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Democratic Institutions Don't Defend Themselves, We Do: A Conversation with Ian Bassin

Democratic Institutions Don't Defend Themselves, We Do: A Conversation with Ian Bassin

The head of Protect Democracy discusses how eroding restraints on presidential authority combined with political violence will make a second Trump term dangerous

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Landry Ayres: Welcome to Zooming In at The UnPopulist, I'm Landry Ayres. On today's episode, The UnPopulist's editor-in-chief Shikha Dalmia and senior editor Berny Belvedere are joined by guest Ian Bassin.

Ian previously served as Associate White House Counsel under President Obama and is the founder and executive director of Protect Democracy, a cross-ideological coalition defending America’s system of government against the threat of authoritarianism.

They discuss the challenges of recognizing and addressing threats to democracy when they don't fit traditional narratives, how to implement measures to slow down autocratic tendencies, and the importance of our rapidly shrinking civil society. We hope you enjoy.

A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been edited for flow and clarity.

Shikha: Ian is the founder of Protect Democracy, whose mission is actually very, very similar to our mission, which is tracking and fighting authoritarianism around the world, but particularly here in the United States. Let me get the ball rolling, Ian, by asking you: You founded Protect Democracy in 2016, just after Trump got elected. What were you thinking? What was on your mind, because you did this rather quickly, didn't you?

Ian: Well, I had served prior to that in the White House Counsel's Office for the first three years of the Obama administration. I had what we might today call the democracy portfolio, although back then, we called it government reform, because naively, we thought that the task before us was improving our system of government, and it's only in hindsight we realized the task was, frankly, saving it.

Part of that portfolio was making sure that people in the White House and people in the executive branch follow the rules—the rules that govern behavior when you are a government official in a liberal democracy. I use the word “liberal" in the classical Enlightenment sense of a form of government, not the colloquial American political sense, meaning left-leaning. 

Throughout the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump and the movement that he was ginning up was quite clearly operating in opposition to a lot of those rules that govern how the executive branch has long comported itself under presidents of either party. If I had questions about what was or was not allowed by White House staff that I couldn't answer, I called the lawyer who did my job for President Bush, Emmet Flood, and if he and I couldn't answer it, we called the lawyer who did it for President Clinton.

It didn't matter whether you were working for a Democrat or Republican. The rules were consistent from administration to administration, and they included things like limits on when the White House could call the Department of Justice to make sure that people in the White House were not weighing in on who should be investigated or who should be prosecuted or who shouldn't be prosecuted, because those decisions, in a liberal democracy, are supposed to be taken at arm's length from any political actor based on an independent application of law to facts.

As soon as Trump was elected, I got an email literally the night of the election from another former White House counsel lawyer named Justin Florence saying, “Should we assemble the White House counsel team to talk about essentially what we are about to enter into and how we might go about trying to protect all of those rules and norms?” Because a lot of those rules are not legally binding. They're just traditions in an environment in which the president, his administration, and the movement he leads seem to be organized in opposition to them. That was the origins of what later becomes Protect Democracy; that insight that we were facing an attack on the very rules that both parties had abided by for as long as we can remember in the modern era.

Berny: Ian, were there aspects of Protect Democracy that you didn't envision in its initial phase that now form a big part of what you do?

Ian: Oh, for sure. I think we have had to evolve over the last eight or so years in reaction to the way events have evolved in the world. We're building a company. It's a non-profit, but essentially, it's a company, and when you're building a company, you have to take on one piece at a time, right?

Amazon started by selling books, not by selling underwear, and so when we started, we were a bunch of lawyers who were coming out of the White House, the Department of Justice, and we had two early critical, foundational aspects to what we wanted to build. One was we understood from how movements against autocratic factions have succeeded around the world that it was really important to have a cross-ideological organization and alliance.

Justin and I reached out in the early days to our law school friends in the Federalist Society and said, "Do this with us." We had known who some of them had voted for in the 2016 election. It was not Donald Trump, and we believed that they, like us, although we disagreed about any number of issues of policy or constitutional interpretation, fundamentally shared a commitment to the foundational aspects of our constitutional representative democratic society. What they said to us essentially was, "Well, let's wait and see. Maybe he'll grow into the job."

Democracies tend to die by the erosion of democratic norms and guardrails rather than at the barrel of a gun. — Protect Democracy

The latter, for better or worse, I think probably for worse, is what happened. We were quite correct about assessing the threat that Trumpism—and it's important here to note he is symptom, not cause. As you all have eloquently talked about, we are living through a global recession of democracy in which these competitive authoritarian, hybrid authoritarian, populist authoritarian regimes are rising around the world. Trump simply is a very effective demagogue riding that wave. The problem preceded him, and it will outlast him.

We were right that the danger of Trumpism is a threat to the very foundations of our system. We were soon, thereafter, joined by people who come out of the conservative movement and come out of the Federalist Society and had worked for Republicans. That was one of the early foundational aspects of the organization, and today, we proudly are a cross-ideological group that has people in it who worked for Elizabeth Warren and people in it who worked for Ted Cruz. If you want to come to a fun Thanksgiving dinner, come to ours.

