MSc student Michael Valdivieso reflects on the public event ‘The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s attack on democracy’, which took place on Wednesday 24 January at LSE.

It has been a little over a year since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and almost two years since he announced his candidacy for this position. During his campaign he attracted the attention of the media because of his drastic ideas regarding migration, foreign policy, and the American economy. He also had a controversial approach towards the media coverage he received during the campaign. Broadcasters and newspapers aligned with the Democratic Party of the U.S. were recognised by Trump as responsible for the production of fake news.

Dr. Brian Klaas, a Fellow of Comparative Politics at LSE, presented his book titled The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s attack on democracy on Wednesday 24 January at LSE, which elaborates on the premise that Trump is not a despot and should not be recognised as one either. This very particular differentiation ought to be made, since characterising Trump as one would truly minimise the impact and consequences that despots have in their countries all around the world. Dr. Klaas instead prefers to recognise him as an apprentice, just like the T.V. show that Trump used to host: The Apprentice.

Even though the American democratic system is highly institutionalised, Trump is both directly and indirectly damaging the quality of democracy and the democratic values of the country. At the same time, the rules and norms are being eroded by his authoritarianism. During his intervention, Klaas presented the audience with six ways in which Trump is attacking democracy.

First, Trump is politicising the truth. Politicising the truth occurs when the source of information becomes more important than the information itself. In addition to this, there is a cult of personality of the leader, with the media paying a lot of attention to all statements made by Trump. This results in people actually believing everything Trump says, regardless of whether it’s the truth. When the media fact-checked Trump’s statements they found that parts of them are inaccurate or not true, which is a good example of how he manipulates the truth. This takes us to the second way in which Trump is attacking democracy, which is related to Trump’s constant critique of media and the rhetoric they use when publishing news. In this regard, Dr. Klaas mentioned that there is a loss of trust in the press among Trump supporters. This shows that words matter, especially if they come from the President of the United States.

Thirdly, Trump uses the divide and rule tactic to maintain the support of his followers. Democracy is threatened by the use of these tactics because minorities are constantly attacked in presidential addresses, as well as turned against each other. For instance, he takes advantage of migrant minorities and uses them to create cohesion in his group of supporters. The fourth way in which Trump is attacking democracy is related to politicising the rule of law. The best example of this is how Trump sacked the Director of the FBI. In 2017, the FBI was conducting an investigation into Trump and the 2016 Presidential election, which was enough motivation for the President to sack the Director of the FBI. With this move, the President clearly showed how he is able to bend the norms of the country by making a legal situation political.

The fifth way in which Trump is attacking democracy is nepotism. Ever since he took office, some unusual things have happened in the White House. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was named senior advisor to the President. This sparked the attention of both the media and politicians, so that even the Department of Justice had to issue a statement asserting that the President was not allowed to do this. Additionally, the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, is part of the White House staff, serving as an advisor to the President. Finally, Trump is attacking democracy by politicising foreign policy. According to Dr. Klaas, foreign policy has been heavily impacted by Trump’s actions and he is able to get away with his erratic decisions by using the excuse of putting ‘America First’. Trump is also serving as an example to authoritarian rulers around the world, who follow Trump’s actions and choose to use the same tactics.

What is the impact on democracy? There are four possible outcomes, according to Klaas. The first one is a democratic decay, which in essence would not be catastrophic, but there would be some long-term consequences of having a leader such as this in office. The second possible outcome is the emergence of a forerunner, or as Klaas calls it a “Trump 2.0”, which could be devastating for the United States and the wider world. The forerunner would have an open field to become even more of a despot. Third, and closely related to the previous one is the possibility of having an authoritarian America, which is very unlikely but then again possible since the country already has a despot’s apprentice as President. Finally, and this is the most hopeful outcome, the United States will learn from this experience and take it as a vaccine to avoid electing a leader like this again, and also focus on fixing all the weaknesses in the democratic system.

In conclusion, Dr. Brian Klaas has a very interesting way of describing and analysing the political situation of the United States. It is clear that not only Americans, but citizens from all over the world can see first-hand what Trump is doing in the U.S. Dr. Klaas’s explanations help us understand the conditions under which Trump emerged and how he is able to sustain his position.

Michael Valdivieso is currently doing his masters in Conflict Studies in the LSE Department of Government at the London School of Economics.



Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.