Brian Klaas: Trump has "exposed the weakness of American democracy" — but there's hope

Author of "The Despot's Apprentice" on Trump's "existential threat" to democracy and the growing risk of violence

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 23, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

Donald Trump is a human maelstrom of chaos, disorder, lies and destruction — as has at least partly been exposed by Tuesday's damaging Capitol Hill testimony from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

Trump’s supporters are addicted to the chaos and lies. They too want to “burn it all down”. Trump and his supporters are the political beast with two backs, linked forever by insatiable lust.

The recent examples are too numerous to fully detail and list. Trump has encouraged and aided ethnic cleansing, and possible genocide, against the Kurds in Syria. He has engaged in multiple abuses of power, including obstruction of justice. He has tried to bribe and extort the Ukrainian president. He has violated the emoluments clause of the United States Constitution in any number of ways. He has ordered administration officials not to comply with subpoenas issued by Congress. He has spread racist or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He has threatened violence against leading Democrats, the news media and others who dare to criticize him.

Nonwhite migrants and refugees continue to be abused in Donald Trump’s concentration camps and by his enforcers in the Border Patrol and ICE.

New reporting by William Cohan at Vanity Fair suggests that Trump, may be manipulating the stock market for his (or his friends’) personal financial gain. Given Trump’s overall profligate nature, greed and utter disregard for the law, the possibility that the president of the United States is involved in such a brazen criminal scheme is not as preposterous as it should be.

Ultimately, it would be better for the United States and the world right now if we replaced Donald Trump with nobody and nothing. A power vacuum is infinitely preferable to this human chaos machine.

Given his statements and deeds, will there be violence if Donald Trump is removed from office? How is Trump's regime weakening the United States abroad and encouraging global chaos including the possibility of major new wars? What types of reforms are necessary to prevent someone like Donald Trump from taking power in the United States ever again? And then, a terrifying question: If Donald Trump is re-elected in 2020 will American democracy survive?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Brian Klaas. He is an assistant professor of global politics at University College London and the author of several books, including "The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy" and "The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy." His most recent book (written with Nic Cheeseman) is "How to Rig an Election."

In September, The Washington Post featured Klaas’ widely-read op-ed “Everyone knows the 2020 election will be divisive. But will it also be violent?”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Brian Klaas through the player embedded below.

Several weeks ago you wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post where you shared your concerns about how Donald Trump may inspire political violence, especially if he loses the 2020 election. Given the recent developments with impeachment, how do you feel about your earlier assessment?

The only addendum I would add is that the dynamics I spoke about in the Washington Post essay regarding the election and violence could be moved forward as volatility around the impeachment proceedings. It's also worrying to hear some prominent right-wing voices like Ben Shapiro and Roger Stone talk openly about the risk of violence if they don't get their way on certain things. Even flirting with endorsing violence can cause people on the fringes to view that as a call to arms, and that's very, very dangerous.

At this point in Trump’s presidency, are matters better or worse than you expected?

There are two levels of analysis. On one hand, in 2017 when I wrote "The Despot's Apprentice," I said that if the next election, meaning the 2018 midterms, went the right way, that there was a good fighting chance for American democracy to be salvageable and to not suffer serious damage from the Trump presidency.

Of course the 2018 midterms did not go perfectly, but they went the right way in the sense that the Democrats got a key foothold by taking back the House. Consider the last few weeks: If voters hadn't shown up in 2018 and given Democrats formal power in the House of Representatives ,Republicans would have buried the Ukraine call. The Republicans would have buried all of Trump’s scandals. And Trump’s behavior would be even worse without any checks on him.

So, on the one hand, that is a very positive story. On the other hand, America is still not out of the woods yet, because Donald Trump could get away with all of his misconduct in the form of not being impeached or removed from office. Trump could also get re-elected. What I really worry about is how Donald Trump will respond if he gets voter endorsement by getting re-elected. Because, as authoritarian figures do, he tends to ratchet up his behavior as soon as he gets away with something. Trump tests the limits, gets away with it, matters get worse, Trump then repeats the cycle. It is going to be a very long year or so until the 2020 presidential election.

Did the Mueller report and its outcome actually encourage Donald Trump and his apparent lawbreaking and other assaults on American democracy?

If you read the Mueller report, it is extraordinarily damning. It outlines a horrific series of abuses of power, obstruction of justice, and Trump’s willingness to play with national security for his own personal gain. The framers worried about all of those things. But for Trump and for his acolytes, the Mueller report somehow exonerated him. And the way that Attorney General William Barr spun the report with his memo, I hate to say it, was brilliant. It worked extremely well as a political tactic. It set the narrative in a way that the Democrats didn't have a good counter for.

And so by getting away with that, Donald Trump appeared to be vindicated. It's not a surprise that the Ukraine call comes right after this period in which Trump believes that he's gotten away with the Mueller investigation.