The second original foundation was that as a group of lawyers, we felt, well, if we could get the courts to say, "Don't do that," that would be pretty strong medicine. I'll admit, there's probably an element to it which we were hammers, and so everything looked like a nail. We knew that was something we had competency in. We had been government lawyers at the highest level. We knew what sorts of levers civil society actors could effectively use to influence the mind of the government because, when we were in government, we'd be on the receiving end of that. We had a pretty good insight into where the Achilles heels were, and so we started with legal actions.

Very soon thereafter, it became clear that this was not just a crisis but, hopefully, an opportunity, and that maybe this moment would provide a window for reform, legislative reform to strengthen the guardrails. We built up a legislative operation, both at the federal and the state level. In recognizing that foreign actors like Russia had tried to hack into voting systems around the country and that one of the real threats would be an intrusion into our voting systems in a way that could change the outcome of an election or create chaos, we built a software team. In recognizing that the fourth estate was not only coming under direct attack but is the vehicle through which self-governing citizens get the information they need to exercise self-government, we thought it was really important that we provide supports to that institution as well. We built a media and communications operation to really help the fourth estate do its job.

Then finally and most recently, in line with, I think, some of the ways that you all have evolved, we realized that we all don't have as sophisticated an understanding as we need to have of what is causing this moment that we're in and what are the pathways out of it, not just in the short term but in the medium and the long term.

We built a think tank operation that's a bit of a think tank and a do tank in that it is really trying to understand what's driving this crisis in our democracy right now, what's driving this surge in populist authoritarianism, and what are some of the pathways, both structurally out of this crisis, and also because I think this is a really key element, socially and culturally out of this crisis. Now, as an organization, not only are we cross-ideological, but we have a multitude of tools that we can deploy in service of our mission.

Berny: There's something fascinating in what you said there, Ian: whether the initiative that you had come out with would ultimately be needed or whether American democracy would solve its own problems in a way where it didn't need Protect Democracy. I think that's a really interesting point about the nature of concerns. I mean, concerns may materialize or they may not, right? You were wondering, “Will this be needed over time? Are we fearing something that won't happen?”

One of my hot takes is that far more often than people think, history preconditions our responses to future events in perverse ways. Let me give you an example. I'll pull a piece, actually, that your colleagues at Protect Democracy published with us earlier this year, a brilliant piece. This is from Jennifer Dresden and Ben Raderstorf. They write:

January 6th stands out not just as an outrage, but as our highest profile instance of politically motivated violence in decades. While headline-grabbing instances of violent attacks in the last three years loom large, other aspects of the problem, like violent threats and intimidation, have quieter corrosive effects. In some ways, January 6th's scale and importance might cause us to overlook more frequent, but smaller-scale instances of political aggression that can be just as damaging for democracy's prospects over the long run.

I think the problem they pointed to is a microcosm of a deeper problem with how history settles into our collective social psyche. For me, January 6th does, in fact, loom large, just as Jennifer and Ben suggested. I can't help but fashion what I fear moving forward based on January 6th. This creates a vulnerability, because as I'm worried about another January 6th, other instances, as they put in the piece, quieter instances that nevertheless are also corrosive, might slip through the cracks in my thinking. 

Here's a larger-scale example. We grow up learning of the wars and revolutions prior to our own day and age and the way totalitarianism functioned in the past. I wonder if, perversely, that does a bit of disservice to us if we're not careful, in that it crystallizes a template of concern in our minds that doesn't allow us from seeing the novel ways that the same underlying threat of authoritarianism might emerge in the future or is emerging now.

Protect Democracy actually said something very interesting and very insightful on this score: “Democracies tend to die by the erosion of democratic norms and guardrails rather than at the barrel of a gun.” Here's my question. To what extent is the resistance to your work that you face today, the people downplaying the threats to democracy today, a function of some people just not being able to recognize that today's authoritarianism may work differently than what we've learned about in the past?

Ian: Yes. I mean, that's exactly right. In fact, when we launched the organization in our first public story, which ran in Politico in February of 2017, the first public comment I made as the ED of Protect Democracy was to try to move people away from what I think we all have been conditioned to assume is the way democracies die, which is tanks rolling into the town square.

That really was an image that was going to be a challenge for us because it was going to lead people, as you know, to assume that anything short of that was not the moment of crisis. I think you have seen that play out over and over again in the intervening eight or so years with people. I'm just going to pick on, as I tend to do, Ross Douthat at The New York Times, who quibbles about January 6. That wasn't really an insurrection. That wasn't really one of these dangerous moments. He's an avatar for a whole group of people like him.

Shikha: Before that, let me just point out he was also saying that Trump was going to leave the Oval Office peacefully and there would be no coup.

