A supporter of former President Donald Trump with sign "You're Welcome America"

A supporter of former President Donald Trump pulls a trailer around outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. United States Federal Courthouse where former U.S. President Donald Trump is set to appear in front of a judge on June 13, 2023 in Miami, Florida.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Illiberal Democracy Ain’t Democracy

Trump could cause a level of civic destruction from which this country may never recover. Whatever the highest level of warning is, we need to be making it.

Donald Trump, if elected President, claims he will be a dictator—but only on day one—to block refugees he describes as vermin and to eviscerate environmental regulations. Trump calls rioters convicted of crimes during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building patriots who are being held as hostages and he pledges to issue them pardons if elected. Trump also threatens to use the Justice Department to punish political enemies including Joseph Biden, the radical left, disloyal Republicans, the press, which he calls the “enemy of the people,” and secret Marxists in the government. If Trump evokes the antiquated 1807 Insurrection Act, he could in theory use the U.S. military and National Guard as police within the United States claiming he is suppressing civil disorder and insurrection. Undocumented immigrants and political opponents could end up in Trump detention camps. Critics charge that Trump is a threat to the future of democracy in the United States. His promised actions echo those of elected leaders in other countries that have been labeled illiberal democracies.

Illiberal democracy is a relatively new term for an old idea—the use of democratic practices like winning an election to achieve undemocratic ends such as suppression of political dissidents, selectively banning immigrants, overturning religious freedom, and imposing slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Christian nationalists who believe the United States should be declared a Christian nation seem to be willing supporters of an illiberal, anti-democratic Trump.

The earliest reference to the term illiberal democracy that I've found is in a 1995 book Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, London) that included a chapter titled: “Understanding Illiberal Democracy: A Framework.” The term was later used by Fareed Zakaria in a 1997 article in the journal Foreign Affairs. Zakaria argued that unlike in Western democracies such as the United States, Great Britain, and France—where electoral democracy is coupled with civil liberties such as freedom of speech and religion and the right to a fair trial—in much of the world elected governments ignore or actively repress civil and human rights.

In 2018, Freedom House argued that illiberal democracy, a term embraced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, had become “the new normal in the region that stretches from Central Europe through Eurasia. In Central Europe, governments that disdain independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state are no longer exceptional.” Freedom House identified 19 countries as declining democracies marked by “The government’s takeover of the judicial system, politicization of public media, smear campaigns against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and violations of ordinary parliamentary procedure.”

Unfortunately, illiberal democracy under different names has a long history in the United States. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French sociologist and political theorist published his observations about the United States in Democracy in America. “I do not imagine that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere . . . [A]s long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs . . . it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain.” De Tocqueville concluded that democracy for whites in the United States was rooted in the oppression of the Black population. Forty years later, after post-Civil War Reconstruction, de Tocqueville’s observations were confirmed as Southern whites, led by former Confederates and the Ku Klux Klan, disenfranchised Blacks, and with the acquiescence of the federal courts instituted Jim Crow segregation that remained in effect until the 1960s.

In the decade after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent and illiberal democracy in the United States was busy targeting Blacks, immigrants, political dissidents, and organized labor. Republican Warren G. Harding was elected President in 1920 under the banner “Return to Normalcy.” Normalcy in that period meant anti-Black race riots. White mobs attacked Black workers and communities in East St. Louis and Chicago. Returning Black war veterans were lynched in the South. Black communities in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida were destroyed.

In 1920, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, a Democrat, and J. Edgar Hoover, future director of the FBI, launched a war against immigrants they considered political radicals. As many as 10,000 people in over 20 cities were detained, accused of sympathizing with communists or anarchists, and over 500 legal immigrants to the United States were deported. Legal scholars, including future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, charged that the raids were conducted without “arrest warrants, directed officers to seize documents at will, and permitted unrestrained force.” Jane Addams, peace activist, suffragette and social worker, wrote, “Hundreds of poor laboring men and women are being thrown into jails and police stations because of their political beliefs. In fact, an attempt is being made to deport an entire political party.”

The height of illiberal democracy in the 1920s saw laws passed in 1921 and 1924 establishing immigration quotas that restricted entry of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, primarily Jews and Italians. During the congressional debate, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith, a Democrat from South Carolina, declared “the time has arrived when we should shut the door.” Smith argued “we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship . . . Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock . . . It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation.”

In the House of Representatives, Congressman James McClintic, a Democrat from Oklahoma, denounced “the class of immigrants coming to the shores of the United States at this time” because they “are not the kind of people we want as citizens in this country.” Anti-Italian and anti-radical hysteria was so great that when Nicola Sacco was tried for murder in Massachusetts, Judge Webster Thayer told the jury “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime . . . is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”

The 1920s illiberal return to normalcy included prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol, laws that required teaching Biblical stories of creation instead of science in public schools, and open shop drives to break labor unions. As a result of anti-union open shop drives, membership in the United Mine Workers of America plunged from over 400,000 at the end of World War 1 to under 100,000 in the early 1930s.

In the post-World War II era, illiberal democracy meant the suspension of free speech and blacklisting for political dissidents. It meant deadly attacks on civil rights workers and police and FBI targeting anti-Vietnam War protesters and Black nationalist groups. More recently it meant brutal attacks on Black Lives Matter demonstrators, efforts to censor what is taught in schools, and assaults on women’s reproductive freedom.

Thomas Jefferson believed “it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people.” In his March 1861 Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln closed by asking Americans to respond to the crisis between the North and South with the “better angels of our nature.”

Today, in a very divided country, Donald Trump is trying to obtain power through an appeal to Americans’ basest instincts. If Trump is elected again, democracy—meaningful democracy in the United States—may never recover.

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