When I was living in the Middle East, politics always felt existential, in a way that I suppose I could never fully understand. After all, I could always leave (as my relatives in Egypt were fond of reminding me). But it was easy enough to sense it. Here, in the era of Arab revolt, elections really had consequences. Politics wasn’t about policy; it was about a battle over the very meaning and purpose of the nation-state. These were the things that mattered more than anything else, in part because they were impossible to measure or quantify.
The primary divide in most Arab countries was between Islamists and non-Islamists. The latter, especially those of a more secular bent, feared that Islamist rule, however “democratic” it might be, would alter the nature of their countries beyond recognition. It wouldn’t just affect their governments or their laws, but how they lived, what they wore, and how they raised their sons and daughters.
Perhaps more than at any other time, millions of Americans are getting a sense, however mild in comparison, of what it might feel like to lose your country—or at least think about losing your country—because of what people decide to do in the privacy of the voting booth. It still remains (somewhat) unlikely that Donald Trump, the now presumptive Republican nominee, can win a general election. Regardless of the final outcome, however, the billionaire’s rise offers up a powerful—and frightening—reminder that liberal democracy, even where it’s most entrenched, is a fragile thing.
* * *
When I hear my friends debating how, exactly, so many of their fellow citizens could support someone like Trump, it reminds me a bit of Egypt. In my book, I relay a telling conversation I had four years ago, which has stayed with me since. A few days after the country’s first post-revolutionary elections concluded in January 2012, I visited my great aunt in her extravagant flat in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. She was in a state of shock, but worse than that was the confusion. It was one thing for the Muslim Brotherhood, long Egypt’s largest opposition group, to win close to 40 percent of the vote, but how could 28 percent of Egyptians vote for ultraconservative Salafi parties, which believed in the strict implementation of Islamic law?
Like most Egyptians, she personally knew Brotherhood members even if she didn’t quite like them, but she hadn’t had much experience with Salafis and seemed totally unaware that they had extended their reach deep into Egyptian society. She realized, perhaps for the first time, that the country she had thought was hers for the better part of 70 years would never quite be the same. It hadn’t really even been hers to begin with.
What my aunt feared was that Egypt would become an “illiberal democracy,” a term popularized by Fareed Zakaria in his 2003 book The Future of Freedom, but one that’s still difficult for Americans to fundamentally relate to. In the American experience, democracy and liberalism seemed to go hand in hand, to such an extent that democracy really just became shorthand for “liberal democracy.”
As Richard Youngs writes in his excellent study of non-Western democracy, liberalism and democracy have historically been “rival notions and not bedfellows.” Liberalism is about non-negotiable personal rights and freedoms. Democracy, while requiring some basic protection of rights to allow for meaningful competition, is more about popular sovereignty, popular will, and accountability and responsiveness to the voting public. Which, of course, raises the question: What if voters don’t want to be liberal and vote accordingly?
* * *
When the stakes are high, there is more to lose, and if there is more to lose, those on the losing end of a ballot box have powerful incentives to play “spoiler.” Fortunately, in the post-Civil War United States, the stakes have never reached what political scientist Barry Weingast calls the “threshold” at which citizens decide to defend themselves through extra-constitutional means, including by appealing for the military to take sides. This, in part, is why (good) constitutions are so important: They lower the stakes, reassuring citizens that even if their preferred party loses the election, it’s still just that—an election.
Donald Trump, or more specifically what he represents, calls some of these assumptions into question. Trump himself isn’t quite an Islamist, but he is a proponent of a kind of “illiberal democracy,” even if he himself may not be familiar with the term. Drawing on a wellspring of white nativism and machismo, candidate Trump has regularly made demeaning statements about entire groups of people, including African-Americans, Mexicans, and women. His commitment to the protections enshrined in U.S. constitution are questionable, at best, and if we assume the worst, downright frightening (the difficulty with Trump is that he’s not precise with words, so it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what he’s saying). He has expressed support for registering Muslims in a database, elaborating that they could “sign up at different places.” When a reporter asked how this was different from requiring Jews to register in Nazi Germany, Trump said “you tell me,” prompting The Atlantic’s David Graham to note that “it’s hard to remember a time when a supposedly mainstream candidate had no interest in differentiating ideas he’s endorsed from those of the Nazis.” Trump, for good measure, has also refused to disavow President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans.
The U.S. Constitution includes robust civil-liberties protections, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. But these protections are not unlimited. Contrary to popular belief, majorities—if they’re large enough—can, in fact, do nearly anything they want, even in established democracies. It’s only really a question of how high the majoritarian bar is. In the United States, two-thirds of Congress and 75 percent of the states can amend or repeal articles of the Constitution. They could theoretically pass a constitutional amendment banning abortion. In countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, where alcohol is currently legal and relatively easy to find, the issue of alcohol consumption is a touchstone for endless “what if” hypothesizing. Yet, Prohibition happened not in any of those countries but in America, with large majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives as well as 46 of 48 states backing the 18th Amendment (of course, banning alcohol in the U.S. wasn’t justified on primarily scriptural grounds, while in Muslim-majority countries, prohibition is seen as fulfilling an explicitly Quranic directive).