The question then becomes, “OK, let's imagine Trump survives impeachment? What's the next thing where he feels vindicated? What's the next thing where he ratchets up his bad behavior?" There are already many other matters that we are not aware of, given the pattern of behavior from Trump’s White House. What the world has seen from Trump when the curtains have been pulled back just a little bit is horrifying.

I'm not confident that we're out of the woods in terms of future abuses if Donald Trump feels, as he did with the Mueller report, that he's been vindicated by the Ukraine scandal.

How do these claims about Donald Trump being a de facto king or emperor, through the “unitary executive theory,” fit into your research on how democracies fail and then become authoritarian regimes?

In authoritarian governments, particularly when they were democracies before, the regime consolidates power by slowly co-opting institutions to work for the leader rather than for the country or the citizens. That is happening even more rapidly under Trump than even I anticipated with this Ukraine scandal.

Two major institutions of United States policy have been co-opted for Trump's personal and political gain. That is, rule of law through the Department of Justice as well as United States foreign policy. Barr is going around the world trying to get allies to basically discredit U.S. intelligence agencies and U.S. federal investigators from the FBI because he thinks it would help Trump undermine the Mueller report. At the same time Barr is doing that he is also using his full weight of his office as attorney general to try to protect Donald Trump by going after Trump's political rivals.

Donald Trump is shamelessly using U.S. foreign policy and national security as a bargaining chip in order to force and leverage investigations of political opponents. This is absolute textbook behavior in an authoritarian regime. The way that you go after your rivals, if you're a despot in an authoritarian regime, is by basically bending the institutions to work for you against them. In countries where corruption is rampant, only the president's rivals get investigated and prosecuted for corruption. In the developing world, anti-corruption crackdowns are really purges of the authoritarian leader’s enemies.

Are you surprised by how Trump’s norm-breaking has become so normalized so quickly?

The American people appears to be numb to Trump’s behavior. Trump has recently suggested that Joe Biden should be put in the electric chair. He's called Adam Schiff treasonous, implying, therefore, that he should be executed. Trump has threatened Nancy Pelosi the same way. It's not even a news story. Trump’s threats of murder and violence are objectively the most insane behavior of any U.S. president in history, at least in modern history, and it's just a blip on the radar.

The news stories that traditionally define presidencies are now the news stories that define one hour on Monday morning until the next what-was-once-unthinkable thing happens. That is the death of accountability, because if you can behave in such a way as Trump is behaving and the American people don't even pay attention for longer than an hour until the next crazy tweet, then you can get away with anything because you know it's just a ratcheting effect where you shock people.

And if you keep shocking the public and the news media and other institutions of society, then they all become used to it. The unthinkable becomes routine. And then the unthinkable that became routine is no longer unthinkable. The leader and the regime then have to do something even more egregious and extreme to get press attention. And that's what Trump is doing. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.

How does "state capture theory" help to explain Trump’s political corruption, such as brazen violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution -- and that of his inner circle and other allies?

The organs of the state are being co-opted for Trump's personal gain. Personal financial interests are now the national interest. There are two angles to this. The one is that obviously Trump is corrupt. He's getting paid off and it is negatively impacting U.S. national security. It's hurting U.S. diplomacy.

I believe that there is a realistic possibility that if the transcripts of the Trump call with the Saudis are made public — and if it's at all around the time that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered — that Trump telegraphed that he wasn't going to go after the Saudis for committing that heinous act. And then of course you have the murky business interests of $270,000 being funneled through Trump’s hotel to him shortly after the inauguration. There are also the bailouts of Trump’s yachts in the 1990s, when a Saudi prince bought them.

Now, with Donald Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and effectively abandon the Kurds, the American people and the world do not know where the next national security crisis is going to be. We are left hoping that such a crisis and the country’s reaction to it, policy-wise, does not conflict with Trump's personal financial interests.

In 1941, the world would have been very different if Franklin D. Roosevelt had “Roosevelt Tower Berlin” and “Roosevelt Tower Tokyo.”

The fact that Donald Trump does not have a coherent ideology of foreign policy, but does have financial interests dotted around the globe, means that every time there's a decision to be made, one must credibly ask, “Is Donald Trump making a decision for the United States' national interests, or is he instead making a decision for his own selfish personal or political interests?"

What does Trump’s ability to continually assault democracy, with few if any repercussions from the American people, reveal about the country’s character?

I think the two great disappointments of the Trump era are the lack of backbone from Congress and the lack of pushback in the streets in terms of peaceful protest. The Trump presidency — if it sustains itself for eight years in total — is an existential threat to American democracy as we know it.

We have to have some introspection about the character of our democracy. There are children being abused at the U.S.-Mexico border. Life and death decisions are being made with corrupt intent by the president. There is one Trump scandal after another. Yet there are not spontaneous mass protests. There are not mass marches.

The last one that was really spontaneous and big was the “Muslim ban” protests, early on in his presidency, where people showed up at airports. I do not know why that has not happened since. Maybe the American people feel that they've just been beaten into submission by the helplessness they feel under this Trump presidency. It is a very disappointing thing that here in the United States we have to question ourselves on why the barrier to action, even in taking to the streets to protest, seems so high for so many millions of people.

