Tuesday’s election could pose an unprecedented challenge to American democracy. Donald J. Trump and many of his supporters may not accept the results. But this year’s presidential campaign has already entered uncharted territory. Unlike any other major party candidate in modern US history, Trump has openly and repeatedly attacked basic norms of our democracy — threatening to jail his opponent, calling on a hostile foreign power to hack her campaign, and questioning the legitimacy of the election on the demonstrably false grounds that it is “rigged.“
Republican Party leaders have seemed at a loss for how to respond to their candidate’s anti-democratic behavior. Focused on winning the election or avoiding the wrath of right-wing allies and the base, most GOP politicians have either grudgingly endorsed Trump or adopted a strategy of silence or ambiguity. Few prominent Republicans with a political future have fully broken with him.
If it continues through November 8, the Republicans’ strategy of equivocation could prove to be a tragic mistake. Should Trump question the legitimacy of the election’s outcome or condone extremism or violence in its aftermath, Republican leaders must set aside normal politics and join Democrats in finally drawing the line against such behavior — even at the risk of angering the party base.
Why is the Republican response so critical? The great political scientist Juan Linz devoted much of his career to understanding why and how established democracies die. Having spent years researching the reasons for the tragic collapse of democracy in 1930s Europe, Linz proposed a “litmus test,” a list of actions by politicians that can put democracy at risk. These warning signs include a refusal to unambiguously disavow violence, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of an elected government.
Donald Trump has clearly passed Linz’s anti-democratic litmus test. He has encouraged violence among supporters (offering to pay their legal fees), pledged to jail Hillary Clinton and take legal action against unfriendly media, and suggested that he might not accept the election results. Such acts are unprecedented among major American candidates, but they are precisely the kind of behavior that Linz and other scholars have identified as preceding democratic breakdown in interwar Europe. (Credit: AP Image/Chris O'Meara)