Will Trump do lasting damage to American democratic institutions? He has repeatedly broken norms during his presidency and tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. How much is the U.S. undergoing democratic backsliding and what did his presidency reveal about the strength and limits of our institutions? Brendan Nyhan is an organizer of Bright Line Watch, an effort to survey experts and the public to track the erosion of democratic norms under Trump. He finds significant signs of weakness but acknowledges the many future unknowns. In this special year-end conversational edition, we review the damage and the evidence.
Guests: Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth
Studies: Bright Line Watch
Matt Grossmann: How much did Trump undermine American democracy for good, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Donald Trump has broken democratic norms throughout his presidency in words and deeds, and tried to impede and overturn the results of the 2020 election. How much significant democratic backsliding did he create? And what did his presidency reveal about the strength and limits of our institutions? This week, I’m joined by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and The Upshot for a special conversational edition. He’s an organizer of Bright Line Watch, an effort to survey experts and the public about American democratic norms, tracking their erosion. He finds significant signs of weakness, many of which are likely to last. I have an ever-so-slightly more optimistic view, so you’ll hear me interject more than usual. Here’s our conversation, which also offers a bit of 2020 year in review and post-election retrospective.
Bright Line Watch has been going for 13 waves of expert surveys and 11 waves of the public surveys. What are the biggest things you’ve learned and the biggest surprises?
Brendan Nyhan: Well, we’ve learned a lot about the state of US democracy, both the good news and the bad news. I think we’re really proud of the data that we’ve been able to put together tracking the status of US democracy over this time period. We’ve never had such high-frequency data, both in terms of perceptions of US democracy among the public, and perceptions of US democracy among political science experts too. So I think that’s a important resource. And it’s given us an anchor. There’s no objective measurable way to directly assess democracy as such, how well is it working? But we think it gives an important window into how things have developed during the Trump presidency. So we’re very proud of that.
I think what I’ve learned from it is just how multidimensional democracy is in the fullest sense. The full idea of liberal democracy that has this bundle that includes the rule of law, constraints on the use of power, and the exercise of influence by the public at the ballot box and through public opinion’s effect on elected representatives and so forth, that full bundle is quite complex. And thinking about its status is not an easy thing. So it’s been really helpful to me to disaggregate that and to think about all these different aspects. And then when we talk about the state of US democracy, to be specific, do we think US democracy is improving or worsening? And if so, in what areas? In what ways? And so I think we’ve been able to be more precise about that.
Matt Grossmann: So it sounds like you started thinking that there were bright lines that we might cross or not cross, but ended up thinking that it was a lot more complicated than a clear line. So talk about how this developed and where you think you succeeded and failed.
Brendan Nyhan: Yeah. I don’t want to say that we haven’t crossed any bright lines, because we’ve crossed a lot more lines than I thought were possible to cross. I guess that’s a bit convoluted. But I’m struck by how much has happened since we started this project in early 2017. It’s been a long process. What the Bright Line Watch helps us do is to see how far we’ve come. So we clearly started it because we were worried about the state of US democracy after what we saw during the 2016 campaign. President Trump, then candidate Trump, repeatedly violated norms as a candidate in a way we hadn’t seen before in modern American political history. Bright Line Watch was started by my colleagues, Sue Stokes at The University of Chicago, Gretchen Helmke at the University of Rochester, and my colleague here at Dartmouth, John Kerry. I later joined the project to track the state of US democracy, given that President Trump had won and would be entering office.
So I think we’ve been successful at documenting just how far we’ve come, and how many lines have been crossed, and in what areas. So we can now see with the benefit of hindsight not just that experts think US democracy has declined since President Trump entered as a candidate and then took office, but we’ve seen in particular the areas in which they think US democracy has declined. In particular, judicial constraints on the executive, legislative constraints on the executive, Constitutional constraints on the executive, toleration of protest, and refraining from using government agencies to punish your political opponents. So those are important principles of democracy. They’re not the only ones, but those are the ones that really stand out over time as areas where experts have identified deterioration that we’ve seen during the time that we’ve been tracking the Trump administration.
Matt Grossmann: So, yeah. Let’s do an exercise where we talk about the most alarming, the least alarming, both in the types of lines, but also in the characterization of the story. So let’s start out with the most alarmist possible version of the story. Where are the clear cases where Donald Trump has violated democratic norms and undermined democracy in the US that stand the most chance of lasting?
Brendan Nyhan: I think his ongoing attack on the peaceful transfer of power is the most obvious and important case. Our experts rate it as the most important of the highly abnormal acts that have taken place during the Trump presidency. The peaceful transfer of power is central to democracy itself. Trump has refused to accept the legitimacy of his defeat. He’s encouraging his followers to view the election as illegitimate. He’s scheming ways to overturn the election result. And he’s encouraging a generation of Republican elected officials to emulate these tactics in the future, which I think could be incredibly destructive even if he leaves the political scene after this election, which doesn’t appear to be likely. But at some point, he will leave.
His legacy, though, could be calling into question something that had never been called into question in my lifetime. High-ranking officials in the military have to disavow the prospect of them becoming involved in determining the outcome of an American election. No one does that in Denmark. No one does that in stable, consolidated democracies. The fact that the military has to say, “No. We’re not involved in determining who wins this election,” is itself a profound violation of democratic norms. Similarly, the president holding an election where … Declaring martial law or seizing voting machines is being contemplated, and is a profound violation of democratic norms, an infraction which should lead to the immediate impeachment and removal from office of any president who contemplates using martial law to overturn the results of an election.
So I think this whole series of events is incredibly alarming. Trump will not succeed. Joe Biden will be sworn in on January 20th. But it has expanded the set of possibilities and destabilized the expectations around the peaceful transfer of power in a way that I think is quite corrosive.
Matt Grossmann: Those sound pretty Trump-specific, though. I mean, is it he could inspire generations, but they might also see it as a long, failed effort that looks foolish in retrospect? So what are the biggest signs that these are permanent shifts? Is it just that the actions are norm-breaking and norm-creating? Or have there been real changes to our institutions that are likely to be permanent?
Brendan Nyhan: This is the paradox of Trump. Most of his norm violations are rhetorical and not institutional. So we have to decide how much they matter. It’s very much a fair point to say that Donald Trump didn’t accomplish very much when it came to policy. And most of what he did accomplish was conventional Republican policy or political goals, like cutting taxes and installing conservative judges. In an institutional sense, he was often a very conventional Republican president. But these rhetorical acts are not without meaning and substance. He has established a hold over the Republican Party that is going to shape the incentives of elected officials going forward. It’s going to provide an important signal to those ambitious politicians who want to hold and achieve power that this is the way to inspire support and loyalty from their base.
I think we underestimate the way that Trump can help determine the future of American politics through the party system. It’s not the same as changing institutional rules or policies in the short term. But if he’s changing the character of the Republican Party in the short to medium term, that’s incredibly important. Who’s going to run for secretary of state in Republican primaries in battleground states in the future? And who’s going to be nominated coming out of those races? Who’s going to win primaries? There’s a candidate running in Virginia right now for governor who says that Trump should declare martial law. Now, she appears to be such a fringe candidate that hopefully she’ll be defeated. But there will be more candidates like that, and there will be more people like that. I worry that we’re starting to see Pandora’s box open as other candidates respond to the demand for these kinds of illiberalism that Trump has helped to unleash.
Matt Grossmann: So another way of seeing it is that our institutions just got a long series of very tough tests. And the courts and Congress and state institutions and all of that did push back in some cases. So talk to me about that case for a little bit. What would be the best case you could make that our institutions showed their strength, despite the threat from Trump?
Brendan Nyhan: No, that’s right. And it’s an important piece of the story too. We need to be judicious. The threat is real, but the areas of strength are important to highlight as well. Conservative judges turned back Trump’s appeals, not just liberal ones. His efforts to overturn the election were laughed out of court basically across the board, regardless of the background of the judges. That’s a really encouraging sign. The local and state election officials who carried off a remarkably successful election during this pandemic are real heroes of the republic. That’s an incredible area of strength. And I think the military has to a large extent held the line against Trump, and resisted being drawn into political controversies or being used in ways that Trump might like it to be used as a kind of political prop or instrument for his agenda.
But I guess what I would say is these institutions will start to buckle under strain if the pressure on them is not alleviated. The local and state elections, the people who get involved in those, if they face death threats, will leave, the good ones. The bad ones will start to run. If the military becomes politicized, who gets promoted within the military? Those norms around civil-military relations may deteriorate. We saw this with the Department of Justice, which at first held the line to some extent under Trump. But once Bill Barr was there and was able to start more effectively maneuvering the instruments of power, we saw more and more violations of norms and previously standard procedures there than we’d seen before.
So I think there are these real areas of strength. But they’re not infinitely durable. They won’t necessarily hold up if this pressure continues. We can potentially turn the page. But we shouldn’t assume they will indefinitely be able to sustain this kind of pressure.
Matt Grossmann: Talk a little bit more broadly about the bad signs and the good signs during the administration. What did Trump try to do during his administration, beyond, set it up so that he could win the next election or overturn it? And where was he successful? And where were our institutions more strong in keeping it at bay?
Brendan Nyhan: Yeah. So besides the attack on the election results, I think the next-most important event according to our experts was the effort to use the president’s power, his executive power against Joe Biden via pressuring Ukraine to investigate him. That was rated as almost as serious a threat to democracy as the effort to overturn the election by our experts. So I think that’s a important moment. Our institutions held up in the sense that whistleblowers revealed Trump’s actions and he was impeached, but he was not removed from office. Only one senator was willing to cross party lines to vote to remove him from office. So I’m not sure how much we should take away from that in terms of positive signs. The president has also attacked the media on an ongoing basis. That hasn’t taken any particularly solid form.
I mean, Matt, the question I think we should ask is how much should we congratulate ourselves that the president isn’t locking up journalists? He’s calling them the enemy of the people. Our institutions held in the sense that he’s not throwing journalists in jail, but that’s not the sort of thing that liberal democracies typically congratulate themselves for doing. So I’m not really sure how much we should see all of these things as victories. He’s said many illiberal things. There’s a very long list. Most of them he did not act on. So there was a way in which the bureaucracy sort of ignored many of the president’s statements. That’s a kind of victory, I suppose. But I do think it’s still corrosive that those claims are being made.
I also worry, actually, about the damage that’s done when the president is saying to do things, and unelected officials decide that it’s important to ignore them. In this case, given the illiberalism of the actions that are being called for, it’s understandable. But I think we should worry about the idea of, for instance, the military deciding that it gets to decide which civilian dictates it should listen to. That’s, again, not a especially healthy development for a democracy.
Matt Grossmann: What about the opposition party? It seems like there was not exactly the one-upsmanship that some feared in anti-democratic actions. As you say, the opposition party impeached the president, tried its hardest to get allies in the president’s party. How should we evaluate that?
