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The Erosion of Democracy: Trump's Ascent and the Urgent Need for Norm Restoration

The Erosion of Democracy: Trump's Ascent and the Urgent Need for Norm Restoration


6 January 2024


“How Democracies Die” states the following. In the tumultuous landscape of modern politics, the rise of Donald Trump to power stands out as a stark example of how changes in the political landscape can have profound consequences for democracy. The confluence of factors, such as the dramatic increase in outside money, the explosion of alternative media, and the ineffectiveness of traditional gatekeepers, played a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of Trump’s political ascent.

One of the first signs of Trump’s unorthodox style was his aggressive attack on Hillary Clinton in August 2016. This marked a departure from the traditional norms of political discourse, setting the tone for a campaign that would challenge established conventions.

Had the Republican Leadership not thrown its support behind Trump, history might have taken a different course. This underscores the importance of established political players (gatekeepers) in either reinforcing or resisting the forces that can undermine democratic values.

Leaders do not always come to power with a clear plan to become autocrats. History provides examples like Alberto Fujimori, whose descent into authoritarianism began with the use of words. Other notable examples include Tayyip Erdoğan, Hugo Chávez, and Juan Peron. These leaders often exploit the democratic system they initially rise within, gradually dismantling institutions meant to serve as checks on their power.

A common strategy employed by authoritarians is to capture the referee―the institutions that safeguard democratic norms. This involves replacing independent officials and civil servants with loyalists, influencing judges, or bypassing the courts when necessary. Financial control is also a powerful tool, as autocrats seek to weaken potential opponents by buying them off or undermining their sources of support.

In the media realm, elected autocrats limit opposition voices by influencing or silencing them. The erosion of democracy often includes self-censorship by media outlets and the weakening of business leaders who might finance opposition efforts. The book highlights instances from around the world, including Malaysia, but intriguingly omits Singapore, a strong case of an elected autocrat.

The authors argue that people tend to be more supportive of authoritarian leaders during times of crisis. Some leaders, therefore, go so far as to create or exaggerate crises to consolidate power. The case of Chile is explored as an example of how crises can be manipulated for political gain.

The book delves into the unwritten laws of American democracy, revealing a system based on exclusion. Democrats and Republicans once had much in common, viewing each other as political rivals rather than existential threats. However, both parties have polarized over time, making it challenging to establish mutual toleration and forbearance.

Norms serve as a soft guardrail for democracy; their breakdown expands the zone of acceptable political behavior, potentially imperiling democratic values. The call to action is clear: Americans must restore and extend basic norms throughout their diverse society, fostering a truly inclusive, multiracial, and genuinely democratic nation. In doing so, they can safeguard the foundations of democracy and navigate the challenges posed by evolving political landscapes.

Read the above text now and replace “America” with “Curaçao.” What signals do we then receive? Here, too, we see the replacement of individuals with loyalists, self-censorship in the media, and the significant role of financiers. The point is that there is ample reason to be vigilant in Curaçao.


Miguel Goede

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