Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into links between Russia and the president’s campaign could have turned out so much worse for Donald Trump. It almost seemed certain that it would. But it didn’t. The end of the Mueller investigation has now made hollow the maximalist charges of collusion against Trump and his team.
The collusion claim was an indirect—or direct—way of saying that Donald Trump was illegitimately elected. For Mueller’s team to stop short of concluding that collusion had occurred, then, was the best possible result for American democracy. Citizens should be relieved, not disappointed, when the legitimacy of election outcomes is strengthened, however much we dislike them.
Conspiracy with Russia wasn’t the only thing that commentators—both liberals and Never Trump conservatives—got wrong, though. There was another, related charge that was graver and, on its face, more implausible: that Trump would (or could) destroy American democracy. And he would do so with the help of his Russian enablers. Here, the two claims came together—that the Russians wished to end the American experiment and that Trump provided the vehicle for their ambitious designs.
This was part of a grand narrative. But what if the narrative of American democracy under mortal threat—with or without Russian help—was fundamentally flawed from the very start?
Grand narratives are appealing because they help us comprehend the incomprehensible. In this case, they helped to make sense of the endless shock of Donald Trump’s victory. The democracy-is-doomed narrative is crumbling, and rarely do you hear it anymore—at least not with the full-throated zeal that became routine throughout 2017 and 2018.
It began before that, during the campaign. As The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote: “Hitler’s enablers in 1933—yes, we should go there, instantly and often, not to blacken our political opponents but as a reminder that evil happens insidiously, and most often with people on the same side telling each other, Well, he’s not so bad, not as bad as they are. We can control him.” This sort of thing continued for more than two years.
On January 4, 2018, despite the helpful information that America hadn’t become a dictatorship in 2017, Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote in an article titled “2018 Is the Year That Will Decide If Trumpocracy Replaces American Democracy” that “Trump has been extremely long on demagogic bluster but rather conventional—if extremely right-wing in some respects—on policy. But … this is entirely typical. Even Adolf Hitler was dismissed by many as a buffoon.”
Preemptively suggesting that your ideological opponents won’t accept the results of elections if they lose isn’t nearly as bad as, well, not accepting the results of elections, but it is still bad. In the case of the 2018 midterm elections, it also happened to be wrong. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote: “Remember, Donald Trump claimed—falsely, of course—that millions of immigrants voted illegally in an election he won. Imagine what he’ll say if he loses, and what his supporters will do in response.” Krugman went on, suggesting that those who voted for the other party were, in fact, voting for autocracy: “If we take one path, it will offer at least a chance for political redemption, for recovering America’s democratic values. If we take the other, we’ll be on the road to autocracy, with no obvious way to get off.”
Claims such as these weren’t just overblown rhetoric from pundits in the heat of the electoral moment. They came with the imprimatur of some of the country’s most respected political scientists. Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published How Democracies Die in 2018, and the book became an alarmist bible (even though the book itself is more nuanced than its enthusiasts let on). In New York, Jonathan Chait wrote, “It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump might inflict a mortal wound on the health of the republic.”
How could so many get it wrong? Underlying these various accounts of doom is a major analytical flaw. In some sense, the flaw is so obvious that I wasn’t entirely aware of it until I started thinking about this article. If we exclude cases of military conquest or occupation, as occurred during World War II, there is no clear case of a long-standing, consolidated democracy becoming an autocracy. Democracies backslide—it is a spectrum, after all. But democracies, or at least certain kinds of democracies, do not “die.”
Germany is a touchstone for any conversation about the fragility of democracy. But Germany, when Adolf Hitler entered politics, was a young democracy, and the particular democratic configuration known as the Weimar Republic was even younger, having been established only in 1918. Young democracies are fragile. Moreover, Germany was suffering from historical afflictions that the United States—and, for that matter, most other countries—is not likely to experience again. In an essay for The American Interest, and also the subject of his forthcoming book Democratic Stability in an Age of Crisis, Jørgen Møller lays out the case in convincing detail. Germany, Austria, and Italy, he writes, were “bedeviled by the legacy of the World War,” which “created revanchist yearnings in all three countries, which could be harnessed by undemocratic forces on the Right that had, in the first place, been brutalized by four years of fighting in the trenches.”
It is always possible to extract generalizable lessons from historical events. But that is different from thinking that the 1930s were in any meaningful way comparable to our current political moment. Yet some leading academics are rather unapologetic in their analogizing. In the best-selling On Tyranny, written before Trump even took office, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder focuses on Hitler’s rise almost immediately, and he is explicit that Americans, in thinking about the future of their own country, have much to learn from the death of German democracy. “If we worry today that the American experiment is threatened by tyranny,” he argues, “we can follow the example of the Founding Fathers and contemplate the history of other democracies and republics. The good news is that we can draw on more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome.”
But what exactly does the fall of Weimar Germany have to do with Donald Trump? If there had been a third world war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans had perished in humiliating defeat, then it might be more appropriate to bring up the Weimar Republic. Until then, the election of a president, Donald Trump, however uniquely bad, is simply not enough to justify rather dramatic chapter titles such as “Be Wary of Paramilitaries,” “Make Eye Contact and Small Talk,” “Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed,” and “Establish a Private Life.”
Analogies are useful for understanding the people who use them to understand events, not necessarily for understanding the events themselves. As Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security note, “Parallels from the past too often are put forward less to focus debate and discussion than to shut them down. That’s exactly why the invocation of dates like 1938 or 2003 are such political catnip.” History, after all, does not repeat itself. Anything resembling World War I will not happen again, mostly because it can’t. Too many variables have changed. (The broader and, by now, somewhat banal lesson that “small, seemingly trivial events can have tremendous, catastrophic consequences” still applies, however.) Chait acknowledges that “the concern of serious democracy scholars is not a totalitarian state that murders its opposition en masse. It is ‘democratic backsliding.’” If the concern is democratic backsliding, however, it is unclear why Hitler or 1933 would be a touchstone, since Hitler did, in fact, murder his opposition en masse.
