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Trump follows an authoritarian blueprint that threatens democracy

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The 2024 presidential election is now a rematch of the 2020 presidential election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Trump is doing well in the polls against Biden and, as America discovered in 2016, the former real estate tycoon shouldn’t be considered too extreme, dangerous or incompetent to be win the Electoral College and the executive branch.

The troublesome reality is that America is so divided and the system to pick a President is so loopy that it only takes a few thousand votes in the swing states to hand over the keys to the White House. Five states were won by less than three percentage points in the 2020 presidential election. These states include Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Despite the facts that Biden has strengthened the economy, done more than any other president to address climate change and has worked to protected American allies like Ukraine and Taiwan, he is lagging with many voters with concerns about his advanced age, a focus on border security and his commitment to a progressive agenda.

But Trump is open and unabashed as he details in public his plans to govern in a second term. The themes of “revenge” and “retribution” are central to his latest MAGA rallies. He is promising to be a “dictator” if he wins and unleashing a “bloodbath” if he doesn’t.

Trump is also promising a national abortion ban, deportation camps and the mass firings of federal employees with the intent to seize unchecked power to dismantle the democracy.

Trump’s promises follow a pattern of other strongmen who have overthrown their nations’ democracies. Since the end of World War II, democracies typically fell apart by coup d'état or through force. Today, however, they are increasingly eroding at the hands of democratically elected incumbents, who seize control by slowly chipping away at democratic institutions.

To better understand these developments, this book examines the role of personalist political parties, or parties that exist primarily to further their leader's career as opposed to promote a specific policy platform. Using original data capturing levels of personalism in the parties of democratically elected leaders from 1991 to 2020, The Origins of Elected Strongmen shows that the rise of personalist parties around the globe is facilitating the decline of democracy.

Personalist parties lack both the incentive and capacity to push back against a leader's efforts to expand executive power. As such, leaders backed by personalist parties are more likely to succeed in their efforts to dismantle institutional constraints on their rule. Such attacks on state institutions, in turn, reverberate throughout society, deepening political polarization and weakening supporters' commitment to democratic norms of behavior. In these ways, ruling party personalism erodes horizontal and vertical constraints on a leader, ultimately degrading democracy and raising the risk of democratic failure.


Erica Frantz is an associate professor of political science in Michigan State University’s Department of Political Science in the College of Social Science. She is an expert on authoritarian politics, democratization and the dynamics of political change. Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security and Joseph Wright of Pennsylvania State University have published the book “The Origins of Elected Strongmen,” which explores how parties that promote a leader’s personal agenda threaten democracy.

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*This interview will be recorded on Thursday, March 21, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi