The United States barely survived the most acute threat to its political system since the Civil War by averting a second Trump term. But Donald Trump was always just a carrier for a political virus that predated and will outlast him. As evidenced by the finding that 8 in 10 Trump voters do not think he should relinquish power, Trumpism as a political movement very much remains.
A return of Trumpism to the White House would mirror the second wave of COVID-19, which has been worse than the first. Trump 2.0 would have seen America's openness to strongman rule — and likely be more competent at it.
To avoid that, the political virus that gave us Trump must be addressed. It is a disease with two strains, global and national.
The global strain is a wave of authoritarianism. Over the past 15 years, democracy has been in retreat around the world, with autocrats supplanting democratic governments in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela and Poland. Across the globe, citizens are growing less committed to democracy and more open to alternatives. These trends are being driven by factors that transcend borders and include globalization, migration and new information technologies.
The United States has not been immune. Openness to the idea of military rule jumped from 1 in 16 Americans 30 years ago to 1 in 6 pre-Trump. And while some of the shift is likely attributable to global factors, this political virus also carries a uniquely American strain.
The country has become more polarized politically as liberals and conservatives segregate into different geographic areas and consume different media. Previously dominant groups who feel they are losing status in an ever-more diverse nation have captured the Republican Party, turning it into an instrument for holding power at all cost. That party, in turn, has taken advantage of unique structures of American democracy such as the Electoral College and the Senate to give itself governmental powers that are out of proportion with the support the party has among voters. For example, Republicans have lost the popular vote in 7 of 8 presidential elections yet dominate the Supreme Court.
As a result of the global and national strains mixing, Trump was able to go a long way toward executing the modern autocrat's playbook, which typically involves six things.
_Spreading disinformation: Trump began doing this on Day One with petty efforts to doctor images to make his inauguration crowd seem bigger and continues this behavior today through his false claims of electoral victory.
_Politicizing independent institutions: Trump sought to do this with the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the U.S. Postal Service.
_Delegitimizing vulnerable populations: Trump tried to do this by falsely claiming he would have won the popular vote in 2016 but for millions of "illegal votes" from communities of color, and continued this with abusive immigration policies that separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border.