In the new (March) issue of The Atlantic, and with the help of Lawfare editors Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes, I take up the question of how the damage might be mitigated if President Trump proves to be either authoritarian enough or impulsive and vindictive enough to threaten the integrity of core democratic institutions and norms. In researching the article, I learned some things I hadn't known.
First, there's no checklist that reliably identifies a president who's a danger to democracy. Many of the most worrisome things that an authoritarian leader could do, a prior president has already done. "Context is everything," I conclude. "Authoritarianism lies not in any individual presidential action but in the patterns of action that emerge over the course of a presidency. ... Whether any particular presidential action, or pattern of action, is authoritarian thus depends not just on the action itself but on how everyone else responds to it." In other words, whether Trump is an authoritarian isn't just up to him, it's up to us.
Second, since the days of Richard Nixon—a cunning and dangerous criminal, who issued illegal orders from the White House as a matter of routine—the infrastructure of governmental and civil watchdogs and advocacy groups keeping eyes on the presidency has deepened and strengthened. Drawing on Jack's superb book Power and Constraint, I conclude that it will be fairly hard for Trump to trash the law.
But third, his assault on civil norms of democracy, which is well under way, is a lot harder to check. To resist de-norming, it won't be enough just to call out Trump. We'll need to rebuild the case for liberal democracy. Along the way, I introduce Yascha Mounk, a young scholar who is doing some of the best thinking about illiberal populism here and abroad, and how to counter it. Like Lawfare's Ben Wittes, he's part of the Coalition of All Democratic Forces which so much depends on. Read the article here.