Repeatedly throughout his presidency, Donald Trump exhibited many signs of authoritarianism — from attacking the independence and credibility of the legal system, attacking the free press, politicizing and weaponizing the Justice Department, calling his political opponents criminals, and violating basic norms of honesty and civility. After he lost the 2020 election, Trump engaged in a concerted effort to overturn the outcome in multiple states, and pressured Vice President Mike Pence to stop Congress from certifying the election result on January 6 (something Pence had no Constitutional authority to do). Reports emerging in recent months indicate that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, feared Trump might attempt a coup to remain in office.
Most Americans would say that it is our system of checks and balances that prevents authoritarianism from arising in the U.S. — in particular, Congress functioning as a check on a president with authoritarian impulses. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, though, that institutions alone cannot save democracy — the guardrails of democracy are what check would-be authoritarians, and ours are becoming dangerously weak. Wu claims that players in an “unwritten constitution” — state and local election officials, members of the justice department, the military — are what actually checked Trump.
Do you agree? Has our system of formal checks and balances weakened so much that it no longer can be counted on to thwart authoritarianism?