Not long ago, it would have been difficult for anyone in the United States to imagine a sitting president responding to an election loss by claiming his rightful victory had somehow been stolen—let alone that it would inspire a partisan attack on the U.S. Congress. Now, with recent events in Brazil, there appears a danger that election denial and political violence could be spreading globally. After the Brazilian general election in October, the country’s then-president, Jair Bolsonaro, announced that his defeat was the result of widespread electoral fraud. And on January 8—two years and two days after the U.S. Capitol riot—a mob of his supporters attacked and vandalized federal government buildings in Brasília, hoping to prompt military leaders to carry out a coup d'état and reinstall Bolsonaro. It all seemed very familiar. Has Donald Trump changed the playbook for the world’s anti-democratic populists?
Lucan Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books on authoritarianism. As Way sees it, while Trump has altered the political life of his country, and is still influencing political life beyond it, his most infamous populist technique can only go so far. While election denial has now been the pretext for political riots in two Western capitals, the only sustained benefit to its instigators has been to keep hardcore supporters engaged—at the cost of alienating others, activating opponents, and even, more in Brazil, losing political allies. Now that it’s in “the Western anti-democratic repertoire,” Way says, authoritarian populists will continue to try out election denial where they can—but they’ll be up against considerable democratic resilience.
Eve Valentine: What precedents would there be, other than the last U.S. election, for the leader of a country to deny the legitimacy of a democratic vote to try to hold power?
Lucan Way: In polarized “emerging democracies”—notably in sub-Saharan Africa but elsewhere—it’s been quite common for parties either to claim an election was stolen after the fact or to boycott one in advance, on the grounds that it was already rigged. Sometimes, in fairness, these claims have been true; oftentimes, they haven’t.
But if we’re looking at the wave of right-wing populism that’s been moving through Western “advanced democracies” in recent years, there, Donald Trump has been a real innovator—specifically in the way he’s not just disputed the outcome of an election but tried to delegitimize a long-standing, high-functioning electoral system altogether.
Now, all innovators have their influences, and in this case, the most important would be Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary since 2010—well before Trump’s political ascent—who mobilized his supporters around the idea that a powerful “deep state” had emerged as the big enemy of the Hungarian people, variously thwarting their democratic will.
Valentine: How did this idea make its way to the U.S.?
Way: It actually originated in Egypt and Turkey—to describe the military’s effective control in those countries regardless of the outcome of elections. Orbán appropriated the idea to undermine the legitimacy of the Hungarian state’s independent bureaucracy and courts. That got the attention of Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s key early allies—and influenced Trump from there.
You can see the idea of the deep state as part of the backdrop for his innovation with election denial. After all, who could thwart a Republican electoral victory with Trump himself in power? Not the Democratic Party as such but a deep state supposedly allied with it, controlling the mechanisms of elections.
Before Trump took over the Republican Party, it had indulged over time in some questionable behavior around elections—particularly with regulations that would manipulate them indirectly by decreasing voter turnout among groups likely to support Democratic candidates. And the rationale for these efforts was often that they’d address alleged problems with voter fraud. But in seeking directly to upend the American electoral system as a whole, fusing the idea of voter fraud with the premise of the deep state, what Trump did was new—in the U.S. and the democratic world.
Valentine: And yet, it seems the innovation didn’t really work. It resulted in a shocking and deadly riot in the U.S. but not in anything close to a successful anti-democratic insurrection. Now Bolsonaro has tried to adapt the idea in Brazil, and it didn’t work there, either—meaning it’s failed twice in a row. So how dangerous is it?
All innovators have their influences, and in this case, the most important would be Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary since 2010, who mobilized his supporters around the idea that a powerful “deep state” had emerged as the big enemy of the Hungarian people, variously thwarting their democratic will.
Way: I’m not sure it failed entirely in the United States. It certainly failed to the extent that the 2020 U.S. presidential election wasn’t overthrown. But I think it worked to the extent that he was able to convince so many of his supporters in the Republican base—a majority of whom remain convinced—and pull along so many allies in the Republican elite. Granted the cynical purpose, that’s a very real accomplishment.
It’s true that Trump’s election-denial innovation didn’t prevent the democratic transfer of power in the United States. It’s also true, and at least as important, that Bolsonaro’s attempt to replicate the innovation in Brazil was even less successful, because for a variety of reasons, many of his supporters, along with many of his elite allies, didn’t support the ruse—and now Bolsonaro has exiled himself to Miami. So in this sense, Brazilian democracy has been even more resilient than American democracy. Still, this innovation is now in the Western anti-democratic repertoire.
Valentine: How likely do you think it is that we’ll see it spreading?
Way: I can’t imagine it not spreading—among populists who lose elections and aren’t committed to the stability of their countries’ democratic institutions. And they’re not disappearing. So I think it could become quite common. At the same time, I think it’s also likely to become less and less effective, because there are only so many times you can cry wolf, as they say.
Valentine: Less and less effective at potentially overturning an election—or less and less effective even at just mobilizing resentment among the partisans in a candidate’s political base?