Brendan Nyhan: I’m not certain. I think it’s fair to question the sometimes crude ways that Democrats talked about the Russia investigation, as if it would be a kind of Scooby-Doo confession of a collusion plot. There were certainly conspiracy theories offered that went beyond the available evidence and that were never corroborated. With Democrats, I worry more about the future. I think there’s a possibility of a kind of escalating series of Constitutional hardball tactics being deployed against each other by the two parties in a way that could be destabilizing. We might have seen that if Joe Biden and the Democrats had won a landslide, for instance, and there was more momentum to do things like expand the size of the Supreme Court that would be more aggressive forms of Constitutional hardball.
It doesn’t seem like those things are in the cards now. But they do seem to have greater prospects on the Democratic side than they once did. There’s an argument for Constitutional hardball as a response to norm violations. But there’s also a way in which it can be destabilizing. I think that’s why it’s often split experts when they’ve debated the merits of those kinds of tactics as a response to violations of democratic norms.
Matt Grossmann: One reading of the post-election period is that we just got lucky. If it came down to only one very close state, then it might have turned out differently. There’s been talk about if there was one different judge in Wisconsin, maybe that verdict would have turned out differently. I guess the counter-case is that you don’t really know much, you don’t observe much about what would have happened in that case from seeing some dissents that aren’t going to go into effect. How would you read it? How close did we come? And how much is this dependent on these accidents of history?
Brendan Nyhan: It’s a good question. I’m not someone who thinks that Trump would have been successful, necessarily, in overturning the election if it had come down to one state. But I think we have reason to worry that the effort to overturn the election could have become much more serious and destabilizing in that circumstance. We saw almost 2/3 of the House Republican Caucus sign onto the Texas lawsuit, even under the circumstances when it had almost no chance of overturning the result. And we’ve seen many Republican officials back this effort even though the chances of success were very low, and the legal arguments were considered preposterous.
Matt Grossmann:Doesn’t that even if work both ways? I mean, you say it’s even if. But that might be because of. That is, this was a fairly costless action at the moment. We might not be able to conclude from that that they would have done it in a circumstance in which it might have been more destabilizing.
Brendan Nyhan: Totally fair. I think one area that political scientists are debating right now is how much of what Republican politicians are doing right now is cheap talk? Right? Would they do this if push came to shove, when it might really be decisive? Yeah. That’s a counterfactual we haven’t observed, so I can’t evaluate it. It’s certainly possible it’s cheap talk. It’s certainly possible they just wanted to send a signal to their base, and they wouldn’t really follow through on it.
On the other hand, we’re seeing people take actions that have few recent precedents in American political history. These are remarkable things to do. I mean, it’s cheap talk in a way. Yes, you’re just signing on to a court case that’s going to be defeated. On the other hand, you are violating norms that were unquestioned until recently. So that still seems to me quite serious. Again, these counterfactuals are very difficult. It’s hard for me to imagine the election actually being overturned. If it had come to that, I think there would have been millions of people in the streets, millions. It’s hard for me to imagine the result actually changing, but we could have gotten to a much worse place. I think one way to think about it is that the margin within which an election can fall, where we’re now subject to Florida-like contestation, is far wider than we anticipated. That’s quite destabilizing to me.
Matt Grossmann: Haven’t we observed some gains since 2000 as well in our electoral institutions? I mean, it’s striking to me that they had an opportunity to find problems in five different states and they really found almost nothing, in contrast to 2000, when there were several open debates about when to count, how to count. In our cases, the standards for recounts were fairly clear. There was a lot of contestation of the pre-election rules made by different states and localities. But the process might have become clearer since 2000.
Brendan Nyhan: I hope that’s the case. But it’s inevitably true that because of our decentralized electoral system, there’s always heterogeneity that can be exploited. So it doesn’t seem that … Widespread voter fraud is a myth. So yes, they were not able to find voter fraud. But you can often find differing standards or differing procedures and ways that if enough bad-faith actors are involved, there’s an opening. I would also make sure that we put on the table, Matt, something that I know you know, but the audience may not fully be aware of, which is if these margins had been closer, those pre-election rules you referenced could actually have faced more serious legal challenges.
So Pennsylvania set aside its late-arriving ballots. Those turned out to not be of a number that could have been decisive. But it’s considered more plausible by some legal experts that conservative judges might have thrown out those ballots under an interpretation of who has the power to make judgments about how electoral votes are allocated, that would have been in a way quite radical. So it’s not just Rudy Giuliani style clown show legal challenges. That is a more serious prospect. Now, it turned out the margins were just large enough in some of these pivotal states that those late-arriving ballots weren’t decisive. But there is, again, a world where those margins are closer. Now Pennsylvania’s ballots are potentially able to swing the election to Trump. That’s seen as a more plausible kind of legal challenge, even though it is potentially a quite radical step in overturning powers given to election officials to set the rules of their election.
Matt Grossmann: One of the main findings of your public surveys is that we interpret these norm violations through partisan lenses, and polarization makes that worse. You’re relying on experts to judge these democratic bright lines. And the experts are disproportionately Democrats, liberals, and even on the Republican side, anti-Trump. So how well can the public judge these violations? And how well can experts, given that we are increasingly and largely affiliated with one partisan side?
