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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Left or Trump: Which is a Greater Threat to Democracy?

Is the real threat posed by the fringes or the responsible-seeming center?

Donald,Trump,Speaks,At,The,First,In,The,Nation,Leadership
(Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

In August, two originalist legal scholars published a paper arguing that Donald Trump was barred from running for reelection under section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Before long, liberal commentators—not generally known for their receptivity to originalist arguments—began to announce that they agreed. Trump had never been charged with or convicted of the crime of insurrection, but no matter. He could be kept off the ballot by the unilateral action of state authorities. In Colorado and Maine, that is just what has occurred.

Depending on whom you ask, Trump’s exclusion from these ballots is either a fully justified measure taken in defense of democracy or a shocking assault on the right of the American people to pick the president. Of course, answers tend to reflect partisan affiliation and ideology. But standing behind this familiar divide is a more profound division: between those who think that threats to our liberties are more likely to come from the unruly fringe and those who think such threats are more likely to emerge from the responsible-seeming center.

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For the first group, events like the January 6 protests loom large. There is something disturbing not only in the violence of that day but also in images such as that of Richard Barnett, a retired firefighter and bullrider from Arkansas, propping one of his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. This view reflects trust in present authorities and suspicion of those who challenge them. It was expressed by those who supported restrictions on protest during the Covid lockdowns. It motivates efforts to censor online speech deemed “disinformation.” And it can be observed in the prosecutions of Donald Trump.

Members of the second group may agree that January 6 was a dishonorable episode and that Donald Trump committed various crimes. But they tend to think that such malfeasance is finally less dangerous than the possibility of collusion between national security officials and social-media executives to suppress, for instance, the Hunter Biden laptop story. Even as they oppose violent extremism, they worry about how the specter of it can be invoked to stifle dissent. They see less danger in the antics of political eccentrics than in unquestioning deference to public health authorities.

The second view has its limits. It’s hard to see how a society can function without some trust in authorities, and those who challenge them radically do profess some false and dangerous ideas. But on balance this view strikes me as the more reasonable. After 9/11, some conservative commentators warned that American liberties were at risk of being circumscribed by “creeping sharia.” But what posed a more direct threat to Americans’ freedom: the rulings of Islamic jurists, or the surveillance measures adopted in the name of national security? 

Not that the allegations against Donald Trump can simply be waved away. Each case must be judged on the merits, as must the legal argument that Trump is disqualified by the 14th Amendment. Further, it’s hard to say that Donald Trump—who once was and may once more be president—is a marginal actor. But the main abrogation of rights that occurred under his presidency was the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which was championed by long-serving bureaucrats and by politicians in both parties. It was at this moment, when Donald Trump complied with instead of defying the center, that Americans saw their freedom of assembly taken away.

According to the latest Gallup poll, only 28 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way their country’s democracy is working (in 1984, that number stood at 61 percent). Though there exists remarkable agreement that our democracy is dysfunctional, two radically different accounts are available concerning what its problems are. In the conventional account, democracy is menaced by external actors who seek to overturn its processes and replace its commitments to freedom and equality with illiberal ideas. Fear of these actors motivates attempts to police and restrict online speech, just as it motivated red scares in the past.

A different account of democracy’s problems can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, who believed that democratic societies were threatened less by external enemies than by their own internal dynamics. Tocqueville foresaw “an innumerable host of men, all alike and equal,” ruled over by “an immense and tutelary power” that does not directly tyrannize but saps men of their independence and individuality. As Stanley Payne, the historian of fascism, has suggested, this soft despotism may be “the real threat to democracy.” It is marked by a tendency to conformism rather than a flirtation with bizarre ideas. It wears a white lab coat rather than the Q Shaman’s fur and horns.

Defending democracy against this threat, Tocqueville concluded, required working to prevent “the social power from sacrificing lightly the particular rights of some individuals to the general execution of its designs.” Something closer to the opposite has marked the approach of today’s self-styled defenders of democracy.