Ian: Yes, no, actually, he's probably a bad example because there's a whole other set of pathologies there that I think we could get into that are also problematic. Fundamentally, Berny, to your point, this notion of “That doesn't look like what I expect democracy dying to look like, and, therefore, it must not be democracy dying”—that is, I think, a challenge for all of us in the Protect Democracy movement because it does leave a blind spot to the really deeply corrosive ways, and there are many of them, that democracies can be overthrown by these modern hybrid populist authoritarians through the erosion of norms and rules and, in particular, through that inchoate threat of violence that has been unleashed on our country.

I want to point out specifically, because I think, Berny, as you were talking, what was coming to my mind were the comments that Mitt Romney and Peter Meijer made to reporters about conversations they had on the floor of Congress during Trump's second impeachment. What they both reported, and McKay Coppins did excellent reporting on this, was that they spoke to members of Congress who said that they would vote either to impeach or convict Donald Trump, but they were afraid for the physical safety of their families.

That just has not gotten nearly enough attention because if we are operating in a society in which our democratically elected representatives cannot cast a vote based on what they think the right thing to do would be under their oath of office because they are afraid it will result in physical violence against their families, then we do not live in a democracy, if that is true. I think that raises some really serious questions about just how far down the road we already are.

I'll give another counterfactual that, I think, illustrates just how corrosive this sort of inchoate threat of violence is and how it is already distorting our system. The Supreme Court heard the Trump v. Anderson case a couple of months ago. This is the case coming out of Colorado where the Colorado Supreme Court had found that President Trump had engaged in insurrection and, therefore, was disqualified from further holding office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

Here's the counterfactual that I want to ask people to think about. If I could wave a magic wand and guarantee that, if the Supreme Court ruled that indeed Trump did engage in insurrection and was disqualified from office, that he and his followers would react the same way Al Gore reacted in 2000 when the Supreme Court handed that election to George W. Bush, which is to say, they would say, "I disagree with this decision, but I respect the outcome and I wish George W. Bush well in his time in office"—although there would be a lot of grumbling among their followers, they would peacefully accept the outcome and we would move on to the inauguration—here's my question: If we could magically guarantee that would be the outcome if the Supreme Court had upheld the Colorado decision, do you think it would have been 9-0 in the other direction?

I'm asking because I am absolutely convinced the answer is no. I am absolutely convinced that if you do, and I think a lot of legal scholars have done this, a straight analysis of the relevant constitutional text and provision and apply it to the facts at hand, as the Colorado Supreme Court did, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump did engage in insurrection, should be disqualified.

It's not just me as a former lawyer in the Obama White House saying it. Obviously, there were multiple conservative Federalist Society lawyers saying the same thing. Yet nine votes disagreed. I have to conclude it is because, at least in part, they were afraid. They were afraid of what might happen, how Trump and his followers might react, and frankly, that they were afraid of violence, and that the next insurrection might not be at the Capitol, it might be at the doors of the Supreme Court.

[W]e filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests and wrote challenging the Biden administration on their invocation of war powers and their circumvention of Congress to sell arms in ways that not only further aggrandize power in the hands of the executive and undermine Congress, but actually, as we wrote about, violate a proper separation of powers balance on those issues that then-Senator Biden argued for when he was in the other branch of government. — Ian Bassin

Shikha: That raises an interesting question, Ian, which is that there is a conversation going on among political scientists and legal scholars to the extent to which Trump is an aberration in his authoritarian instincts from past presidents, and to the extent in which he's a continuation of a strong executive.

You worked for the Obama White House, and when Obama got elected and he inherited a massive infrastructure to fight the war on terror, even though he had run on civil libertarian considerations, he didn't really overturn that infrastructure. In fact, he grew it to some extent, one can fairly say. In this century, there has been—and even the previous century, I think, setting aside the very brief period of Watergate and Nixon when the country rose to the dangers of an abusive executive with lots of expansive powers—there has been a trend of expansive executive authority.

Trump, to some extent, benefited from that. A lot of what he did during the course of his presidency, executive actions and defying the will of Congress when it came to appropriations, what have you, there was precedent for it. The question is, to what extent is Trump an aberration from the trends that we've been experiencing over the last hundred years? To what extent is he a continuation of those trends?

Ian: There's no question, as you allude to, that we have seen an aggregation of power in the hands of the executive at the expense largely of Congress over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries. In those ways, there are some straight lines that carry from the last five, six, seven presidents through Donald Trump and frankly through President Biden. There's a temptation in the White House to aggrandize executive power.

We, as an organization, have challenged several instances in which President Biden has done it. For example, President Biden's invocation of emergency powers in order to cancel student debt. We filed a brief in the Supreme Court saying that was an improper use of emergency powers and a further aggregation of power in the hands of the executive at the expense of Congress.

Most recently, we filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests and wrote challenging the Biden administration on their invocation of war powers and their circumvention of Congress to sell arms in ways that not only further aggrandize power in the hands of the executive and undermine Congress, but actually, as we wrote about, violate a proper separation of powers balance on those issues that then-Senator Biden argued for when he was in the other branch of government.

