Autopsies on President Donald Trump’s failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election results are piling up. Some point to judges who rejected his unfounded claims of voter fraud. Others argue that democratic norms moved state election officials, prosecutors and civil servants to uphold the rule of law at critical moments. Still others claim that Trump’s incompetence doomed the project from the start.
But these views miss an important piece of the puzzle. Trump’s four-year effort to subvert democracy failed in large part because he was historically unpopular and politically weak relative to other would-be autocrats.
Some unloved politicians manage to subvert democracy, but a common path to autocracy in the modern world is for a genuinely popular leader to use high public approval ratings and overwhelming legislative victories to cow opponents and undermine institutional checks on their power. The threat to democracy is less an unpopular incumbent trying to steal an election than a would-be autocrat transforming temporary popular support into long-term institutional advantage.
Autocrats like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia all came to power through more or less democratic elections and became popular before they started to dismantle democratic checks on their power.
Following a failed coup in 2016, Erdoğan used his close to 68% approval rating and dominant position in parliament to make constitutional changes that, according to one Vox article, gave the executive “frightening amounts of new powers.” In 2017, Erdoğan persuaded a majority of Turkish voters to back changes that transferred vast governmental power to the President and opened the door for him to stay in office until 2029.
In his first year in office, Chávez had an 80% approval rating, which he then parlayed into constitutional changes that vastly expanded executive control. Chávez used a newly empowered National Constituent Assembly populated with loyalists to propose constitutional amendments that extended the presidential term to six years, expanded presidential powers and removed one house of the National Assembly.
In his first term in office, Putin’s approval rating averaged around 74% (and, yes that approval rating is more or less accurate). In 2004, he was re-elected President in a landslide and proceeded to cancel gubernatorial elections, change electoral rules to sideline the opposition and concentrate political power in the Kremlin.
In the wake of high oil prices that spurred economic growth, foreign policy victories or the collapse of opposition parties, these leaders used great popularity to bully political allies, push potential rivals to the sidelines and demoralize opposition voters. The result has been an uneven electoral playing field, biased judicial institutions and far fewer rights for the media and voters.
Support on the street and in the halls of power is critical because it gives opposition parties greater leverage to block the executive. It also alters the calculations of those who would check the aspiring autocrat’s power. If the ruler is unpopular and does not control the legislature, then judges, the military and business elites may expect a power grab to fail and oppose the ruler. If the ruler is popular and controls the legislature, however, they may go along in expectation that others will as well.
Trump, to some degree, appears to share these leaders’ contempt for a free press and checks on executive power, but he lacks the popular and elite support they enjoyed. According to 538’s poll of polls, Trump is the only modern US president to never reach a 50% approval rating in his four years in office. His average approval rating was just 41% according to Gallup — a full eight points less than former President Barack Obama’s.
Trump’s share of the popular vote in 2016 was just 46.4%. Since 1900, only Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1992 won office with a smaller share of the vote and, unlike Trump, these three winners faced a third-party challenger who peeled off a significant number of votes.
Trump’s legislative position was also weak relative to the autocrats he sought to emulate. Trump’s party held a thin majority in the Senate in 2016 and lost the House by a significant margin to the Democrats in 2018. And Trump’s appeals to Ukraine and China to dig up dirt on his political opponent, his attempts to undercut the free press and his suggestion to postpone the 2020 election were done from a position of weakness rather than strength.
This is not to overlook the damage done to democracy on Trump’s watch. Among other things, Trump and his Republican enablers have normalized corruption and nepotism, degraded public discourse, invited foreign involvement in US elections, abused presidential pardons, deepened racial divides and politicized the bureaucracy in ways rarely seen in American history. Trump’s refusal to concede after a clear loss is sweet music for autocrats across the globe and a stain on American’s reputation.
But his effort to subvert democracy has failed.
Attempts to undermine election results may falter because formal institutions curb executive power, public servants with pro-democratic norms save the day or a leader chooses the wrong strategy. But they are especially likely to fail when the leader is weak. In the end, public opinion and political power are the ultimate checks on aspiring demagogues.