Democracy Is Surprisingly Easy to Undermine

Politicians around the world are borrowing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” tactics. These false fraud allegations are profoundly dangerous.

Illustration of Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and Keiko Fujimori
Abir Sultan / AFP / Getty; Joe Raedle / Getty; Leonardo Fernandez / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

Here’s a quiz: Which world leader made the following statements?

We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy.”

This may be the most important speech I’ve ever made. I want to provide an update on our ongoing efforts to expose … tremendous voter fraud and irregularities.”

“The election will be flipped, dear friends.”

If you guessed Donald Trump, you are only one-third right. The first statement was made by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, soon after his opponents formed a parliamentary coalition to oust him. He has since grudgingly made way for a new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, but he hasn’t conceded that his loss was fair. The third statement came from Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s former autocratic leader. She also just lost an election, but has not yet recognized the result. But yes, Trump did make the second statement. It comes from a speech he delivered on December 2, in which he detailed “tremendous voter fraud and irregularities” at great length. Although Trump stepped down, he has also yet to admit that he lost.

And he never will. Neither Netanyahu nor Fujimori is likely to concede either, and no wonder: In all three cases, the personal stakes are high. Trump is threatened by multiple lawsuits and potential business failure. Netanyahu has already been indicted for corruption and fraud. Fujimori previously spent a year in jail while awaiting trial for allegedly collecting illegal campaign contributions, and she could conceivably be sent back.

The political stakes are high too, because—at least to hear them talk—all of these leaders claim to believe that, in addition to what they might personally suffer, their nation will pay a huge price for their loss as well. Netanyahu, who had to be ushered to his seat on the opposition benches after losing the vote, calls the new government a “dangerous coalition of fraud and surrender,” and has vowed to “overthrow it very quickly.” Fujimori has described her leftist opponent’s victory as a mortal threat to Peru and a guarantee that the country will follow Venezuela into repression and poverty. Trump, of course, has never acknowledged that there is such a thing as legitimate opposition to himself at all. Even before the election took place, he made clear that unless he won, he would not recognize the result.

The consequences for democracy—democracy around the world, not just in America, Israel, or Peru—are higher still. Elections have been stolen before. Dictators have falsified results before. But losing candidates in established democracies do not normally seek to turn their supporters against the voting system itself, to discredit elections, to undermine the very idea of competitive politics. No modern U.S. president has done so. No postwar European democratic leader has tried it either. And there is a reason: At its core, Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign presents an existential challenge not to his opponents, but to democracy itself. If, by definition, your opponent’s victory can be obtained only through fraud, then how can any election be legitimate? If, by definition, your opponent’s victory represents the death of the nation, then why should any election be allowed to take place, ever? A few days ago, I asked Larry Diamond, a scholar of democracy at Stanford, if he could think of a precedent for Trump’s fraudulent, virulent, ongoing campaign against the November election result, and he could not. “I know of no instance of an advanced industrial democracy coming anywhere near this close to abandoning fundamental standards of electoral democracy,” he told me.

Maybe we should be surprised that it hasn’t happened more often. Democracy has alway been corruptible. Aristotle dismissed democracy because it was so likely to slide into tyranny; the Founding Fathers stuffed the Constitution with checks and balances for exactly that reason. Benjamin Franklin, when once asked what America would be, “a republic or a monarchy,” responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.” More recent politicians, including some rather surprising ones, have understood the fragility of democracy too. Richard Nixon, when advisers suggested that he contest the results of the incredibly tight 1960 presidential election, refused: “Our country can’t afford the agony of a constitutional crisis—and I damn well will not be a party to creating one just to become president or anything else.”

Democracy can’t function without a certain level of civic virtue, a modicum of consensus; at the very least, everybody has to agree to play by the rules. When that doesn’t happen, contested elections, violence, even civil war can result. For many decades now, Americans, like Israelis and many Europeans, have been spared those plagues. Unlike Franklin and Nixon, too many of us now take our system for granted. Few of us are mentally prepared for the highest offices of state to be occupied by people who do not play by the rules, are not suffused with civic virtue, and do not mind damaging the delicate democratic consensus if that’s what it takes to win.

For Americans, Israelis, and many others, the primary danger of “Stop the Steal” tactics lies precisely in their novelty: If you haven’t seen or experienced this kind of assault on the fundamental basis of democracy—if you’ve never encountered a politician who is actively seeking to undermine your trust in the electoral system, your belief that votes are counted correctly, your faith that your nation can survive a victory by the other side—then you might not recognize the hazard. The majority of Republican voters appear not to. Other than Representative Liz Cheney, Representative Adam Kinzinger, and a handful of other officials, even elected Republicans seem not to understand exactly how corrosive this form of politics might eventually become.

The secondary danger of these tactics is their potential to spread. “Autocratic learning” is a real phenomenon: Dictators are copycats, imitating one another’s use of surveillance technology and crowd control. Historically, democrats have been copycats too: There is a reason democratic revolutions have come in waves, whether in 1848 or 1989. But democrats who aspire to become autocrats can also learn from one another.

Now that Trump has led the way—now that he has proved it is possible to convert a major political party into an antidemocratic wrecking ball and a vehicle for personal grievance—others will follow.

No doubt Netanyahu, with his Trump-like self-pity, will lead Likud down that path. (“My family and I have been through hunting, prosecution, and denigration, the likes of which has never been seen,” he said on Sunday. “All so that I will bow down and surrender to the left.”) Following Trump’s lead, a senior adviser to Poland’s far-right president declared in November that the published electoral result in the United States was just the “first round” of the election, with the “second round” to be decided in the courts; perhaps he was thinking ahead to Poland’s next parliamentary election, now that a portion of the country’s judiciary has been captured and politicized. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has suggested that he could lose next year only because of “fraud.” In Hungary, the speaker of Parliament has begun preparing a story designed to undermine faith in democracy—just in case his party should happen to lose next time—wondering aloud whether his country’s elections will be manipulated from outside, perhaps from Brussels.

Nothing is inevitable about this downward spiral. In the U.S. it can be stopped, and indeed it has been, recently, by public officials who still respect the rules. In December and January, the Trump administration put pressure on the Department of Justice and some state electoral commissions to pursue ludicrous stories of electoral fraud and even to hold “special elections” in six states that Trump lost. Those plans were thwarted by officials at the DOJ as well as by public servants such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who told Trump that, contrary to the president’s claim, he had not won the election in Georgia (“Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong”). The task now—in the U.S., in Israel, in Brazil, in Peru, all across the democratic world—is to make sure that public servants like Raffensperger stay in office. It’s up to them to put themselves forward, up to the parties—especially the Republican Party—to promote them, and up to the voters to vote for them. It’s up to everybody else to keep talking about this insidious attempt to corrode consensus before the problem engulfs our democracy and so many others.