I think that just illustrates the way in which, depending on where you sit, you may see things differently. Senator Biden saw the balance of powers differently when he was in the Senate than President Biden sees them when he's in the White House. In all of those ways, yes, there is this trend line that we do need to reverse to return Congress to being what the Founders intended in making it the Article 1 branch, which is the central locus of decision-making and, frankly, power in the government.

Here's the way in which Trump is an aberration and the way even with those trend lines being what they were, he is wildly different from anyone else. For every White House or Department of Justice lawyer who has served under presidents other than Donald Trump, over the course of a president's term, there will be a set of legal questions or issues in which the question is, “Can the president do this?” “Is this pushing the bounds too far on executive power?" "Must executive power, in this instance, yield to some check on that power that is a element of our system of government?”

At the end of every president's term, I suspect you will find, if you look at a ledger of all of those questions, on some of them, the president falls on the side of saying, "Yes, we're going to push the bounds. We think it's proper for us to do that." In others, they ultimately conclude, "No, it actually would be the right thing to do to exercise some restraint and deference to the checks that exist on this institution." Because fundamentally, at the end of the day, the president believes in the separation of powers, believes in a system of checks and balances, believes that some constraints should exist on the presidency, and honors that preemptively without even being told to by Congress or a court.

I think at the end of pretty much every presidency, you'll have a list of things on one side and a list of incidents on the other. What's fundamentally different about Donald Trump is, for him, everything falls on one side of that ledger. There is never a situation in which he believes genuinely and sincerely that the right answer is for him to restrain himself and defer to the checks on his office. Point me to one time where he has acknowledged that there should be some set of checks on the president.

In that way, he is fundamentally different from every president that we have had other than him, Republican or Democrat. It is why I refer to him as an autocrat. That doesn't necessarily mean that the way that he governed in his first term, when you build in all the different things that happened in the government, might qualify as autocratic as Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán. We'll see what happens in the second term.

What it does mean is that when it comes to political philosophy, when it comes to how he thinks about American government and his role in it, he is an autocrat. He believes that unchecked executive power is simply not only the right way to govern, the right way for a country to exist, but it's the American way. That's fundamentally wrong. It's fundamentally at odds with every other person we've ever had.

Shikha: Let me suggest one other way in which he's different from other presidents. As you pointed out, emergencies are when presidents and executives have to act. When they are confronted with war or an act of terrorism or what have you, they are expected to act, and to act, they need to have the power to act. As our expectations of what the president is supposed to do for the country have increased, so has, to some extent, the power of the presidency.

Every president during an emergency grabs powers. Actually, in a weird way—Kori Schake at AEI wrote about this—when the pandemic happened, Trump had very grand powers at his disposal that he could have invoked to mount an effective response, and he didn't. He actually wanted the governors to do all kinds of things.

On the other hand, he has this idea that all the executive branches work for him. They are to be personally loyal to him. He's got this idea of the executive where he doesn't want to actually take responsibility to perform in the public interest, but for the aggrandizement of his own power. He has a very acute sense of all the people that he wants and all the powers that he needs. When it comes to acting in the public interest, he's not all that interested. To that extent, he's sort of out of sync, out of whack with previous presidents who act in the public interest and they want powers in the public interest. He wants powers only in his self-interest.

Ian: Yes. I think that is absolutely true. It's also makes for an interesting comparison between him and other non-democratic, autocratic, or dictatorial leaders from the past, because I think if you look at various people who've governed as tyrants in the past, they also fall into sort of the spectrum of categories, some of whom are venal to the extreme. They are in it for themselves. Their driving motivation is self-aggrandizement, wealth, riches, whatever it is that they want.

You might think, Putin's probably closer to that, although probably has some sort of geopolitical and political philosophical agenda, but certainly is in it to enrich himself. I think you might think maybe about some of the French monarchs falling into that category. Then you have other people. You think about people like Stalin or Hitler or Orbán, who have a political agenda, right? They have a deeply held philosophy about what they think, how society should be organized. They represent, in some cases, a constituency that is motivated by a certain view of government and society.

In a lot of cases, they also end up quite personally corrupt, right? I mean, you look at someone like Mao, who led a communist revolution, but yet had multiple servants and all of the finer things that you wouldn't think a communist leader would want for themselves. They do end up, in many ways, personally corrupt.

If we are operating in a society in which our democratically elected representatives cannot cast a vote based on what they think the right thing to do would be under their oath of office because they are afraid it will result in physical violence against their families, then we do not live in a democracy. — Ian Bassin

I think what's interesting about Trump is I don't get the sense that he is predominantly motivated by some overarching political project or philosophical agenda about how society should be organized. He really does see, on a spectrum of those leaders, on the pretty extreme end of just in it for himself. To the extent that he does articulate any sort of political project or philosophy, it is solely in service of aggrandizing himself because he sees an opportunity to persuade a mass of voters that if he does X, Y, or Z for them, they will grant him absolute power. In that way, I also think he's somewhat unique even in the pantheon of authoritarians.

