Donald Trump's threats of violence cross a crucial line
No one can accuse Donald Trump of respecting democratic niceties.
In the two short years that he has held the U.S. presidency, Trum; has vowed to crush the re-election hopes of those in his own Republican party who don’t support him, threatened to jail his former political opponent Hillary Clinton, sullied the reputation of U.S. intelligence services, undermined the independence of the judiciary and Justice Department, cozied up to the world’s most dangerous dictators, and incited physical violence against both the media and dissenters at his rallies.
But this past week he crossed a line that even his greatest supporters must condemn if they believe in democracy: He threatened his political opponents with violence.
“I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” he warned.
The quote, which sounded as if it came from a military dictator rather than the president of a leading democracy, understandably alarmed many.
“What happens if Trump loses in 2020?” the Liberal advocacy group Public Citizen tweeted about Trump’s quote on the right-wing website Breitbart News. “Is that the ‘certain point?’ ”
Indeed, Public Citizen isn’t the first to raise the alarm that Trump might try to overturn a democratic result that wasn’t in his favour.
As reported by the Star’s Daniel Dale, in February his former lawyer Michael Cohen testified to Congress that, “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
That same month a respected human rights watchdog, Freedom House, sounded the alarm that Trump is not just threatening the survival of democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary and a free press, but the very “legitimacy of elections.”
In fact, Trump appears to be following the playbook of leaders in countries like Hungary and Venezuela who have subverted democracy, according to Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz:
“His attacks on the judiciary and the press, his resistance to anti-corruption safeguards, and his unfounded claims of voting fraud by the opposition are all familiar tactics to foreign autocrats and populist demagogues who seek to subvert checks on their power.”
Still, if there is hope it is in the very democratic institutions Trump is trying to undermine.
According to Steven Levitsky, who co-wrote with Daniel Ziblatt,democratic institutions in the U.S. are, happily, much more resilient than those in Hungary and Venezuela.
Indeed, the threat Trump poses to democracy is probably the very reason Democrats won control of the House of Representatives last fall. And those members are now acting to check the president’s powers.
Still, if there is anything to be learned from Levitsky’s and Ziblatt’s book, it is this: Democrats must be careful not to play into Trump’s hands by adopting “scorched earth” tactics that can “erode support for the opposition by scaring off moderates.”
“When the opposition fights dirty, it provides the government with justification for cracking down,” they write.
And now that Trump has made it clear he is willing to enlist the military, police and even bikers to crack down on political opponents there is all the more reason for his opponents to follow Levitsky and Ziblatt’s advice and “preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms.”
In other words, the way forward is not to counter threats with threats and violence with violence, but to strengthen democratic institutions and embrace vigorous, but respectful, debate.
It’s now up to other Republicans to join forces with Democrats to show they won’t let democracy be further eroded in the United States by a dangerous bully. After all, no one but Trump wins if it is further damaged.