Brendan Nyhan: It’s a fair question. Academia is what it is, and there’s no way around that. I guess what I would say is judge our experts on how they evaluate the Trump presidency. I think if you look at the Times series in a careful way, you’ll see that it wasn’t just a knee-jerk anti-Trumpism. And in fact, many of our ratings were quite stable for the Trump presidency. It wasn’t as if liberals said, “Democracy has been ruined in all these areas.” In fact, their evaluations of the overall quality of US democracy were quite stable, and they reflected the judgment of experts I think quite reasonably that, while US democracy deteriorated somewhat relative to its 2015 or prior levels, it’s not Russia. It’s not Hungary. It’s not Poland. That was, again, reflected in the ratings they were giving. So I don’t think there’s a simplistic, clear interpretation of the data as reflecting our experts’ biases.
I guess what I would then point to for those who are skeptical given the backgrounds of our experts is that there’s a consensus in expert evaluations across all the different surveys of this type, including political scientists who are outside of the United States as well. So the V-Dem survey, The Economist, Freedom House, and Bright Line Watch are all seeing declines in the quality of US democracy. So it doesn’t seem to be specific to our survey or even to US experts.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I would assume that most of those international surveys are also of people who are disproportionately on the political left. But how should we take the right expert reaction? I mean, on the one hand, it’s kind of indicative of Trump’s impact that a lot of conservative-leaning experts have been the most alarmed. On the other, it might be taken as just evidence that this is becoming an increasing cleavage in our democracy and other democracies between experts and the conservative public. How should we read that?
Brendan Nyhan: No, I think you’re right to point to the number of conservative experts, both in academia, but also pundits and other folks with relevant expertise who’ve spoken out, often at quite significant cost to their own careers. I don’t think it’s easy to dismiss those people’s judgments as reflecting some kind of partisan impulse or career incentive. In many cases, they’ve destroyed their own careers in the Republican Party or the conservative movement to speak out, or they’ve limited the opportunities that are available to them. So I find those convincing. Now, yeah. I mean, there is no long list of pro-Trump academics who we can go to and say, “These people agree that democracy is also declining.” But that’s something of a weird judgment. If your professional judgment is that democracy is declining, why would you back the figure who is the vanguard of the deterioration that you observe? Right? So that’s a kind of strange paradox, to expect anyone to have that kind of expert relevant at hand to point to.
Matt Grossmann: You spoke about the differences in international surveys and domestic surveys, or lack thereof. But we have had a debate since the beginning of the Trump administration about the need for a comparative lens on this. So talk about what you’ve learned by working with people from a comparative perspective. What do they know that Americanists don’t know or didn’t know before this presidency? And is there anything that we knew that comparativists didn’t?
Brendan Nyhan: What I’ve been most struck by in talking to comparativists and reading them is the way that democratic erosion can be almost imperceptible, that it doesn’t happen in the model of the mid-20th century fascist takeovers. The comparativists who know this field well have always described the process as being much more gradual in its modern form. I think that’s a critical insight. Every time I participate in this debate, I find people basically saying a version of, “Well, the tanks aren’t in the streets yet. So everything is fine.” That’s just not the way that democracies decline in the world we live in, and it hasn’t been for some time.
Comparativists have told us democratic erosion is far more piecemeal, and that there’s a … Democracy is really a continuum, not a binary concept. It’s very possible to have significant democratic erosion even if ultimately the incumbent leaves office when they’re defeated, as we’re going to observe here, even if there are elections held, as of course, there are elections held here, and so forth. I think the complexity of that picture, the way democratic erosion can coexist with many of the institutional trappings of democracy is a critical insight, and one that we need comparativists to play an important role in amplifying within our own political debate here.
Matt Grossmann: What about the other side? Is there evidence that we knew more about, say, how Trump would interact with the Republican Party in Congress, about how strongly we should take signals coming from the top?
Brendan Nyhan: I’m not sure people who study US politics can cover themselves in glory on this one. We didn’t expect Donald Trump to be able to win the Republican primary, given that he was such an outsider. We thought that parties could more effectively screen primary candidates. That was a real failure. In general, I think American politics specialists, myself very much included, just failed to anticipate the potential for significant democratic erosion. Certainly, the risk of Constitutional hardball destabilizing our politics was there. I think polarization had made those scenarios more salient. But the kinds of democratic erosion we’re seeing, I think Americanists really failed to anticipate.
Actually, I’m curious if you think there’s something that we did bring to the table here. I mean, perhaps you could say that the resilience of our institutions means that we’re not yet Hungary or Poland. But I’m not eager to congratulate ourselves from that. I mean, we have a 200-plus year history of at least some bare minimum of democracy, that we have so many advantages that other countries don’t. The fact that we’re having the peaceful transfer of power challenged after four years of one president I don’t think is a powerful demonstration of the resilience of our institutions.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I would just say the couple things that we got right were that in office, Trump would not be as much of an aberration on the policy side, because he would be working within the Republican Party. And that limited the potential popular appeal of Trump in a way that might not have been limited if the Republican Party had been able to, say, quickly switch directions on economic policy. And then the other [inaudible 00:31:00] polarization and thermostatic movement, which meant that both the public and the Democratic Party would move and mobilize strongly against a Trump presidency, but that that would not mean a new consensus. It would just mean continued close polarization, but enough to make the electoral and public opinion winds move in the other direction.