That might answer your question as to why, when given the opportunity to seize excessive executive power to do something potentially, in the public interest, perhaps exercise emergency powers during a pandemic, he's not necessarily inclined to do that because his fundamental orientation is not, "How do I advance some political agendas?” It’s “How do I advance my own?" In that case, advancing his own probably meant abdicating that position to other people to take the heat for it.

Shikha: Right. Which is why I think in the case of United States and him in particular, Protect Democracy is right that democracy doesn't die at the barrel of a gun, but through incremental erosion of norms. I think in Trump's case, it may actually be different, right? None of us could have imagined January 6th, even at the beginning of the first Trump term. I thought things would get bad. I was mortified, and I expected there to be some kind of a constitutional crisis where he said he wasn't going to listen to the Supreme Court or the courts when they asked him to do something. I didn't expect him to actually mobilize a mob to stop the peaceful transfer of power. In his case, I think, we may be in different territory.

Ian: Yes. I have said on a number of occasions, I think I said it recently. “Who could have imagined that X, Y, or Z would happen?” It's always been pointed out to me that there are people who did imagine that. With respect to January 6th, for example, I was at a gathering of people who work on these issues and said something similar to what you said—someone from the state of Michigan said, "Well, we did in Michigan because we saw the plot to kidnap and execute our governor play out before that. We were quite concerned that there would be something like January 6th that happened."

Even though, obviously, you and I have focused very much on this set of issues, we formed an organization out of a fear of what could happen if the Trumpist movement ascended in American politics. We've been quite concerned. Maybe for some things that we didn't even think that could happen, there were some people who did warn about it. Let's give those people credit.

Some of the things I will just say I didn't anticipate and I think should underscore just how perilous a moment we're in is, I believed for the better part of the last eight years that, at some point, the Republican Party would put up some meaningful fight against the Trumpist takeover. I kept believing that there would be some critical mass within the party that would organize itself to say no to what Trump is doing.

One of my biggest disappointing surprises is just how that has not only not happened, but the opposite has happened, which is that the Republican Party has pretty much fallen almost entirely under the sway of this movement. Not every Republican, for sure. There are plenty of Republicans and conservatives who are committed to constitutional representative democracy. There are handfuls of brave elected officials. I think of people like Liz Cheney, obviously. But by and large, almost overwhelmingly, the Republican Party has just conceded itself.

Berny: Why do you think that is, Ian?

Ian: I think the best book on this subject is Tim Miller's book, Why We Did It. That book has not gotten nearly enough attention and praise for the sophisticated way, I think, it looks at human nature. It's a book that derives, in a way, from The Prince by Machiavelli, because what Tim's book really does is it looks at what are the incentives and motives of human beings and how do those incentives and motives steer human beings to do self-serving destructive things in certain environments.

I think the case studies that he describes and his analysis of what drove them is a devastating portrait, frankly, of the lack of principle, the corruption, the self-interest that had become the culture of the modern Republican Party and made them susceptible to this sort of takeover. I highly recommend Tim's book, Berny, as I think the best answer to that question.

Berny: So, Molly Ball wrote in a Time magazine essay that Protect Democracy's central argument is: institutions don't protect themselves; people have to be activated to use the tools the system provides. This suggests a couple of things to me.

One, no matter how much a nation calibrates its institutions to be able to weather illiberalization, democratic erosion is always going to be possible because human beings have a remarkable capacity to exploit systems and norms toward bad ends. Even if the architecture of our institutions is perfectly set up, there are always going to be spaces in the margins for humans to exploit in a direction that takes us away from a healthy liberal democracy.

And the second thing that this “institutions don’t protect themselves; people have to stand them up to do that” argument tells me is that this makes the idea of republican virtue absolutely paramount. The Founders were big on this. But closer to our own day and age, some have worried about the concept of civic virtue since it seems to smack of some particular conception of the good. They hear it and it seems to them to have overlap with certain “common good” outlooks, which tend to be illiberal themselves. But a citizenry caring about and exhibiting civic and republican virtue turns out to be really important. At the end of the day—you know, not to let them off the hook, but—the GOP had chances to rid itself and the country of Trump and they did not take that opportunity. So they failed to exhibit civic virtue, but they were only responding to the incentives in place, which were that their ability to stay in power probably rested on defending and going to bat for Trump. So the voters themselves were driving this, and their lack of republican virtue—that is, to enthusiastically insist on a candidate who has proven time and again how contemptuous of democracy he is—was the cause of it. I wonder if you could speak to that a little bit.

Ian: Yes. I think there's a lot in there. To unpack some of it on that latter point about the unwillingness of certain elected Republicans to essentially buck their base of voters and do what they know full well to be the requirements of their oath speaks to the point, I think, Tim's book gets at, which is in order to do something like that, you have to be a person of a certain principle and character, and you have to exist in a culture that rewards, validates, honors, encourages that.

