Maybe Donald Trump didn’t create an appetite for authoritarianism. Maybe an appetite for authoritarianism created Donald Trump.
Many of us in the media have portrayed Trump as a uniquely dangerous threat to democracy, an aspiring strongman with little regard for checks on executive power by other branches of government, the media or the Constitution. And many of us are shocked that Trump, through charisma alone, has managed to sell so many voters on this vision of an all-powerful presidency.
But truth is, voters didn’t require much convincing.
As documented by scholars Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Americans had become steadily more open to anti-democratic, autocratic ideas long before Trump tossed his red hat in the ring.
Recent decades have seen precipitous declines in trust in nearly every major U.S. institution. Still, many of us assumed that, underneath it all, faith in democracy itself held steady – that we are angry at so many entrenched institutions because they have fallen short of cherished democratic ideals.
Citizens of the United States – and other Western democracies, for that matter – have “become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives,” the authors find.
Foa and Mounk draw primarily on data from the long-running World Values Survey. For example, when asked whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, 9 percent of Americans said it was “fairly bad” or “very bad” in the mid-1990s, compared with 17 percent today.
In both periods, younger respondents were most likely to answer this way, and youth have become especially more anti-democratic over time. About one-sixth of those ages 16 to 24 pooh-poohed democracy in the mid-1990s. About one-fourth did in the more recent survey.
This is not merely an issue of branding. On questions that strike at the heart of democratic ideals, Americans – and especially younger Americans – have also grown more apathetic or outright hostile.
Consider attitudes on elections. As you might have guessed from voter turnout rates, 14 percent of baby boomers indicated that it is “unimportant” in a democracy for people to “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among millennials, the share was 26 percent.
Or consider civil rights. In recent years, 41 percent of older Americans said it is “absolutely essential” in a democracy that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” Just 32 percent of millennials said the same.
Perhaps more terrifying, over recent decades, the share of U.S. citizens who say it would be a “fairly good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule” has risen. In 1995, 1 in 16 people agreed with this statement; today, the share is 1 in 6.
Relatedly, in separate polling from Gallup, today the military is one of only two major U.S. institutions that a majority of Americans still has confidence in. (The other is the police.)
The World Values Survey data also indicates that the share of respondents who believe it would be better to have a “strong leader” who does not have to “bother with parliament and elections” has grown, from 24 percent in 1995 to 32 percent today.
On both this question and the one about military rule, young people were again more likely than older people to agree.
How to reconcile young people’s relative attraction to authoritarian policies but relative lack of interest in the candidate most openly peddling authoritarianism (Trump)?
Perhaps millennials like authority but want it to be in line with their own values (of pluralism and protection of minorities and the historically underprivileged, etc.). College campuses, after all, are rife with anecdotes of students’ illiberal appeals to pseudo-parental authority figures to sort out conflicts and police speech, costumes and party themes, in ways that were anathema to earlier youth cohorts.
Trump, of course, has also managed to alienate racial and ethnic minorities, which younger people are more likely to belong to. One could imagine another charismatic, Trump-like figure who differently defined the “out-group” at fault for the nation’s ills – the privileged rich, say – who could have similar sway over youths’ imaginations.
Maybe it’s been too long since democracy faced a truly existential threat, and so Americans have come to take it for granted. But these days it may be dangerous to assume democracy will always be the only game in town.
Catherine Rampell is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.