Brendan Nyhan: No, that’s a fair statement. I want to be clear for the audience that the first part, really, you were one of the leaders in speaking out on that point. And you’ve really influenced my thinking on that. So credit where credit is due. The way the Republican Party captured Trump on policy prevented him from being the kind of infrastructure, big spending, populist, right figure that many people thought could have more appeal. He became a kind of illiberal version of a Republican with a conventional set of policy positions and positions on judges and so forth. And actually, so he’s this kind of unusual figure in that he’s a demagogue who’s not very popular. We usually think of demagogues as having these incredibly popular appeals. But instead, Trump is holding a series of fairly unpopular positions, and never was reaching the 50% approval level any time he was in office. So that is a quite striking finding, yeah. Yeah. Certainly, right. Polarization locked Democrats in place against him.
But it also, if I can add one other point, yeah. I guess Americanists could say the way that partisanship helped lock people in place also helped lock Republicans in place in favor of Trump in a way that we saw almost no variation in his approval ratings. That was a trend that we’d been documenting over time, that approval ratings were becoming less variable. Within the Obama presidency, they varied within a much narrower window. And in that way, Trump really continued that trend. So there were some insights from past studies that could be applied there.
Matt Grossmann: So let’s talk about the broader question of, I guess, how much we can learn during the Trump presidency. Obviously, you started the survey after the presidency began. So it’s hard to get a baseline. [inaudible 00:33:25] sort of, I guess, objections to the Trump-specific trends. Let’s talk about the broader racial history one first. So some people obviously say, “Well, you’re claiming that we’re declining from this grand level that US democracy was at.” But of course, in the South and more broadly in our racial history, there’s lots of evidence that we have had autocratic tendencies for lots of our history. So I guess how should we think about the current Democratic violations in light of that long history?
Brendan Nyhan: No, I think it’s a very important point. I think it’s the best response to the … For instance, the book How Democracies Die is that the South was an authoritarian enclave until the mid-1960s. We did not really become a full democracy until very recently. We congratulate ourselves on the 200-plus year history of US democracy, as I alluded to. But in fact, we only really became a full democracy in the latter half of the 20th century. Our expert judgments reflect that to the extent that we’re able to observe them. So we’ve asked experts to rate the quality of US democracy retrospectively at a series of points in time. And you see them, using that scale, we have them evaluating the quality of US democracy now, really rating US democracy as only achieving the levels that existed prior to Trump starting in the mid-1970s. So it’s really after the civil rights era that experts see democracy in the US as achieving that level.
And they certainly don’t see it as perfect, even going back to our very first surveys. There were a number of areas that they rate US democracy as not performing very well. Many of them relate, for instance, to the status of the voting rights of all members of society, different kinds of principles like that. So I don’t want to suggest, and I don’t want the listeners to think, that the experts are unaware of the problems with US democracy. I think those were built into the ratings. At the same time, though, the experts were also aware, I think to a greater extent than the American public, how US democracy compared relatively favorably to many governments around the world, especially prior to Trump. That was being reflected in their ratings. There were some areas they rated US democracy as much better than the public, precisely because they were aware of the ways in which our democracy, while very much imperfect, still exceeded the standards seen in many other parts of the world.
Matt Grossmann: The other version of this looks more recently at the history of the Republican Party and says that a lot of things that are being attributed to Trump did have precedent within the Republican Party. There was certainly polarization, and not only on policy, but on tactics within the Republican Party. There is also, of course, a broader history of parties on the right, those representing the economic upper class, being less in favor of democratizing reforms. So how should we evaluate the counterfactual where the Republican Party is moving in the same direction, say, under a President Ted Cruz, but we don’t have Trump the individual? Were there signs we should have seen before? And are we able to pick them up now?
Brendan Nyhan: Yeah. I’m not sure how to evaluate that counterfactual, because the democratic norm violations we’ve seen are not the ones that I would worry about most under a President Cruz or Rubio or Jeb. Again, I would worry more about the kinds of Constitutional hardball that we’ve talked about a little bit than refusing to accept the outcome of an election, or pushing foreign countries to investigate your opponents. Those don’t seem to have the same kinds of recent precedents. I could certainly see those leaders pushing the boundaries of executive power, maybe building on the precedents from the Obama years and prior presidencies. I could imagine difficult interbranch conflicts over the powers of the presidency. I can certainly imagine lots of nasty language and things like that. But I have trouble drawing a straight line from those folks to what we’ve seen. I’d be curious how you would tell that story.
Matt Grossmann: We’ve been telling a very top-down story, that this was Trump, people reacting to Trump. But there are other people who tell the story about the openness to this within the Republican public about the spread of conspiratorial misinformation, of course, about the anti-immigrant backlash that was present before. And so there are people, I think, who see this as a more, I don’t know if we want to call it natural, but a more expected trend from the rise of multiethnic democracy that would say, if not inevitable, these trends were in progress before Trump arose.
Brendan Nyhan: I think you could tell a story where the move towards a kind of white identity politics and a more aggressive form of immigration backlash was, if not inevitable, likely. The Republican Party was quite a bit out in front of its base on those issues. Trump saw that and harnessed it. But if he had not, someone else might have. So I can imagine that turn taking place. In some ways, the Republican Party’s failure to co-opt that force, which is what in part allows Trump to vault to the nomination, along with the disproportionate media attention he attracts, that creates an opening for an outsider who doesn’t play by the norms of the political system.
I’m not a comparative politics expert. But from my understanding, it’s not unlike the challenge facing mainstream-right parties in Europe that face fringe-right parties, where they are trying to co-opt the sentiment that those parties appeal to while keeping them out of power, given the illiberalism that they endorse. So the Republican Party’s … In this case, the failure of the politicians to supply the anti-immigrant positions that the base demanded created an opening that Trump exploited, and someone else might have exploited. But again, it’s hard to see who the equivalent figure is who would have been so dramatically illiberal within the ranks of the conventional contenders for the Party nomination.