I think the modern Republican Party had lost that. It didn't have the internal culture and it didn't have the characters within it who could do the thing that you expect leaders to do in that difficult moment. I think that gets at a little bit this question of institutions are no more powerful or no more able or willing to do things on their own than the people within them. Certainly, when it comes to the Republican Party or other institutions occupied by some of the people who failed us in this moment, those institutions have failed precisely because the people within them failed at what they were supposed to do.

The other key point about this idea that Molly wrote was behind Protect Democracy, this idea that institutions don't protect themselves, people have to have to have to stand them up to do that, gets at the heart of why some people are unfortunately not taking the danger seriously enough because there is this faith that the institutions somehow are infallible and will protect themselves.

I'm reminded of, and I'm going to butcher this and get it wrong, but I'm reminded of a religious parable. If you know it well, you can correct aspects of it that I get wrong, but it's about the pious man who is caught in the flood. He's in his boat looking for some sort of land, but he's deeply faithful. He believes that God will save him. Then all of a sudden, the raft comes up next to him and someone says, "Get on the raft. I'll take you to land." He says, "No, no. I'm a pious man. God will save me."

If you know this parable, you know where it goes. He gets a whole bunch of things that come to rescue him and help them, but he turns them all away, saying, "No, no, no. God will save me." Of course, ultimately he drowns. When he finally gets to the pearly gates, he says, "God, I was a pious man. I thought you would save me." God said, "What are you talking about? I sent you a raft. I sent you a helicopter. I sent you everything under the sun. You turned it all down."

I think that parable is applicable to our institutions today, which is that for those people out there saying, "We don't have to worry about what a Trump second term would look like because the institutions, they'll protect us. The system will protect us”—it won't do that unless you actually take advantage of the tools you're being offered. Unless you actually take the raft, get on the helicopter, use the rope, all the things that our Founders—in this analogy, being God— gave us, you have to use them. If you don't use them, you just say, "Oh, I don't need that. The system will save itself. God will save me," you're going to drown.

I think when you look at institutional leaders today who are saying, "Well, whether Biden or Trump wins in 2024, we'll survive." I think of them as the pious man in the boat, declining every offer of help that our Founders gave us by saying, "I'm not going to do anything right now because I just trust that the institutions will save us." Those people are going to cause us to drown.

Shikha: You guys have been working a lot on the guardrails that need to be erected in the event of a second Trump presidency or, in fact, any president who would want to go rogue at some future time. Run us through some of the most important guardrails we need right now. I also wonder, do guardrails even matter in the event of somebody like Trump who doesn't respect, let alone norms of good governance, but any institutions; who will do end run around the Congress, around the courts, to talk directly to the people and mobilize the mob on the street to get his way? Can any guardrails really protect us from somebody like that once he is put in office?

Ian: Let's talk a little bit about this metaphor of guardrails. To your point, even a guardrail on the side of a highway on a cliff is only so strong. A strong enough car with enough force hitting it at 100-plus miles per hour is going to go through the guardrail, right? Perhaps another and maybe a better metaphor might be speed bumps, which is one that I like to think of when you think about government regulation or guardrails, which is speed bumps don't stop the speeder or the bad thing from happening. They're designed essentially to slow it down and sort of mitigate the potential risks of someone speeding down the street. Over time, speed bumps erode. They become less effective.

What you would do if you were a Department of Transportation trying to prevent accidents on the street is every once in a while, you would raise the speed bump again, just to be more effective at slowing things down. I think that's the way we need to think about preparing for an autocrat being in office, just making sure that our system is resilient against the temptations of anyone who might be in one of these positions, and as we described earlier, might naturally be inclined to aggrandize their own power, is we've got to constantly re-raise the speed bumps.

That is fundamentally the task before us now. I think there are a couple of them that we should be looking at today. First off, within the executive branch, there are a bunch of speed bump-raising things that the administration could do now that are just good government, regardless of who wins this election or who's president in three years or five years or eight years.

For example, the White House, to its credit, is already taking some action to put in place some greater protections for the civil service so that they cannot simply be removed en masse in order to be purged and restocked with loyalists of a partisan sort. That's a good speed bump to put in place. I think there are some that have been put in place by Congress. We were very involved in getting Congress to pass legislation that would require more transparency out of the White House, out of the Office of Management and Budget, on something, Shikha, you alluded to earlier, which was the decision of the executive to simply impound or reallocate funds from where Congress had directed them.

That is also the number one promise that Trump has said his entire campaign is about, revenge and retribution, and I don't think it is coincidental that that is the number one tool that autocrats use in order to centralize their power, and that is what he's promising to do. — Ian Bassin

I think we, in the discourse about autocrats and the risks of the future, underestimate, or I think we under-appreciate, in terms of how often it gets talked about, that one of the vastest powers of the presidency is the power to spend money, an enormous sum—bribing, essentially, different actors to do or not do things that you want. Indeed, this was the basis of the first Trump impeachment: Congress had appropriated money for Ukraine, and President Trump, without any transparency of the public, simply put it aside, held it back in reserve in order to use it to extort Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on his rival. The legislation that we worked with Congress to pass addresses, essentially, the flaw that led to that first impeachment, which is that Trump could do that without anyone knowing.