How can we create a politics in America that empowers people to believe that it's worth protesting? Because right now it is not happening.

The one silver lining of the Trump presidency — whether it ends soon through impeachment or in 2020 at the ballot box — is that I hope there are a range of reforms that will be passed in the next Congress to change democracy for the better. Donald Trump has certainly exposed many of the weaknesses of America's democracy as it presently exists.

What are some of those specific reforms?

One of them is ethics: Presidential divestment should be the law. It is obviously clear that a president should never be able to make a national security decision at a time when he has financial stakes in play. Mandatory release of tax returns should also be enacted. The American people need to know what the financial entanglements are for somebody who's going to be making the country’s foreign and domestic policy.

Restrictions on a president’s pardon power need to be considered. The idea that the president can simply sign a paper and absolve anybody of criminal wrongdoing should be re-evaluated.

The crucial Department of Justice memo from the 1970s that says a sitting president cannot be indicted needs to be changed. There is the cliché that nobody is above the law in the United States. If that memo is the law of the land, then that is not in fact true. It is understandable that one would want to protect the president from frivolous lawsuits while he or she is in office. But if things rise to the level of credible allegations of serious felony wrongdoing, then the president should be indictable.

Donald Trump has done things in public that would have ended almost any other American presidency. He publicly enlists hostile foreign powers and others to interfere in elections on his behalf. He makes clear allusions to the violence and death that will be suffered by his political enemies. And of course, the obstruction of justice, the corruption, the conspiracy theories, the overt racism and white supremacy, the sexual assault allegations, etc. But Trump then accuses the Democrats and other people who dare to stand up against him of those same things. It is classic psychological projection. It is also shrewd political strategy.

It's a very smart strategy. It's the core of how disinformation works. Disinformation is separate from misinformation. Misinformation is false information. Disinformation is deliberately false information that's spread with an agenda behind it.

Trump's disinformation campaign relies on human psychology, where even hearing something that is not true and being told it's not true raises a nugget of possibility in a person’s mind that it could in fact be true.

This means that there is a risk in debunking Trump's lies that by doing so the lies are actually reinforced. Fact-checking, for people who start with a belief that something is true and then are told it's not, sometimes actually may end up driving a stronger belief in the incorrect information and lie. There is a large amount of political science research on that phenomenon.

If people don't know what's true and what's false, then they don't believe that what the press says is necessarily true. That provides a level of protection for a president who is constantly being exposed in the press for genuine wrongdoing.

You do many interviews with the international press. What is the view of America from abroad right now?

There is a lot of variation in the U.S. press in terms of how they have dealt with the Trump presidency. There is everything from "Fox & Friends," which is just a dangerous joke of journalism, all the way to genuine interviewers who will press Trump and his allies hard on their lies.

In the U.S. media, there is a temptation to try to be seen as balanced rather than as objective. For example, when the Department of Justice calls Trump "Individual One" in committing a criminal conspiracy — a felony regarding Stormy Daniels's hush money payments — the starting point in international news is not, "Is this good or bad?" The starting point is the fact that the president of the United States committed a crime.

If you were to explain to the average American why events abroad in places such as Turkey, Syria, the Ukraine and elsewhere should matter to them, what would you say?

I would tell them that the world is a very dangerous place. When you think about geopolitical risks, some really bad things can happen. We have not had World War III. World War III did not happen because the better angels of our nature have taken over and caused countries to be benevolent and cooperative, but rather because we built a system that prevents such a horrible thing from happening. America has had sound leadership, such that when we lurched towards those moments of international crisis we pulled back, acting in a sane way, and did the right thing.

The real problem with Trump's foreign policy is that it is completely rudderless. It is driven by self-interest. Donald Trump is ill-equipped to understand how much risk he's playing with. We have nuclear weapons at play in North Korea. We have the possibility of a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe to a greater degree than has already happened in Ukraine. We have the risk of the Middle East going into a regional war that drags in world powers and starts World War III. These are not far-fetched scenarios.

Matters can get much worse in America and around the world. I would tell the average American that you might be pissed off about how politics functions today. You might be pissed off about the state of the world. You might be upset about the fact that the way the world economy is working has screwed over quite a lot of people. Those are all legitimate grievances, but it can get much worse. That's not an inspiring rallying call, but it is a reason to pay attention because we live in an extremely dangerous world.

Donald Trump has been extraordinarily lucky. Foreign relations and global affairs are a type of ticking time bomb, in the sense that there are always massive international crises that we, the United States, do not necessarily create but that happen on a president's watch. Trump has not had one yet. But how long is that luck going to last? What's going to happen when Trump’s luck runs out and we have this man as president who is delusional, unhinged, dangerous and willing to sacrifice just about anything to save himself? What happens when those massive crises come to America and Donald Trump is president?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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