A Review of “How Democracy Dies” in context of the Trump Regime

How Democracy Dies

The authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt posits in their book “How Democracies Die” that democracies are based on informal rules. Two of them are mutual toleration which is acceptance of your rival as legitimate and forbearance which is restraint in the exercise of power. They further hypothesize that American democracy survives because of the commitment of American people to freedom and equality which brings to light the unanswered question: Does the current Trump regime, which bears so much semblance to authoritarian regimes in other countries where democracy has died, poses a credible threat to the death of the American Democracy? Before exploring whether American Democracy will survive Trump, it is important to know how democracy died in other countries.

According to the authors, the erosion of the primary rules of mutual tolerance and forbearance signifies, and often leads to the death of democracy. Levisky and Ziblatt, however, do note that the means of which a democracy dies have evolved drastically since the era of the Cold War. During this period in time, the popular form of dissolution of a democracy was through what they term as death through “a hail of gunfire”, meaning the forceful eviction of a democratic leadership through a military coup. Through the years since, this has evolved to the popular scenario where democracies have died in the hands of freely, or close to freely, elected leaders.

The authors called this Democratic Backsliding.

Democratic backsliding starts in the election of a populist demagogues, defined as who rises to power through the democratic institutions (i.e. elections, freedom of speech thru media). They pay homage to the paradigms of democracy but will disregard mutual toleration, deny the legitimacy of their political opponents, tolerate or encourage violence and readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponent, including the media. Even though popular opinion may sour, and criticism mount, they can manipulate institutional mechanisms to keep themselves in power.

In summary, they stay in power by weakening the very structures that brought them into power. A contemporary example given by the authors is Turkey, whereby President Erdogan, over the span of a decade, clings unto power by weakening the opposition, gagging the media, and ensuring that elections are biased in his favor. This ensures that it is increasingly insurmountable to dislodge him from power.

Very similar to Reinhard H. Lutin’s definition of a demagogue: “What is a demagogue? He is a politician skilled in oratory, flattery and invective; evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices—a man whose lust for power without recourse to principle leads him to seek to become a master of the masses. He has for centuries practiced his profession of ‘man of the people’. He is a product of a political tradition nearly as old as western civilization itself.”

These populist demagogues rise to power thru Fateful Alliances where they get legitimacy from democratic institutions. Once in power they slowly erode the democratic institutions that placed them in power. Fateful Alliances is an unspoken bargain is struck between statemen and the demagogue, while the demagogue does need the relevance and influence exercised by the statesmen, the statesmen seek to tap into the popular appeal of the demagogue and control him. This bargain is a significant miscalculation in the part of the statesmen, and has fallen through, over and over again through history as the demagogue is never controlled.

There are numerous instances of these leaders in history; where a populist demagogue gets overwhelming help and support from establishment politicians and political parties, only to eventually turn out to be authoritarians with little adherence to democratic ideals, or outspokenly anti-democratic tendencies.

How Democracy Dies
How Democracy Dies

They are:


Italy’s Benito Mussolini (Mussolini) who rose gained legitimacy when he was included in the party list by Giovanni Giolitti who significantly increased his political profile. Once in power “He threatened the press, joked about ruling for life and bullied everyone, including the allies who helped him get into office, while enjoying a cult following among his base.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat in her Washington Post opinion described Italy’s democratic backslide:

“Over the next two years, Mussolini undermined the institutions and culture of Italian democracy persistently and methodically. He denounced any negative press coverage of him as “abusive” and “criminal,” and demanded that the offending reporters and editors be fired. In Parliament he made offhand remarks about abolishing the constitution, creating a secret police and becoming a dictator. He dismissed officials who were insufficiently servile. He bullied Parliament into passage of an electoral law that guaranteed his coalition’s victory in the 1924 elections. And he stayed silent when Fascists beat up or killed opposition politicians.“


In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez gained legitimacy when he was freed from jail by President Caldera, an enduring and establishment politician in the country. Thereafter he was elected President.