Now, OMB is working on putting together this incredibly sophisticated dashboard to show all the money Congress appropriated, where it's gone, and essentially disclose when and if the president is ever doing anything to deviate from the plans that Congress made. I think that's a really important safeguard in an era in which Trump knows how to use money to get his way. As we are recording this, he is currently sitting at the defense table in a Manhattan courtroom for using money to buy silence from people who had things to harm him. Just imagine what he could do with the entire federal budget using it as a carrot and stick to get what he wants.

Another big guardrail, speed bump, what have you, that we really need is a reform to the National Emergencies Act. Really, that's part and parcel of a suite of reforms that, to a part of our earlier conversation, would begin to rebalance power in the direction of Congress and away from the executive, sort of in contrapoint to the slide of power to the executive that you alluded to has taken place in the modern century.

I'll make another plug for an excellent book. Rachel Maddow wrote a book about 10, 12 years ago called Drift, about the drift of war-making powers from Congress to the executive. It's a fascinating and excellent book about why the Founders wanted Congress to have critical roles to play there and just how, under presidents of both parties over the 20th century, we've eroded that and the dangers that has created.

The good news about reforming national emergencies and rebalancing some of these war powers over to Congress is that there is a broad coalition on the hill that wants to do this. Mike Lee, conservative, pro-Trump senator, is one of the leaders of this. Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders are co-sponsors of this effort. That's a tripartite effort. We have a Republican, a Democrat, and an independent socialist. There's a broad coalition on the hill that would like to rebalance some of those powers. As I mentioned earlier, they have, in the presidency, a former senator who, once upon a time, also believed in doing that. Perhaps there's an opportunity there before the end of the year to make some historic reforms to build up those speed bumps again and give Congress greater say.

Shikha: I'll make a pitch for something we just launched at The UnPopulist, actually, with the help of Protect Democracy: A series on “Fireproofing the Presidency.” We are going to run about 10 essays over the course of the year where we are going to concretely articulate many of the possible speed bumps, as you call them, that we can erect to reduce both the speed and force with which Trump would smash our institutions. And also, more broadly, rethink the vast powers we have handed the president.

But what is your greatest fear of a potential second Trump term? I'll tell you what mine is. Mine is a dual worry: One of the things that authoritarians do is flood the zone with misinformation and propaganda. Trump is a master at that. He’s called the chaos president, but there is some method to his madness there, right? He tells so many whoppers and such big ones that it becomes impossible to correct them. So, he bamboozles the public and by the time you catch your breath he has managed to set a narrative based completely on lies. The Stolen Election narrative resulted in January 6th.

At the same time, I think there is this very dangerous idea that has gained currency on the right that there is something called the “censorship-industrial complex” under which leftist groups, sometimes in collusion with the government, are coercing social media platforms to censor their views. Thanks to this, social media platforms have suppressed anti-vax information about how dangerous mRNA vaccines are. This complex also suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story. The Twitter Files release by Elon Musk confirmed the existence of this complex in the right-wing mind. Jim Jordan has been holding hearings to expose it.

So, on one hand, Trump will flood the zone with dangerous misinformation to advance his draconian plans. On the other hand, he’ll undercut our ability to debunk his misinformation by crying “censorship-industrial complex.” Or worse yet, he’ll use it himself and coerce social media companies to do his bidding because, you know, the left did it first. He’s just beating it at its own game, which will play really well with his base.

Ian: I obviously concur with that fear. I think I'll add one that is probably related. We actually put out a document called the Authoritarian Playbook for 2025, which is at, that goes through a lot of them. The one, if I had to pick, that is especially concerning is the closing of the civic space through weaponizing either the government or non-government paramilitary actors to scare and intimidate people who want to participate openly in our democracy.

Rachel Kleinfeld has recently written a really good paper on this. The bread and butter of a free, open, democratic society is the ability to participate openly in current events, in discussion, in conversation, in art, in expression, in all the things that sort of define what an open society is. What authoritarians do is they intimidate that space into closing it down and causing people to back away from it out of fear and isolate themselves in their homes and cease speaking, cease engaging, cease creating because they saw what happened to those one or two people who did and how they either got prosecuted or violently attacked or had their businesses taken away and everyone backs away.

I think I fear that most because it is, and so is the one you described, the beginning of a vicious cycle where once that happens, the fundamental thing about a democratic society that you can openly debate what the future should be and then actually have a free and fair election to vote on it becomes corrupted. It allows the autocrat to essentially consolidate power and entrench themselves there indefinitely. I think for me, the ability of Trump to do that is probably the greatest fear.