Way: In the first instance, less and less effective at potentially overturning an election—but ultimately, less and less effective overall. The vast majority of U.S. Republicans who now validate and amplify Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, for example, don’t really expect to see any elections overturned. They just want to activate their supporters. The question is to what extent they can keep doing this and for how long—and the results of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections shouldn’t encourage them.
Valentine: What about the threat of political violence more broadly? In America, there’s been a new fear in the air, including in the mainstream media, about this threat increasing—even possibly to the point of a new civil war. How seriously do you take an idea like that?
Way: I think it’s quite exaggerated.
The American state today is extremely robust. It has a tremendous capacity to maintain the United States as a republic and resist the chaos of anything remotely like a civil war.
Not least, it has a very large, very well trained, and very powerful military, which has consistently demonstrated loyalty to the president in power. If you compare that factor alone to the era of the Civil War of the 1860s, the U.S. military is substantially stronger now than it was then—when most of its generals and most of its military capacity were in the South.
I can’t imagine election denial not spreading—among populists who lose elections and aren’t committed to the stability of their countries’ democratic institutions. At the same time, I think it’s also likely to become less and less effective, because there are only so many times you can cry wolf, as they say.
At the same time, in fairness to some of this fear, there are scenarios short of a civil war that might be a little more plausible. Those could theoretically include dynamics along the lines of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, from the late 1960s through 1998, when you had paramilitary or terrorist groups making attacks and creating an environment of ongoing, low-level violence. I wouldn’t say that’s likely at all. But it’s at least more plausible.
Valentine: Do you see any emerging signs that might point to a scenario like this?
Way: I’m not sure I do. It’s certainly not clear that the violence of January 6, 2021, has led to any further violence at all. I haven’t seen evidence of anything like January 6 taking place after January 6. It just stopped.
That doesn’t mean there’ll be no such violence in the future. It’s important to remember that history is full of surprises. But it’s at least as important to recognize that there are no visible tendencies toward political violence in the style of January 6—or January 8—happening now. And if there were, they’d be up against a lot of very powerful forms of resistance.
Valentine: I know you’re working on a book about the idea of democratic resilience right now. At a time when so many people—in the U.S. and around the world—are so often anxious about the future of democracy, where do you see the resilience?
Way: There are a number of patterns. I’d highlight three.
One, where the numbers are quite striking, is that the world is simply becoming wealthier. And it’s well established that economic development promotes democracy. The World Bank has an index of high-income countries, and you take out the ones in the Middle East that rely on oil wealth, you get about 53 countries—and 51 of those 53 are universally considered stable democracies. The only two exceptions are Hungary and Singapore. So that’s a pretty high correlation, suggesting that if you become a high-income country—not through oil, remember, but through other forms of economic development—you’re likely to become a stable democracy.
Now, if you look at that pattern in a fairly recent historical context, since the 1980s, the number of high-income countries has more than doubled. That’s a massive transition. These are very basic numbers, of course—you could analyze them in all kinds of ways—but they fundamentally suggest that the world becoming richer does create more, and more stable, democracies. At the moment, the United States is in some ways an exception. It’s quite rich, but it’s been struggling democratically. Overall though, globally, the pattern is striking.
It’s important to remember that history is full of surprises. But it’s at least as important to recognize that there are no visible tendencies toward political violence in the style of January 6—or January 8—happening now. And if there were, they’d be up against a lot of very powerful forms of resistance.
A second has been illustrated by Zero COVID in China and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which is that dictators can seem impressive in different ways but are ultimately bad at governing. It turns out, not entirely surprisingly, that when you have a guy in a room who’s essentially isolated from effective feedback, as Putin has been, they end up doing stupid things that can put the stability of their entire regime at risk. And that’s not going to be lost on the world.
One of the deep advantages of democracy is opposition. I have a friend who’s quite high-up in Canada’s Liberal government, and one of the things she talks about is that, whenever they prepare a decision, they imagine Question Period, which in a parliamentary system is when the government is grilled by the opposition in the House of Commons. So they have to plot out questions and answers. They have to ask themselves, What’s the Conservative Party going to ask? And how are we going to be able to answer? That’s a powerful checking mechanism, because if they can’t answer the questions, most of the time, they’ll make a different decision—because it will be politically damaging to them otherwise. So while democracy can be very messy, with all kinds of people in power making all kinds of mistakes, it ultimately results in much better governance. And this has been demonstrated quite recently and quite spectacularly in two of the largest autocracies in the world—China and Russia.
A third pattern is that people in democracies are, in the end, very committed to democracy. They don’t necessarily like its liberal elements, particularly when it comes to minority rights. But they do like the power to “throw the bums out.” In the United States, in Canada, and everywhere where there are competitive elections, it’s hard to imagine anyone openly calling for an end to them. Even Putin doesn’t do that.
Valentine: Even autocrats have to mimic democracy.
Way: Exactly. So I’m optimistic about the survival of democratic elections. Of course, elections aren’t the whole of democracy—and I’m less fully optimistic about the survival of the kinds of liberal institutions, like minority rights, that help define the whole of democracy; I think these will potentially remain under threat in all kinds of ways. But there are vital forces that are limiting the erosion of democracy in the world—and that could even help strengthen it in the coming years.