Matt Grossmann: So this is tied to the issue that you mentioned before about how much emphasis we should place on Trump’s comments, himself. Obviously, we’ve had a recurring debate about how seriously to take the anti-democratic tweets. We also have a long-running story where Trump’s most extreme comments are immediately leaked to the press. And some people see those as signs of weakness rather than strength, that is, that he’s making these comments, but unable to carry them out or convince anyone to go along with them. It should not be seen as a sign of strength. I take it you’re on the other side, but maybe you can comment on that.
Brendan Nyhan: Yeah. No. I’m worried about these comments, in part because eventually someone might listen to them, and especially when the comments are demanding things which are not illegal, but which violate norms. Those are areas where there are vulnerabilities. We’ve seen again and again in this presidency that the norms are the weak point of our system. Trump has been foiled when the obstacle he faces is a law. But when it is a norm, he can often bulldoze through it. Sometimes that’s just statements. Sometimes that’s just him saying things that no previous president would have said.
But in some cases, it could be actions that are being taken that also violate norms. So I’m especially worried about those kinds of statements. So if he calls on the Department of Justice to investigate his political opponents, well, usually he’s ignored. But in some cases, he’s not. It’s actually very difficult for us to observe that. The investigations conducted by prosecutors are not publicly known, for very good reasons. We have to trust that they’re being done in a way that hopefully reflects the post-Watergate norms of removing political influence on that process. But if Trump demands those kinds of actions enough, and his political appointees listen, then it could go further.
And again, another example you might think about, it’s not exactly a case of a statement being made real, but it has the same set of properties. The actions taken against protesters this summer also falls into this kind of category. There’s a set of norms around the use of law enforcement and military power against protesters that are quite vague and ill-defined. We saw this administration go further than any in recent memory, most notably in the Lafayette Square incident. So in some cases, Trump’s just saying things about what is going to happen to protesters. But in other cases, people are listening and taking actions. And when the norm is the only thing stopping them, that’s not always proven to be as formidable an obstacle as some of the other forces he’s faced.
Matt Grossmann: Another version or perhaps a separate argument is about the political tractability of these arguments that Trump is violating norms. So I guess let’s take it as an even-if argument. Even if these regular Trump comments are extremely alarming … We had a debate about impeachment and Trump actions. We had the debate about impeachment. We had a debate surrounding The Lincoln Project ads, where there are some people who say, “Look. This is exactly the right focus. Trump is an aberration. We should be calling him that.”
And there are people who say, “Even if that were true, it’s not the best political argument. It’s not good for limiting Trump by tying him to the Republican Party. It’s not the best for winning elections or generating public opposition to Trump. In the most extreme form, let’s say it’s much better to talk about cutting taxes on the rich and taking away your entitlement programs than it is to talk about this. And it’s much, much better to portray Trump as the face of the Republican Party, rather than an aberration.” How should, I guess, the public, experts, and analysts deal with that trade-off, if it exists?
Brendan Nyhan: I’m convinced by these arguments that the best way to oppose an illiberal populist is through conventional political arguments. There are analyses suggesting that Hillary Clinton talked too much about why Donald Trump was a terrible person in 2016, and not enough about the kinds of class issues that helped limit Obama’s losses among working class whites. There’s evidence from other countries that defeating populists often requires beating them on these conventional political issues. As a political scientist, I think those arguments are often convincing. I don’t think people have a deep sense of how democratic norms impact their everyday life. And that’s okay, by the way. Politicians’ jobs are to make people’s lives better, and democracy is a very abstract concept. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to worry about the wellbeing of themselves and their family and their community more than these abstract notions.
For me personally, I’m speaking as an expert, not as a Democratic Party strategist. So I’m unconcerned with the political case for or against highlighting these democratic norm violations. I just think it’s critical to highlight them, precisely because I’m worried that we’re starting to lose sight of just how abnormal they are. I’ve felt that one of the roles I could play during this time was just to keep reminding us how crazy what’s happening is, and how utterly abnormal it is, and what a break with our democratic traditions it has been. So yeah, I think you’re right to suggest that democratic norms are not going to be moving swing voters or something. That’s certainly the case. That’s just not really my purpose.
Matt Grossmann: I think you’ve also been active in upgrading the importance of the petty corruption that the Trump administration has engaged in as a norm violation, and maybe downgrading the perceived importance of fake news and information spread. So talk a little bit about those. Where did you come down on those two? And why did you make those decisions?
Brendan Nyhan: One of the areas where I tried to highlight the break with past norms is the way that Trump has refused to play by post-Watergate rules as far as disclosing his financial background, separating his interests from those of his business, and other kinds of steps that we’ve taken to limit the potential for corruption or undue influence on the president. Trump has refused to play by any of those rules. And I thought it was important to highlight that difference. It’s not the most important issue, but I do think it’s a symbolically important one.
And it’s also one, actually, that my colleagues at Bright Line Watch and I found an article we published, where at least in principle, there’s the potential for some consensus, that people across the political spectrum thought it was important to prevent politicians from enriching themselves while in office, and perceive that to be a real flaw in the existing political system. So that might at least be a democratic norm where we could not just agree about the abstract notion that it was important, but we might see it as an ongoing problem. And in that way, drawing attention to that violation could be valuable.