That is also the number one promise that Trump has said his entire campaign is about, revenge and retribution, and I don't think it is coincidental that that is the number one tool that autocrats use in order to centralize their power, and that is what he's promising to do.

Berny: Ian, in Protect Democracy's authoritarian threat index, the United States currently has a 2.1 rating out of 5. For reference, 1 is a healthy democracy and 5 is a total dictatorship. At first glance, 2.1 rating seems … not that bad. It's certainly closer to a 1 than a 5. Our neighbors to the north, Canada, are at a 1.5 as is Germany. On the other end of things, India's at a 3.5. Our 2.1 seems sort of fine, but then Protect Democracy labeled it as being under significant threat. Why, in your view, is the U.S. at a significant threat of democratic breakdown?

Ian: Well, first, I want to give credit to the professors at George Washington University who invented and managed the authoritarian warning survey, Professor Michael Miller and his colleagues there. They do a great job with that. It is designed to be a little bit like the authoritarianism version of the atomic scientists doomsday clock, how close are we to nuclear midnight. In other words, it is different than, say, Freedom House's freedom in the world report, which sort of rates the quality of every country's democracy. It's a little bit more like, how close are we to authoritarian midnight?

I think the reason it is where it is, you know, better than some places and worse than others, is because—in some ways, we've had a pretty dark conversation here, and maybe one of the things we've left out of this conversation is some of our successes in recent years.

I think just to name a couple of them, one, historically, globally, when autocratic leaders come to power, typically, they don't leave anytime soon, right? If you look around the world at these leaders, they have been in power for 15, 20, 30 years around the world. Ours was in power for four and then was turned out of office largely through the democratic process.

Obviously, there were grievous interruptions in that process, but it was a democratic vote. They were voted out and, eventually, after we got through all of the mess that was created, they left. That's remarkably rare in human history when someone like that comes to power. One, that's a pretty good sign about how our institutions and the people behind them responded with resiliency in this moment.

The second is the first thing that the MAGA autocratic movement tried to do after Trump was out of office was run candidates to take over the election administration going into 2024. All of those candidates were defeated in battleground states. That was pretty remarkable. Then third, as we've alluded to, one of Trump's strategies is to gin up the specter and, in some cases, the reality of violence in order to intimidate institutions from holding them accountable, and yet he's now been indicted at least four times in different jurisdictions and is sitting in a courtroom today, which suggests that even though this threat of violence is real and we talked about ways in which it is already infecting our system, it did not stop the institutions from trying to hold them accountable.

We'll see what happens in those cases and, obviously, the delay has been a serious problem in the federal cases, but on all three of those fronts, that's a pretty good showing for the United States given what we're facing. That's the positive side of things on why maybe it's just a 2.1 as opposed to what India is facing right now. Obviously, on the negative side, the dangers are extremely real, as we've talked about on this entire program.

The fact of the matter is someone who is basically running a campaign openly to be an autocratic president whose lawyer argued recently in the Supreme Court that they should be able to assassinate a political rival or order the military to launch a coup to keep them in power, and to be immune from any criminal prosecution for that, has roughly a 50% chance of return to the presidency, and that is a significant threat if I've ever seen one.

Shikha: On that happy note, I'm going to send you my Prozac bill.

Ian: I should have reversed those: the bad news first, and end with the good.

Shikha: Yes, that would have been better. I know, I spent a lot of sleepless nights, and now, when I sleep, I'd also get nightmares, so thank you for that, Ian.

Ian: Here is a point of good news, though. I said that the autocrat has a roughly 50% chance of ascending the presidency, and the good news there is we all, and this goes to the point about institutions don't protect themselves, we all have the agency to tip that balance. This is still within our control and choice, and I'm reminded of something that Vladimir Kara-Murza told us at a summit on democracy we held in 2017. For those who don't know Vlad, Vlad is one of the bravest democracy advocates anywhere in the world. He has been going toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin in Russia, including from within the country which has currently landed him in prison. I think it is important that we remind the world that he continues to be in prison on phony-baloney charges because Putin is afraid he's the next Alexei Navalny, and I worry in which direction that could that could go.

What Vlad said to us when we gathered a bunch of democracy advocates in 2017 in Washington and asked Vlad and other people who've been fighting autocrats around the world for some advice, he said, "You know what? Right now, you don't know who's going to win your next election. I know who's going to win our election next election in Russia. Protect that because once you lose that, you can never get it back." The good news is not only do we not know who's going to win the next election United States, we have control to affect it, and I think that's something that should be our inspiring Prozac if we need it.

Shikha: Yes, thanks for trying to cheer me up. I'm not sure I'm buying it. Thanks a lot, Ian. This was great.

Landry Ayres: Thank you for listening to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. For more like this, make sure to subscribe for free at Until next time.

The UnPopulist invites interesting thinkers from across the political spectrum to foster a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation to advance liberal values, including thinkers it may—or may not—agree with.

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