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Trump vs democracy: Brian Klaas

Republican lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene wears a 'Trump won' face mask before taking the oath of office in Congress, 3rd January 2021. Photo: Erin Scott/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

This is the fourth interview in an eight-part series. See the other interviews here.

Brian Klaas
Academic, author, columnist and podcaster

“The functioning of American democracy has been severely damaged by the Trump presidency,” says Brian Klaas, associate professor in global politics at University College London. The Minnesota-born political scientist’s view won’t come as a surprise to followers of his popular Twitter account or readers of his most recent book, The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy. Ever since the real-estate mogul launched his presidential campaign in 2015, Klaas has insisted that Trump represented a real and unique threat to the republic.

First, Klaas says, there was the “politicisation of the rule of law” and Trump’s effort to “use the justice department as an extension of his personal, political and financial interests”. Then there were Trump’s attacks on the free press, which managed to “convince between 30 and 40 percent of the public that mainstream media outlets are the ‘enemy of the people’”. Klaas also emphasises the democratic threat of the “hyper, hyper-polarisation” and “splintered reality” that Trump amplified, which means, he says, that Democrats and Republicans no longer inhabit the same political reality. He says that the fallout can be seen in the election of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman from Georgia who has claimed that 9/11 and school shootings were staged and that Californian wildfires were started by a nefarious cabal including the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking dynasty which has long been the target of anitsemitic conspiracy theories.

“How do you unring the bell when a significant chunk of one of the two main political parties’ bases believes democracy doesn’t work because they falsely believe the election was stolen?” says Klaas. “This has been a massive boon to China, Russia and America’s authoritarian adversaries. It has been a four-year advertisement against democracy.”

As an expert on authoritarianism, Klaas says he recognises Trump’s personality traits in despots he’s studied in other countries. “But effective authoritarians are able to temporarily suppress their narcissism to have a more strategic outlook on politics,” he says. “It’s a misperception about Trump that he’s some sort of strategic genius. He had a stroke of genius in 2015 about the mood of the country and he tapped in to that discontent, anger and racism with extraordinary effectiveness. But he has been strategically incompetent ever since.” It was this, says Klaas, that may ultimately have cost Trump the election. “He behaved in idiotic ways and pandered to his base at every turn, alienating the rest of the country.”

It has been a four-year advertisement against democracy”

How can Biden fix the damage? Klaas races through his own wishlist of reforms: scrapping gerrymandering, rethinking the electoral college, requiring presidential candidates to release tax returns, eliminating presidential powers of pardon. But there are also problems that can’t be fixed by policy alone. To begin to repair the splintered reality, Klaas says that Republicans and Democrats need to “build a coalition in which they say, ‘We disagree on taxes, healthcare, climate change, Iran and so on, but we agree on a set of facts that are true and that’s where we start.’ Let’s get away from Jewish space lasers and agree on the facts.”

Klaas says that there was at least one positive to take away from Trump’s presidency – that it was a stress test for American democracy, and American democracy just about passed. “It behaved like a strong democracy with robust institutions that was being tested by the greatest threat in modern American history,” says Klaas. “But even strong democracies are not infallible. I don’t think American democracy as we know it would have survived a second term. Four more years of this? Looking at what happened with [the assault on the Capitol] on 6th January, Donald Trump was unleashing some really dangerous stuff and I don’t think the US would have survived a second term in any recognisable form.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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