Is America’s Democracy Ripe for a Dictatorship?

Why Andrew Sullivan thinks Trump may defeat Clinton for the U.S. presidency.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a picture with supporters at the end of a press conference with members of the New York Veteran Police Association in Staten Island, New York on April 17, 2016.
Donald Trump poses for a picture with supporters after a press conference with members of the New York Veteran Police Association in Staten Island, New York, on April 17.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

In New York magazine’s May 2 cover story, Andrew Sullivan writes that “when a democracy has ripened” to a maximally free state, as described by Plato, “a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.” That moment, Sullivan argues, may be upon America. Jacob Weisberg interviewed Andrew Sullivan about his article on an episode of the Slate Trumpcast. To listen to that podcast, click the player below:

A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Jacob Weisberg: This was a fantastic piece. I think it’s one of the most important things written about the phenomenon of Trump. But the really striking thing about it is that you see Trump not just as a dangerous politician or as a demagogue, but a threat to the survival of American democracy.

Andrew Sullivan: I do think that his general attitude, his general understanding of how to exercise power, is inimical to the American idea. The American idea is that power should be dispersed and that there should be no king.

And yet he himself seems incapable of believing he could ever have any such a position except that of a monarch of some sort. He has no real understanding of a non–zero-sum engagement. And so the idea of sharing power, or being checked by other branches of government, or even checked by the press seems anathema to him. And I think when you have someone with that kind of temperament walking into our constitutional system, you are kind of setting yourself up for a constitutional crisis.

If there’s a founding idea of America, it’s that monarchy is unacceptable. You and I hear in everything Donald Trump says that he is the would-be dictator. That those are his instincts. Why do so many of his supporters not hear that monarchical tone in his speech?

Well, I think some of them do and like it. And some of them just don’t take him seriously. There’s something that I’ve noticed in people who support him is just that they will say they support him, but then they say, “Well, I don’t really think he’s going to be able to do all those things he says.”

And there is a sense also that he himself by completely reversing himself within minutes on what might appear to be solid platform planks also kind of adds a sort of element of unseriousness to his policy proposals. But I think both are compatible in a way. The vagueness about policy is simply because he’s not interested in policy. What he’s interested in is power. And I think it was [Trump campaign chairman] Paul Manafort who said, he’ll deal with policy after he gets elected, but we’re not going to debate that before.

So he’s really, really interested in the wielding of his own power. And that’s not the American way. It’s not a democratic way of being. It’s an anti-democratic notion of being. And I think there’s also an element in the culture in which Washington is viewed as entirely broken. And therefore they want to blow it up and use this guy to blow it up.

And then to do whatever he wants. And so I think that at the root of this is a very un-American desire to abolish self-government. To say, OK, we live in such a divided, fractured, polarized society, we can’t really solve our own problems through our traditional constitutional processes. We’ll elect this tyrant and he will just do it somehow.

When you use these terms like un-American, undemocratic, neo-fascist, you’re really picking up on something that is new with Trump in modern American politics, which is violence and the threat of violence as part of the campaign. Talk about how Trump has brought violence into American politics in a way that isn’t precedented.

We’ve had plenty of rowdy and difficult public meetings in the history of American politics. Goodness knows, extraordinary levels. And in modern times, too. But the one thing you’ve also always had when a protester stands up, or a heckler tries to shut something down, the speaker, whoever he or she is, and whatever office they’re running for, will generally say something like this: I respect your views. This is a free country. You can air this. But please, allow me to respond. And if they don’t respond, or if they start being cantankerous, they say, Well look, we’re going to ask security to come and take you away. And that is what we have as a civil democratic norm. And what he says in contrast is, Look at this person. What a disgusting person this is. I would like—and I’m directly quoting—to punch that person in the face. I want that person to be carried out on a stretcher as in the old days. I want violence inflicted upon people who are protesting or heckling me.

That is an extraordinarily new thing in American politics. It’s anathema to a tradition of civil discourse. But what it says in the end is that whatever differences we have, in the end they will be resolved by force. Not by persuasion. And that is a core violation of a basic democratic norm. And that’s the basis of our civilization.

So there’s an old-fashioned kind of mob rule, which is these rallies that turn violent and where he encourages the violent. But there’s a new kind of mob rule, which is this digital social media mob rule.

And then the people who dare speak up or out about him are then deluged with staggering amounts of invective and vile and hatred. I think of someone like [journalist] Julia Ioffe. I must say that one of the things that’s interested me both in Julia’s case, and in some other conservative cases, is the rank anti-Semitism that’s also out there now. Which, of course, you would understand from this kind of movement.

But that is also the forefront of most of the attacks. This is mob rule of an extraordinarily esoteric variety, but it definitely chills free speech. It chills the criticism of our public officials. And thereby deeply weakens our democracy.

I have to say, my jaw dropped when I saw the headline on Breitbart calling Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.” I mean, I don’t think Trump is himself an anti-Semite, but he’s sure bringing it out of the woodwork.

Oh yeah. But again, we shouldn’t miss that the anti-Muslim rhetoric is in a different border. Again, we talk about America, it seems to me as an immigrant to America that essential part of America, the reason it was founded in some ways was religious liberty at its very origins.

That you come here, you can worship whichever god you want, or none. And that this is a country that won’t judge you or have any laws or any restrictions upon that fundamental liberty. And yet his fundamental campaign promise is to deny anyone of a particular faith entrance to the United States. That’s an abolition of America. Similarly with torture. For a long time, it was a complete bedrock principle of the West that we do not subject human beings to torture of any kind. Now, this has been obviously breached and was fatally breached under the Bush administration.