Matt Grossmann: But isn’t that sneaking in the criteria you just excluded? That is, the reason this was more important is because it’s actually a politically better argument than generic democracy.
Brendan Nyhan: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Yeah. No. Again, I declaim being a strategist. Fair enough. And again, this isn’t about getting Democrats elected. It’s just about an area where the defense of democracy might actually be appealing to the everyday person, because they really do worry that politicians are taking advantage of the system to enrich themselves. In this case, there is evidence that the president is taking actions that financially benefit himself while he’s in office. Now, we can talk more about how serious that is. Again, I don’t think it’s the most important norm violation by a long shot. But I do think people have a right to know that about their government. It’s important to highlight just, again, how abnormal it is.
You asked me to talk about the role of fake news. So yeah, if we can talk about that, I think it’s important. After Trump won in 2016, people went searching for some kind of simple, mono-causal explanation the reason, in quotes, Trump won. And so-called fake news and Russian interference were the easiest stories that people could point to. I’ve been one of many social scientists who’s tried to point out that both of those accounts really lack any convincing empirical evidence to support them. We can talk more about the details if you like.
But I do think those are areas where people have overstated the likely effects on especially swing voters. The magnitudes, the scope of exposure to those kinds of interventions and their likely effects, there’s just no way that they were decisive in 2016. I’ve seen no evidence to indicate anything like that was possible in 2020, as well. They’re very serious concerns. We can talk more about them. But I think they were sometimes used as a kind of simplistic explanation for why Trump won. I’ve really tried to push people on the evidence for that.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I’m just wondering, again, if we’re letting the political criteria back in, which I favor. I think it’s odd to take the view that we don’t want to consider the political import of our arguments about democratic decay, if we’re worried about it, than we want to figure out whether being publicly worried about it is influential. But on this side, it seems like you could make the case that a lot of Republicans believing, or a lot of Democrats on the other side, believing clearly false things is a huge problem for democracy even if it doesn’t make a lot of difference electorally.
Brendan Nyhan: Oh, absolutely. That’s most of my scholarly research, as you know. So I’m certainly very concerned about the prospect for misinformation harming our political system. But I think we need to be more precise about the ways in which it is harmful. In some ways, Donald Trump has been a reminder of two facts that I try to emphasize when I talk about this with public audiences. The first is that elites are the most important source of political misinformation, not foreigners, and not obscure websites. The political elites who drive the news cycle who are the actors in the mainstream media coverage, that’s still where most people get their information. However it eventually makes their way to them digitally, it’s still ultimately largely coming from relatively conventional sources. And it largely centers on those political elites.
Donald Trump has made more than 20,000 false statements as president. He’s the most covered man in the world. He is generating far more misinformation than Macedonian teenagers or Russian operatives posting weird memes on Facebook. That doesn’t mean the others aren’t a problem. But elites are the first-order problem, and it’s not close. So I think he reminds us of that.
He also reminds us that misinformation can be very harmful in the way that it can influence policy. We can go through different examples, talk about climate change or healthcare. We can talk about voter fraud and the challenge to the election being based on the myth of widespread voter fraud. So I think the threat model for misinformation has been misunderstood. We focus too much on swing voters having their minds changed in general elections, and not nearly enough on the harmful effects of misinformation from elites on especially their own supporters and the ways in which those false claims can be translated into or influence policy.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s talk about where we see things going from here or what we should look for. I was just struck by reading the post-Nixon history, that we did have another president who tried to interfere in elections, who violated a lot of democratic norms. Although we did have more members of Congress, of course, eventually break with Nixon, a lot of the people who succeeded in the Republican Party afterwards, including Ronald Reagan, did not really ever decisively break with Nixon, and turned out fine. So I guess, do we overstate the extent to which there will be or could be a decisive break with Trump that we’ve all been waiting for? And what should we look for to see if the impact of Trump will, or to see how much the impact of Trump will be ongoing?
Brendan Nyhan: I think that’s a very important point. People, especially people my age or younger, learn a kind of potted history of Watergate that is incredibly simplistic and really doesn’t take into account how long it took for Republicans to break with Nixon, and how much, as you emphasized, the institutional Republican Party continued forward with people who played key roles or supported Nixon continuing in positions of power and influence. It’s just not the dramatic break that it seemed.
Now, Watergate is different in that there were a whole suite of reforms enacted and norms created after that presidency, that seems very unlikely to be replicated. So if anything, I would expect even more persistence and even less change. We can go through the list of all the different areas that … Watergate led to some real changes and constraints on executive power, for instance. Doesn’t seem like those are in the cards now.
Now, I guess that’s a question we can ask. What constraints will be put on future presidents that may prevent the kinds of violations we’ve seen under Trump? Will people try to rebuild norms when policies aren’t available to address the problems that have been revealed? I would say we should monitor that. But I would say the prospects appear very limited at this point. I would also look at ambitious politicians in the Republican Party. How much are they backing the president? How much are they emulating his approach? And how much are they emulating his illiberalism in others forms?
So I think the mistake people have made is to think that the only way Trump can influence the Republican Party is if there’s another Trump. But I think it’s fair to say he’s probably sui generis. Josh Hawley is not about to go up and do an hour and a half rally standup set. That’s just not who these people are. But there are ways in which aspects of Trump’s appeal could be integrated into more conventional kinds of Republican politics. And we need to monitor that. That’s going to be a critical area to watch.