In other words, built-in constraints and constitutional “guarantees” aren’t enough on their own to preclude illiberal outcomes. What Americans really depend on, then, is a shared political culture and the ideas and ideals that undergird it. As James Fallows notes, “Liberal democracies like ours depend on rules but also on norms—on the assumption that you’ll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends.” But all it apparently takes is one man with charisma and an unusually perceptive understanding of the human psyche to change that. There are norms against politicians suggesting that minorities should have special identification cards. There are norms against saying you want to kill the families of terrorists. There are norms against encouraging your supporters to use violence against their political opponents. It’s not entirely clear why you don’t do or say these things (because Trump clearly has), but you just don’t. The very fact that Trump has made such frightening comments on national television—without any corresponding “disqualification” or decline in popular support—has already undermined these longstanding norms.
The United States has had demagogues before, but they rarely make for viable presidential candidates. This is democracy’s blessing as well as its curse: that people you really don’t like—people who you think might threaten the Republic—can actually win. In the specific context of the Republican nomination, Trump opponents basically called for prioritizing good outcomes over democratic ones. They continued to search for possible paths to denying Trump the nomination, despite the fact that, barring acts of God, he was certain to win the popular vote and a plurality of delegates in the primaries.
Even if Trump reached the magic number of 1,237 delegates, which would normally settle the matter, there were those who still seemed intent on scouring the rulebooks, parliamentary procedure, and delegate details in the hope of averting disaster. Democratic norms, the thinking goes, are great in normal contexts, but sometimes the stakes are simply too high to let democratic outcomes stand. As the columnist Walter Shapiro wrote, “[W]ith the threat of the first takeover of a modern political party by an authoritarian who traffics in racism and exudes contempt for the First Amendment ... [t]here would be nothing anti-democratic about GOP leaders using every mechanism in their power to stop Trump.” Nate Silver pointed out that “technically [Republicans would] be able to deny Trump the nomination even if he had a delegate majority by changing the rules at the last minute.” They could still theoretically do something like this, even after Trump’s decisive victory in Indiana. The Republican Party is not a country, and the party can disregard the preferences of primary voters if it so chooses, but elite pacts and back-room negotiations would seem decidedly antiquated during an unusually populist moment in American politics.
This particular debate in some ways mirrors arguments over the tensions between democracy and liberalism, a debate that will only intensify if Trump gains ground on Hillary Clinton in the coming months. It is probably time to err on the side of imagination, since party elites and pundits failed to imagine the unthinkable once already. What if Trump actually wins the presidency? How would we as Americans deal with an outcome that at least some of us see as a potential danger to our Constitution as well as our livelihoods?
If Donald Trump wins, he would have, whether we liked it or not, a democratic mandate. Once in power, he might moderate his rhetoric and policies (yet another data point in the debate over the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis”), rendering at least some of this discussion moot. Yet it’s also possible that, facing a growing terrorist threat and a sputtering economy, more and more Americans might, like their newly elected president, dispense with the norms of reasonable conduct and support extreme measures. Still, a President Trump would be a legitimate president, having been freely and fairly elected by enough Americans. He would be, as much as it pains me to say it, our president. Still, there will no doubt be a temptation to defy or otherwise undermine a democratically elected Trump. For those of us who study the Middle East, the idea of not respecting democratic outcomes is business as usual, but I never thought it would be up for debate in the United States.
* * *
“Deep state” is a phrase that’s used to describe the constellation of autonomous and self-perpetuating institutions, namely the judiciary, military, and security services, which operate outside the glare of the public and are immune to the electorate’s whims. This deep state, acting as the guardian of national identity, puts limits on what elected politicians can hope to accomplish. The deep state was responsible for four coups in Turkey, the most recent of which deposed the country’s first-ever democratically elected Islamist prime minister in 1997.
It would be difficult for Americans to think about their own government—or “regime”—in such terms. The U.S. military is subject to civilian control, while Supreme Court justices, though unelected and appointed to life terms, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It is possible, however, to imagine a president so reckless as to activate state institutions against him or her, in a way that makes the notion of an American deep state more meaningful and relevant.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden ignited some speculative debate when he said that the military “would refuse to act” if ordered by a President Trump to take actions that were clearly illegal, such as killing the families of terrorists. Moreover, he said, military commanders are “required not to follow an unlawful order.” Even short of flagrant illegality, the military can still do what it’s done, at times, with nearly every sitting president. Peter Feaver, a leading expert on civil-military relations, notes that “the historical record is replete with cases of the military shirking—withholding information and options, slow-rolling, end-runs to Congress and the media, inflating cost estimates, etc.—to thwart civilian policies they deem to be unwise.” Considering, however, that Trump would likely be more “unwise” than most past presidents, such tensions could intensify well beyond what America’s political system is accustomed to.