“Under Chávez, Venezuela experienced democratic backsliding, as he suppressed the press, manipulated electoral laws, and arrested and exiled government critics. His use of enabling acts and his government’s use of propaganda were controversial. Chávez’s presidency saw significant increases in the country’s murder rate and continued corruption within the police force and government.“


Perhaps the most infamous example of Fateful Alliances is Adolf Hitler, who came into power on the backs of mainstream conservative politicians. He was then placed as the Chancellor of Germany by these influential statesmen, despite reservations on some of his more radical views.

When Adolf Hitler (Hitler) was chancellor, the conservative parties expected to use Hitler for their own agenda. However, he only gained traction when Reistag Fire Decree was promulgated. Freedom of expression was no longer a matter of course and the police could arbitrarily search houses and arrest people. The political opponents of the Nazis were essentially outlawed. He eventually consolidated power.


Valdimir Putin (Putin) was appointed by Boris Yeltsin as acting President before stepping down. From his appointment until his reelection in 2004, Putin was able to establish himself as a Man of action but drew criticism for his crackdown on the media. During this tenure suspicious deaths that is insinuated to be initiated by Putin, which he denied, of his critics transpired.

The timeliness of the deaths caused the New York Times to note, “Political murders are again playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the most brutal instrument in an expanding repertoire of intimidation tactics intended to silence or otherwise intimidate critics at home and abroad,”


America has its own comparable examples of potentially dangerous demagogues. However, these have been kept out of positions of power by what the authors term as “gatekeepers” who are influential politicians and individuals who used their influence to control who gained access to a position of power. These include Henry Ford, the 20th Century industrialist who vied for a presidential bid in 1923. However, he was a renowned extremist, so much so that he was covered favorably in the infamous Hitler memoir “Mein Kampf” and unfortunately enjoyed Midwestern support. Others include Huey Long, who was a popular national figure and governor of Louisiana and assassinated prior to his presidential bid. His approval and popularity were probably rivaled only by President Roosevelt’s. Finally, there was also George Wallace, an outspoken segregationist whose levels of public approval and support are much likened to Donald Trump’s. While this “gatekeeping” system of candidate selection; whereby party leaders selected who they thought would be an ideal candidate to represent the party, helped to keep out demagogues, its limitations were in its exclusivity. It often churned out mediocre candidates, who despite being ideal candidates, were not much of presidents.

With the introduction of presidential primaries, in the late 20th Century, this power was devolved to the people. This is the scenario that introduced America’s Donald Trump. He was elected through sheer popularity. The infrastructure that a presidential candidate ought to have had in the 20th and early 21st Century was nullified with the advent of social media, which is the angle that Trump played in his outreach. He proved without a doubt that if you had achieved sufficient name recognition, that you did not need to build and foster alliances with anyone at the state or local level. Essentially that you could be an outsider and still win.

They rose to power and continually eroded the systems that led them there; allowing them to hold onto their power and effect their authoritarian rule.

Going back to the unanswered question: Will American democracy survive Trump?

Unquestionably, Donald Trump has violated norms, or at least accelerated the process through which these norms that preserve the American democracy are eroded. During election he derogated the media for spreading fake news and continued to do so during his term, so much so that only Fox News is able to maintain its credibility. He has, to a large part, convinced a fairly substantial number of people that mainstream media is out to sabotage his presidency and government. This poses a worrisome scenario on the health of the democracy down the road if Americans cannot believe any other news outlet other than a state-endorsed provider.

On the other hand, he has systematically discredited the electoral system, stating that the country’s elections are fraudulent, and that a disproportionately large number of illegal immigrants participated. This leads a very large number of voters, and primarily republicans who, as Levisky states, represent a former ethnic majority in decline, believing that the elections are, indeed not free nor fair. This sets a dangerous precedence as the press and the electoral system are paramount to any democracy.

Furthermore, and perhaps more worrisome according to Ziblatt, Trump politicized the rule of law and law enforcement and intelligence. In a democracy, law enforcement intelligence ought to be neutral. Trump, despite this, has sought to make the FBI and the office of the attorney general a shield and weapon to go after his political rivals. However, the American democracy is largely intact if reviewed on the infrastructure that a demagogue seeks to erase. The Judicial system has largely worked, and the media is still quite effective. Therefore, despite Donald Trump having authoritarian tendencies, and working towards abrading some of the norms safeguarding our democracy, which will undoubtedly be consequential in future, he has not had any irreversible damage in regards to instituting full-on authoritarianism.