I’m also interested in who wins primaries when there are more or less Trumpy candidates running, and the extent to which the most talented politicians in the Republican Party try to avoid getting on the wrong side of the pro-Trump part of the party, which is of course, most of it. Ultimately, for there to be a break with Trump, there would have to be an anti-Trump faction that has a meaningful level of influence in the Republican Party. But as you know, such a thing doesn’t even really exist. There is no line of cleavage. There is no organized group of anti-Trump Republicans within the party. It’s not even a faction. Most of the people who are strongly anti-Trump have retired or been defeated.
There’s a handful of people who appear to be not especially enthused. But they’re not speaking out publicly, and they’re certainly not organizing. We’ll know more in the future. But if Trump continues to at least hold out the threat of running in 2024, he’s going to lock a lot of people in place in a way that makes it very hard for that to progress. So I would say in the short to medium term, we should expect a lot of this to continue. I’m not optimistic that there’s going to be a significant break any time soon.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. Not to draw too much from the Nixon era analogy, but I do think that … I guess I just have a very different view of that history. I think first of all, most of the reforms failed in campaign finance and in-
Brendan Nyhan: No disagreement on the success of the reform.
Matt Grossmann: [crosstalk 00:58:08] and Congress pretty much were all-around failures. And the break that people were looking for didn’t happen then, either. But it didn’t happen because there was Democratic overreach followed by Republican response, and in a way that didn’t, I guess, require that break. So there’s no anti-Trump faction in the Republican Party. But there certainly is the capacity for resurgence in response to Democratic policymaking. And we may be about to see it. I think people may just be expecting more of, I guess, a question of a Trump or not Trump being bigger than you’ll need, when it will really be anti-Democrat, will be the resurgence, regardless of how Trumpian the figures are.
Brendan Nyhan: Oh, no. Can we hold on that for one second? I mean, 100%. 2022 Republicans are going to be trying to rerun a Tea Party-type backlash strategy. Under those circumstances, how would anti-Trump figures who want to moderate the direction of the party ever find a foothold? This is very unfavorable terrain for changing the direction of a party.
Matt Grossmann: Well, it depends on what you mean by changing the direction. Again, that didn’t happen under Nixon either. They didn’t break with Nixon. But they did bring the party in a different direction. And it is possible that a new Tea Party would change the trajectory of the Republican Party without being explicitly anti-Trump. I think it is quite possible for a Cruz-type faction to become more important in the future, even if they never broke with Trump, and to pursue a different set of strategies. But I guess, give me your view. What should we be looking for in the future? What will be the signs that things are changing or not changing? And what will you be doing? What’s the future of Bright Line in tracking this under the Biden administration?
Brendan Nyhan: Yeah. I think we should track the efforts to rebuild our democratic institutions and norms to see if there are any changes that are made, and actually if they’re successful. As you alluded to, the post-Watergate reforms are at best a very mixed bag. And political scientists have conflicted views about a lot of those changes. It’s not obvious that reforms are always a good thing, even though it’s clear that we’ve seen the need for changes. We need to be careful about where we go.
But I want to emphasize that we should look not just to the federal level, but to the state level. That’s not just where the next generation of politicians are making their names, but I’ve started to refer to the states as laboratories of democratic erosion. In some cases, that’s where the most aggressive efforts to change norms or undermine institutions are happening. That’s an area I’ll be watching very closely during the Biden administration, particularly when it comes to voting rights and election administration.
As far as Bright Line Watch, that’s a conversation that my fellow organizers and I need to have. We need to think about what role we want to play and what financial support is available to us, and make a decision. We haven’t gotten there yet. But we hope to at least continue the Times series of evaluations of democracy in some form to keep providing the data that will allow other scholars to weigh in on this debate, and keep it central to the research agenda of the field.
Matt Grossmann: I guess maybe to add just one more thing about that, is to what extent are you worried that you won’t be able to find circumstances where Democrats are pushing the line, rather than Republicans, especially since it would be hard to top Trump in any of these areas, that we won’t notice democratic erosion if it’s ongoing under a Democratic administration?
Brendan Nyhan: Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s an empirical question. If the circumstances call for it, I hope that we’re as attentive to and critical of the Biden administration as the Trump administration. We will see. Biden did not run a campaign full of norm violations in the way that Trump did in 2016, so I don’t have the same level of alarm. But of course, I don’t know the future either. So I think we should hold every institution accountable and monitor every office holder for whether they’re acting consistent with the values of our democracy. And we should absolutely apply that judgment to Biden and the Democrats too. And we’ll see. I think as you and your co-author have highlighted, Democrats have historically been a very different party than the Republicans. But they are becoming a more ideological party. We saw as that happened on the Republican side in past decades, a move towards more aggressive kinds of tactics, which often violated norms. So it’s certainly something we should be watching very closely on the Democratic side.
Matt Grossmann: Anything else we didn’t get to that you wanted to include?
Brendan Nyhan: I think this was a great podcast. I appreciate you having me here. Yeah. Thank you for the great questions. I guess I would emphasize for everybody that this is the first draft of history in the scholarly sense. We’re just starting to get our arms around what’s happened in the last four years. I certainly don’t have all the answers. You’ve asked really good questions. I think they’re ones we should think about. They are ones that I will be thinking about a lot, too, as I try to make sense of everything we’ve just experienced.
Matt Grossmann: Well, thanks for joining me. We know there’s a lot more to learn. Listeners can go to brightlinewatch.org to get not only all the reports, but all the data to do their own analyses. We hope you’ll join us next time on The Science of Politics.