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Trump and the Dilution of Democracy

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For more than half a century I have studied Latin American politics. Nearly four years of Donald Trump’s presidency has moved democracy in the United States much closer to our neighbors to the south. We used to think they could learn from us how to build democracy. Now, we will need to learn from them how to rebuild it.

After independence in the early 19th century, Latin American countries typically saw a series of dictatorships punctuated by coups d’etat or civil wars. There were, oddly enough, constitutions and elections, but the constitutions lent themselves easily to the concentration of power, and the elections were routinely manipulated. 

A small number of countries (Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica) began haltingly in the late 19th century to build alternatives to the authoritarian cycle, whereby rival elements of the political elites learned to share or alternate in political power. These elite republics then became the foundation for genuine liberal democracies in the 20th century, with free, competitive elections, universal suffrage, and opposition electoral victories.

Zero-sum politics (I win, you lose) was long a central feature of Latin American politics. We are now in the same boat. 

Only Costa Rican democracy (after a short civil war in 1948) would survive an authoritarian wave in the 1960s and 70s, encouraged by a Cold War mentality in the United States (which has pretty much had its way in Latin America since 1900). A democratic regime in Venezuela lasted from 1959 to 1999, and a kind of elite republic with popular voting was established in Colombia. But most of the region had to wait for the 1980s and 90s for a climate favorable to establishing democratic regimes.

Prior to the 1980s, most of the region continued the cycle of dictatorships and coups, but with more mass suffrage that had to be manipulated. Mexico developed one authoritarian model after its 1910 revolution. An official party was established, presidents were strictly limited to one term, and opposition parties were allowed to compete in elections but not permitted to win beyond the local level. This quasi-democracy lasted into the 1990s.

Argentina provides another model. Colonel Juan Perón led a 1943 coup that overthrew the old elite republic. He then built a political base among the urban working class, won elections in 1945 and 1950, and was ousted in a military coup in 1955. From exile, he used his Peronist base to make the country ungovernable until 1973, when he was finally allowed back and won the presidency by election. His movement fragmented after his death in 1974, but Peronists continue to be the dominant force in Argentine politics to this day.

The Trump phenomenon, as we approach a decisive election, poses similar alternatives for the United States. Should he win, Republicans may well try to consolidate a Mexican-style quasi-democracy. All the machinery of government at both national and state levels would be mobilized to assure continued Republican electoral victories, even while allowing the Democrats their redoubts in the Northeast and the West Coast. Voter suppression and slanted vote counting would be among the tactics used. The police and Homeland Security forces would back up these manipulations while keeping any protests under control. The façade of democracy would be maintained, but Republican hegemony would be assured.

What about the more likely contingency, that Trump loses? Here it gets hairy. Latin Americans have good reason to question the fairness of their elections. Trump has pointedly questioned the integrity of the US election machinery, thereby giving himself the basis for refusing to concede defeat. In the 19th and even the 20th centuries, it was not uncommon in Latin America to have insurrections follow electoral defeats.

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By refusing to commit to a peaceful transition if he loses, Trump is signaling his base to be ready for such an insurrection. Here he takes a position that even the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, rejected in 1988 when he lost an election. Rather than hanging on to power, Pinochet agreed to a democratic transition. Trump will not commit to any such thing.

But Trump is not likely to control the overwhelming force that would let him hang on to power after an electoral defeat. It’s pretty clear than he would not have the Armed Forces. Homeland Security and local police might be amenable, but if the Armed Forces stood in his way, he would have to stand down. So let us assume that President Biden’s first act on January 20 would be to order the Secret Service to remove former President Trump from the Oval Office.

Here’s where the Argentine model comes in. Trump’s base is not going away, even if he loses the election. He would likely continue to stir the political pot, making life difficult not only for Biden but even for those establishment Republicans who have been thinking they could resume control of the GOP. Even after Trump himself passes to his just deserts, there will be his children and other loyalists. The Republican Party could become a semi-loyal or disloyal opposition, taking advantage of its right to contest elections and hold office, just in order to undermine, to destabilize the democratic regime.

The Democrats, having gained power in 2020, would themselves be in a position to consolidate their long-term control by such measures as expanding voting rights, weakening the power of the wealthy minority, promoting labor unions, controlling corporate abuses, and thus confine Republicans to their Southern and Western redoubts. Without a loyal opposition, the Democrats would themselves be tempted to establish a Mexican-style quasi-democracy just to keep the Trumpists at bay.

Zero-sum politics (I win, you lose) was long a central feature of Latin American politics. We are now in the same boat. But the Latin Americans can also teach us about ways to get out of that sinking boat. Several of the earliest democracies in the region were based on pacts between rival factions, a kind of nonaggression treaty to bring civil conflict to a close by agreeing to a carefully calibrated sharing of power. 

There are two big problems with pacts. First, while a pact can help end zero-sum politics and reestablish basic civility in the political system, it doesn’t automatically produce democracy because the terms of the pact set limits on wha the population can vote for. Second, pacts usually exclude the regime that’s just been defeated.

Thus, the Concertación pact that reestablished Chilean democracy after the defeat of Pinochet did not include Pinochet supporters. What has happened over the last 30 years in Chile is that the former Pinochet supporters have become the core of the Right in a fairly stable Chilean democracy that was originally established without their participation. The Right has even held the presidency while making no move to reestablish an authoritarian regime.

impeachment unavoidable

We North Americans will eventually need to have something like a pact, some mutual understanding between the social forces underlying the Democratic coalition and the Trump movement. The goal should be to forge that understanding in a way that will undergird a democracy that is deeper and stronger than the rickety structure we have now.

John Peeler