One can also easily imagine left-of-center (and right-of-center) civil servants in the Departments of State and Defense working against the president from within to mitigate his effectiveness and even his authority. This would be good, insofar as Americans wouldn’t want their president doing things that were crazy, illegal, or both. But it would still raise difficult questions about democratic legitimacy and how far an elected president can pursue his preferred policies, especially when it comes to issues that aren’t clear-cut. If the military refused to obey orders, however justified their refusal, then it could very well erode norms against military intervention in domestic politics. In response to Hayden’s comments, host Bill Maher joked that the former CIA director was floating “a coup.” This is not a word that Americans should ever get used to hearing in everyday political discourse. The norm against “coups” is a powerful one, which explains why American analysts (if not the U.S. government) are generally uncomfortable with military coups in foreign countries. No one teaches us that military coups are bad. Rather, it’s something we absorb in the process of being American. It goes without saying, so it’s rarely said.
Recently, a few friends (who work on Middle East issues) and I had an interesting although ultimately frightening conversation, as Trump extended his delegate lead over Ted Cruz. Sometimes it’s useful to game out worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they might seem. We tried imagining a dystopian future and came up with internment camps, (threats of) military coups, and pro-Trump militias. Soon enough, the last didn’t seem nearly so farfetched, with volunteers offering to provide security at Trump rallies (for Trump supporters).
* * *
It is hard to imagine such things because, despite a long, low-intensity war on terrorism, America hasn’t faced a large-scale terrorist attack on the homeland since September 11, 2001. Democratic systems produce self-perpetuating norms, because they are accountable to a voting public. It’s this very responsiveness, though, that can be a source of vulnerability, if enough citizens, in the grip of fear, decide to prioritize “security” over liberty. As the legal scholar Christopher Kutz writes in the suggestively titled article “How Norms Die,” democracy can be “at the same time both fertile and toxic: fertile as a source of humanitarian values and institutions, but toxic to the very institutions it cultivates.”
This is something we can measure. As Daniel Bush observed, after analyzing Pew survey data from 2002 to 2014: “During each campaign season, respondents reported having a higher negative impression of Muslim Americans than in non-election years.” This is a bit more mild than the link between elections and religious riots in India. As the historian of religions Michael Cook notes, “There is no doubt that Hindu nationalist politicians believe that communal riots can get out the Hindu vote for them. ... Under the right conditions the communal riot is a winning [electoral] strategy.”
Norm shifting of an even more dangerous kind than India’s can happen rather quickly in countries where democracy is not yet consolidated. For example, millions of Egyptians who demanded freedom and democracy in 2011 turned seemingly against it in less than two and half years, supporting not just a return to authoritarian rule but the August 14, 2013 massacre of more than 800 protesters—what Human Rights Watch calls the “worst mass killing in [Egypt’s] modern history.”
The kinds of shifts that occur in established democracies are less nefarious, but they can happen just the same. Torture is a good example. Kutz calls the spread of global norms against torture “one of the most impressive successes of the post-war period.” Yet, in the United States, these norms began to erode after the attacks of September 11th. Soon enough, torture—or what some were now euphemistically calling “enhanced interrogation”—came to enjoy broad support among the American public. The lesson again is clear. However strong they may first appear, norms, particularly those relating to national security, are more fragile than we might like to think. Once their sanctity is undermined by authority figures (whether presidents or presidential candidates), others can judge that what was once considered shameful is now not just socially tolerated but also necessary, good, and just. This is why “political correctness”—even if it seems irritating and is sometimes abused to restrict reasonable debate—still represents a public good: It makes us think twice about saying things that might contribute to the erosion of liberal and democratic norms.
We have now reached a point where current or former presidential candidates from both parties have flirted with the idea of internment camps (former Democratic candidate Wesley Clark has called for “segregating” radicalized Muslims who are “disloyal to the United States”). In a series of incidents that have received less attention, a Tennessee State Representative called for using state institutions, in this case the National Guard, to “round up” Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, called for suspending assistance to refugees, but went further in an official statement on government letterhead. “I’m reminded,” he wrote, “that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
No less than Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia believed that it could happen here. On this, he is on strong ground, since it has, of course, already happened. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans in Korematsu v. United States. While Scalia said that the decision was “wrong,” he also issued a warning in his blunt style: “You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again.”
The norm against internment has been undermined, even though Americans do not face anything close to the threat presented by the Nazis and Japan during World War II. Which raises the question of what a plurality, or even a majority, of Americans might be willing to support if they had to confront a threat that was truly existential. We Americans are not, today, at war, at least not in the normal sense. I hope to God that we never will be again. But we might be. And this is where Scalia’s words that day were perhaps most chilling, in part because he was right. Evoking the Latin expression inter arma enim silent leges, he reminded the audience that “in times of war, the laws fall silent.” All we will have then are the things we still believe in—our norms. But, by then, they might not be enough.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.