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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?
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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.