never manufacture a foreign war to assure himself of re-election. And he may never falsify election results or lock up his political opponents, when all of that won’t suffice.
But all these horrors are now real possibilities. If we are to have any chance of stopping them, we must start to learn the art of resisting a would-be dictator.
That art is difficult to master. It cannot be imported wholesale from other countries or contexts. Even if we learn to excel at it—and we will have to learn on the fly, with no safety net to catch our fall—we might well fail. But there are ordinary times, when the stakes of politics are real yet limited, and then there are extraordinary times, when the most basic questions about the future are up for grabs. A vast majority of Americans have only ever lived in ordinary times. Now, with terrifying suddenness, the survival of the American republic—and of liberal democracy around the world—is in danger. So we need to understand that the stakes are higher than they have ever been in our lifetimes. Doing the right thing over the course of the next four years will demand more sacrifice and greater courage than we could have imagined a few short months ago. Here are some initial thoughts—still far too broad and inchoate, but a start—for what we can do to preserve liberalism in the face of such peril.
- We accept Trump’s victory. However much he scares us, we recognize his election as part of the democratic process to which we are committed. But we also know that there are many things an elected president does not have the authority to do, and we must be vigilant about enforcing that red line. As soon as Trump does something unconstitutional or morally abhorrent, we will come out into the streets in full force—and then we must not let up until he retreats.
- The press has a key role to play in fighting for the survival of free speech. It must remain committed to the truth. But it is because of that commitment that all false equivalence must cease. It is not possible to be neutral between a would-be tyrant and the democratic opposition. Anybody who applies the bipartisan norms of political reporting that may have been appropriate in 1979 to 2016 is falling into the trap that produced our current predicament.
- To resist a would-be tyrant, you need to work with strange bedfellows. For the next four years, we must build the broadest possible coalition against Trump. This coalition will have plenty of internal disagreements: It will include Barack Obama and Mitt Romney but also Jill Stein and Glenn Beck. That’s OK. Our joint goal is to work toward a future in which these differences can come back to the fore.
- We must condemn the individuals who are complicit in any form of authoritarian overreach in the strongest terms. One of the great virtues of liberalism is that political rivals can continue to be civil to each other. But when some people seek to destroy the most basic rights of their fellow citizens, civility toward them is misplaced. If you are supporting an aspiring dictator, you need to feel the social consequences.
- On the other hand, if you decide to stand on the right side of history, no matter how late in the game, we welcome you with open arms. Your sins will be forgiven, at least until the danger is banished. If coming out against Trump gets you fired, we will crowdsource for you. And if you are spending all of your time and energy organizing against Trump, our couches and kitchens will have your name on them; we will not let you go hungry while you are fighting for us all.
- We must bolster and protect independent power centers. We must work our hearts out to win the midterm elections in a landslide. We must be prepared to defend the judiciary against attempts to undermine its neutrality, to help state governors stand up to Washington, and to protect journalists critical of the administration.
- Federal employees and military personnel should loyally serve the democratically elected president insofar as his policies are legal. But their first duty is to the Constitution, and they must refuse to serve him when he is asking them to break it. If they cannot dissuade him from illegal moves, high-profile appointees, and especially military officers, should consider mass resignations that might turn public opinion against Trump.
- The day-to-day fight against creeping authoritarianism will take up most of our energy. But we must also carve out the space to paint the vision of a better future. This vision must be both restorative and radical: It should recognize the renewed urgency of the liberal values we are now in danger of losing—and yet offer a much bolder vision than we have in the past decades for how our political and economic institutions can make those values a reality.
- After this election it is impossible to be blind to the racist rot in our society. Under Trump, the Republican Party has completed its decadeslong transition toward being a vehicle for white identity politics. To oppose Trump is to fight for the equal rights—civil, political, and economic—of all ethnic and religious groups. At the same time, our goal must be to bring about a political era in which the deepest disagreements are about values and principles, not ethnic and religious allegiances. A politics in which the primary dividing line is tribal will continue to have the makings of civil war.
- In the depths of World War II, the future of humanity looked just about as bleak as it has ever done. But for some, the unspeakable horrors of the war also held out a unique moral opportunity. “Never in the field of human conflict,” Winston Churchill told his countrymen in the late summer of 1940, “was so much owed by so many to so few.” This is the kind of moment in which we now find ourselves. The stakes are enormous. There can be no doubt that we might lose, even if we do our best. But, for all their horror, the bleak times that lie ahead will offer us a rare time of complete moral clarity. Liberal democracy has prevailed against the odds before. It is the civic duty of us all to do everything we can so that it might prevail again.