Breached, but never acknowledged.

No, never fully acknowledged. But I think, you know, the senate report is pretty damning in this respect. But the difference here is that having opened that door a crack, Trump has just broken the door open entirely by saying not as Cheney would, that we’re not torturing in any way, that if we are torturing, we’re doing it because we have no other way to get intelligence.

Trump says, We should torture. Torture is great. And the point is torture is to terrify and intimidate our enemies. In other words, his view of torture is exactly that of ISIS. It is a demonstrative performative act of cruelty. And I think that’s the element in him that’s truly disturbing is that his hatred for the weak, his contempt for anybody who isn’t as strong as he is, or as he imagines himself to be. I find it inimical to my entire moral worldview.

It seems to me the one thing you can judge a person by is how he or she treats someone with less power than him or her. And it’s quite clear that he believes in punching down in a way that really reflects his massive insecurity.

He doesn’t believe there is any up to punch.

No, of course. No, he doesn’t. But nonetheless, the people he does punch tend to be vulnerable to him.

You argue that this is happening now not just because there’s this vile monster, Donald Trump. You actually call him a monster. I thought it was a well-chosen term. But because American democracy has become more susceptible to it. And the reason it has become more susceptible to someone like this is because it’s been getting more democratic. Can you explain what you’re talking about, about America getting too democratic?

I think there was always a concern among the founders that what they wanted to construct in America was not a pure, direct democracy, which they understood would be subject to the whims and passions and fads of the popular majority at any one particular moment. Now this may not be a very popular thing to say today, but it does seem to me important that there be some place for the will of the mob, for the will of the pure democratic majority to be restrained, to be channeled into more productive and less dangerous forms. And what’s happened through the democratization of media, through the collapse of elites in terms of the political parties, and through the further democratization of the Senate, and now actually having Supreme Court literally put up for election, in which the Republicans are currently saying even the Supreme Court should be subject to democratic rule really by the parties.

This is not what the founders intended. And so the safeguards that we used to have against an individual like this have been weakened or removed, so that if we could imagine him winning, and I think to be honest with you, I think he’s more likely to win at this point than Clinton.


Yes. I mean, I can’t prove that. That’s my instinct at this point, because he owns the narrative.

But were he to win, I think obviously he’d bring the House with him, probably the Senate, and then would have the Supreme Court. So there’d be nothing to stand between him and the people. And that’s a very dangerous position, especially when this individual is proposing a trade war with our biggest trade partners. He is proposing a reign of terror in the Middle East, at least demonstratively to smash, or destroy, or to cut the head off, whatever metaphors he uses, ISIS. But I don’t think he would sit back and pursue the current strategy. These are extraordinarily radical changes against which we would have almost no defense.

There was a response to your piece from our old friend Michael Lind I saw in the New York Times. And he said, “Well, America is not becoming more democratic. In fact, if you’re an ordinary person in America, you feel our process getting less democratic, and that you have less and less power over outcomes, and less and less sense that you have any control, which is the explanation of Trump.”

Well, yes, but I think that is true in one way, in the sense that the globalization that we’re experiencing, which really has occurred since the end of the Cold War. The fact that we did actually go through the democratic processes and pass NAFTA, for example. That has had a huge effect on the American economy in a way that America itself as a nation can’t fully control. And I think those of us who were very much for NAFTA need to be more cognizant that its political and cultural and social impact has been much graver than we thought it might have been, or would be.

But that’s not the same thing as having no ability to influence your political agenda, the world you live in. And as I try and point out, in general what’s been powering this election, what empowered the last two elections, is small-D democracy in the sense that Obama won twice through small donations against existing elite power structures.

Bernie Sanders, who rails constantly about how big money prevents democracy taking place, has had an extraordinary run in the primaries and has built a huge online and physical army of supporters, again, without big money, without a super PAC. And you see the people who represent elites as much not doing at all well, staggering under the onslaught of these popular currents.

So, yes, I can understand why some feel powerless in the wake of technological and trading change, but I don’t think it is proven that that can’t be addressed within our current system. In fact, I think it’s been addressed more potently than I remember in a very long time.

You said we should stop beating up on the Republicans that were trying to stop Trump. It was maybe still possible to stop Trump when you wrote your piece. Leave us with some hope here. What’s the scenario? You’ve left me very depressed.

I’ve been so depressed. I’ve been barely able to get out of bed. Here’s what I’m trying to believe. I would have hope, to be honest with you, if the alternative was not Hillary Clinton. And I’m not saying this as a Hillary hater, although I am one.

But you have no qualms about supporting her under the circumstances. And the Republicans have been—one of the things that surprised me a little bit is there are a lot of prominent Republicans who agree with just about everything you’ve said and have said it in terms nearly as strong, and they still stop short of saying they’re going to vote for Hillary Clinton. They say they’re not going to vote, or they’re not sure what they’re going to do, or they’re going to look for an alternative that doesn’t exist. What’s wrong with Hillary Clinton? She’s not the end of the world if the alternative is Donald Trump.

She’s not. And that’s why I have no qualms in supporting her if that’s what it is.

That’s what it is.

Well, we don’t know yet if a third party, if a third option is available. I know that some people are seriously trying to figure that out. The fact that there’s no space between me and Bill Kristol on this is somewhat sobering. But nonetheless, I do think that the only way she could win is by splitting the non-Democratic vote. And if they can do it, and I think it’s their patriotic duty to try.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.