To put it another way, that American politics feels existential (which the very use of the self-title “the Resistance” seems to imply) is different from saying that it actually is. Many, if not most, criticisms of Donald Trump revolve around norms and Trump’s propensity to break them or, more precisely, to act as if they never existed. Often the refrain is that Trump’s sins may not be illegal or unconstitutional, but that they violate the “normal” conduct of presidents and statesmen. They most certainly do, but this, by itself, isn’t necessarily anti-democratic. The legal scholar Jedediah Purdy puts it this way in his critique of the move toward norm fetishism:
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits—which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on.
That something happens to be a norm does not necessarily mean it is a good norm or that it is inherently democratic. Sometimes, writes the political scientist Corey Robin, “norm erosion is not antithetical to democracy but an ally of it.” If we think of democracies as constantly evolving—of needing to evolve at particular historical junctures—then rethinking the unspoken habits of political engagement and competition is simply a requirement of any truly progressive politics. All transformative figures are, by definition, norm breakers, whether that was the leaders of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s or abolitionists in the 1800s.
In a previous piece, I pointed to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of a 70 percent marginal tax rate as an example of a “radical” proposal that, irrespective of its substantive policy content, is important because it expands the window of the politically possible and encourages politicians and voters alike to consider creative ideas outside the norm. This makes democracies more, not less, responsive to a broader range of ideas and proposals from voters and politicians alike, as democracies should be. The rise of right-wing populism in both the United States and nearly every major Western democracy is itself a product of the norm-centric and unimaginative center-left and center-right governing models that dominated in the 1990s and 2000s. A return to norms cannot be both the solution and the problem.
The strongest defense of alarmist politics and of fearing the worst—even in the absence of evidence that the worst is yet to come—is that it encourages the very constraints that prevent truly terrible outcomes. In this reading, the Russia investigation, even if it didn’t produce evidence of collusion, provided an important check on the Trump administration’s ability to do harm. Here, the fear of democracy dying motivates citizens to vote, to petition, and to organize.
This, though, is the job of activists and advocates who are, understandably, less interested in being accurate in their historical analogies and more interested in accomplishing specific political and partisan objectives. It is not the job of journalists, political scientists, or (especially) historians to take historical events and twist them beyond recognition. Even something as seemingly uncontroversial as the use of “the Resistance” to describe the anti-Trump opposition is odd when you think about it—unless, as the journalist Jamie Kirchick reminds us, you happen to be “burying weapons in the forests of Poland or hiding in the basements of French country houses.”
To claim the mantle of resistance is also to suggest that your opponents are something akin to fascists or, more modestly, that they are authoritarians. But, unlike in the 1930s, today’s right-wing populists do not generally condemn the idea of democracy. More likely, they salute it (or at least a majoritarian version of it). Rather than dispatching brownshirts in the streets, they call for referenda and plebiscites. As many observers have noted for years, “direct democracy” isn’t necessarily good, but direct democracy isn’t quite the first thing you think of when you think of Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler.
Being in a constant state of alarm, particularly when there’s little actual threat of being imprisoned for your beliefs, can be unusually thrilling. Carl Schmitt, the hugely influential jurist-philosopher who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, called this the romance of “the occasion.” Romantics, writes the political theorist David Runciman, “want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.”
But more than two years after Trump assumed power, there is the risk that they may no longer have an enemy worthy of the title. Democrats control the House of Representatives. More than norms, institutions—the courts, the media, and the machinery of government—have constrained the Trump presidency. In policy terms, outside of immigration, the Republican Party has more co-opted the Trump administration than the other way around.
The conclusion of the Mueller investigation, which enjoyed bipartisan support, is important on its own terms, but it also allows us to do away with the romantic belief that the worst is always yet to come, however much we might have wanted it to. Anything and everything is, of course, possible, but this doesn’t justify treating it as a particularly likely outcome. For this reason, the investigation, however much the Trump administration objected and attacked, was necessary.
It is unfortunate that a result of no collusion had to come after two years of the purposeful delegitimation of a legitimate democratic outcome. Trump’s very real badness has no bearing on the question of legitimacy.
But these objections did not figure into the breathless doomsday scenarios. Instead, academic research, even when it was sound, was used not in the service of “truth” but in the service of a particular political agenda. As Corey Robin memorably described it: “Brooding on the bloodlands of Europe, meditating on the dark night of the populist soul, anxious media professionals find academic confirmation for their sense that they are exiles in their own land.” Robin points to the pitfalls of “explainers” and articles billed as news analysis, which “unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism [draw] on the authority of the first for the sake of the second.”
Books, particularly books by academics, are usually more nuanced than the headlines they produce. So those focused on the unabashed anti-Trumpism in a book such as How Democracies Die might miss an argument the authors hint at in passing but explicitly state only in the final pages. “Even if Democrats were to succeed in weakening or removing President Trump via hardball tactics,” they write, “their victory would be pyrrhic.” After all, it would only mean Republicans returning the favor in kind, perhaps with even more vehemence, after a new Democratic president takes office. Every time one party won, the other would try to impeach its president, claiming that he or she was both illegitimate and a threat to the very foundations of the republic.
Many will still make such claims, holding on to the notion that they are fighting a world-historical struggle against a would-be dictator. They can believe that they are. But they are not, or at least they aren’t any longer.