America started out as a colony, it was not a free country. Its freedom and equality were fought for with blood and tears. It struggled and rebelled against the powers that were in order to be recognized as a free nation capable of governing itself. Americans, therefore, subscribe to what Ziblatt calls the “American Creed”, which is a staunch commitment to the ideals of freedom and equality. Despite initially attempting to found these principles in an era of racial exclusion, the US would later evolve to become a more ethnically and culturally diverse society, sensitive on the ideal of racial equality. In establishing its freedom, it recognized in its declaration of independence that all humans are born with “natural rights,” including the right to protect their lives, liberty, and property and the government is a “social contract” between people and their rulers which can be dissolved if rulers fail to promote the people’s welfare.

Based on this declaration, the American people assesses the validity of Trump’s government. For so long as Trump caters to the will of the majority and does not cross that imagined border of criticism and oppression his government is legitimate.

This control is absent in the government ruled by Mussolini, Hitler, Chavez and the others.

Trump may attack the credibility of America’s media, derogate the legitimacy of his opponents, and repurpose the functions of the government agency. It might be perceived as chipping away freedom and equality enjoyed by the people, but it will be tolerated for so long as majority thinks that Trump is fulfilling his contract with the American public. That is, he makes decision that would benefit America as a whole.

Once this contract is breached, Trump’s government will lose its legitimacy and the American people will replace him. That is the true power of democracy, a government for the people.

It is not as if America did not face the same situation before. Jill Lepore in her article “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” noted that:

“American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government. “What Does Democracy Mean?” NBC radio asked listeners. “Do we Negroes believe in democracy?” W. E. B. Du Bois asked the readers of his newspaper column. Could it happen here? Sinclair Lewis asked in 1935. Americans suffered, and hungered, and wondered. The historian Charles Beard, in the inevitable essay on “The Future of Democracy in the United States,” predicted that American democracy would endure, if only because “there is in America, no Rome, no Berlin to march on.” Some Americans turned to Communism. Some turned to Fascism. And a lot of people, worried about whether American democracy could survive past the end of the decade, strove to save it.”[14]

Yet, American democracy endured and prospered. One may ask, how was that possible? The answer lies in its people, its acceptance of differences, its willingness to continually argue, and their pride in their history. Americans will always remember and ingrained in them is the entitlement to their rights.

In order for American democracy to die, the populist demagogue must kill the American spirit.

After all, Dorothy Thompson once said, “Democracy can only be saved by democratic men and women. The war against democracy begins by the destruction of the democratic temper, the democratic method and the democratic heart. If the democratic temper be exacerbated into wanton unreasonableness, which is the essence of the evil, then a victory has been won for the evil we despise and prepare to defend ourselves against, even though it’s 3,000 miles away and has never moved.”[15]


[1] “’How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about Our Future’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.” Consilium, General Secretariat, 12 Dec. 2018,

[2]  Luthin, Reinhard H. American Demagogues. Beacon Press, 1954.

[3] Ben-Ghiat, R. (2018, June 19). Opinion | When investigators threatened his power, he declared himself dictator.

[4] Smith, Denis Mack. “Why Mussolini Made It.” The New York Review of Books,

[5] Ben-Ghiat, R. (2018, June 19). Opinion | When investigators threatened his power, he declared himself dictator.

[6]  Svolik, Milan W. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[7]  “A Coup against the Constitution.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper

[8] “Venezuela Murder-Rate Quadrupled under Chavez: NGO.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters,

[9] “Hugo Chávez.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Mar. 2020,

[10] “Germany 1933: from Democracy to Dictatorship.” Anne Frank Website, 13 Jan. 2020,

[11] Grodsky, Brian. “Russia, Putin Lead the Way in Exploiting Democracy’s Lost Promise.” The Conversation, 15 Oct. 2019, theconversation.com/russia-putin-lead-the-way-in-exploiting-democracys-lost-promise-94798.

[13] “Democratic Ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,

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