Outgoing President Donald Trump’s recent misdemeanor against American democracy – inciting unrest that looted the US Capitol – eases his disregard for the country’s institutions and insistence on standing above the law. Washington officials – both Republicans and Democrats – have now turned to the question of what to do about it.
You should pay close attention to the teaching of other countries that have lived under authoritarians like Trump: they must be removed from office and excluded from re-election. Research shows that protecting democracy requires the elimination of the characters with authoritarian tendencies who pose a threat to them. Ousting Trump could also help discourage future budding authorities from seeking office.
Latin America offers clear lessons in this regard. My own research shows that senior officials from outgoing authoritarian governments in the region were four times more likely to return to positions of political or economic power under democracy between 1900 and 2015 than to be punished for their misdeeds. And when they did that, the quality of democracy deteriorated.
When authoritarians linger, representation and accountability suffer. This can both stall democratic improvement and promote democratic erosion. If authoritarians retain enough power to protect their interests, they can narrow the scope of democracy by carving out exceptions to rules and laws for themselves or ensuring that certain rules and laws are not enacted. The result is a qualified form of democracy.
If authoritarians and their supporters retain enough power to go on the offensive, they can drive decision-making and politics towards their own preferences and away from the preferences of the majority. And they can relentlessly pursue their opponents, assemble armies of internet trolls, pass on death threats, use militiamen and use powerful political groups to target and fund efforts to depose them. The result is a compromised democracy that is much more beneficial to the interests of the authoritarian.
Take Brazil, for example. During the country’s last military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, authoritarian elites were organized within the ruling party of the National Renewal Alliance (ARENA), which was later renamed the Social Democratic Party (PDS). Many of these politicians spread across the political spectrum after the transition. However, they retained a significant influence. Four leading figures in the final administration of the dictatorship became national MPs under democracy. Two others – including former Vice President Aureliano Chaves and former Development Minister Jarbas Passarinho – were given cabinet positions. Former Foreign Minister Ramiro Saraiva Guerreiro was appointed to an influential diplomatic post, and the regime’s intended civilian successor, Paulo Maluf, was elected mayor of São Paulo and later national MP.
These individuals from Brazil’s authoritarian past served as bridges to elected executives who needed authoritarian elements in lawmakers to pass laws and avert civil-military crises. And they played a role in diluting the progressiveness of the Brazilian constitution of 1988 and blocking major social and economic changes for decades. Indeed, the return of the military to the forefront of Brazilian politics under President Jair Bolsonaro can be linked to the country’s recent military rule.
In Mexico, Peru, and Chile, too, long after their transition to democracy, the authoritarianists had widespread influence in ways that limited democratic deepening. All of these countries are still struggling with this legacy. Take Chile: it was not until 2020, due to enormous protests, that it voted to replace the authoritarian constitution of General Augusto Pinochet, which still leads the country’s politics.
Latin America also provides positive examples of defeating authoritarians. Though it took several years, Uruguay cut out many of its powerful former authoritarians from the 1980s. Guatemala did the same after its civil war. In Panama, the 1989 US invasion resulted in the flight or imprisonment of various high-ranking elites from the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, including the powerful military personnel who made up the so-called Gang of Six. All of these countries had democratic openings after these changes. And while Guatemala’s democracy has wavered at times, Uruguay is a shining star of Latin American democracy. Panama is also solidly democratic.
The United States has also received education in recent years. With democracy taking root in the region, a return to total authoritarianism has been relatively rare. Instead, the region has been more likely to flirt with elected executives who act as potential authoritarianists while in office, much like Trump did in the US.
Some of these politicians try to exceed their greetings in office. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe tried and failed to reform the country’s constitution to allow for another term in the 2000s. Former President Rafael Correa passed a new constitution in Ecuador that paved the way for further re-election. Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández returned to power as the vice-president of a political ally. These tricks have challenged democracy in each of these countries. Even so, democracy persists, and few observers believe it would be stronger if these politicians had found their way and stayed straight in office. Efforts to attack the media and the independence of the judiciary have been halted by their removal from office. And all of them have been further downsized by being prosecuted for abuse of power.
The countries where authoritarians prevailed and remained in office indefinitely – particularly Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Evo Morales’ attempts to do so in Bolivia – are clear warning stories.
Persecuting Trump after leaving office is a controversial and riskier alternative to getting him out of office. This would put a strain on President-elect Joe Biden, although incumbent American presidents have a long history of leniency when it comes to judging past presidents. Persecuting a former president who has committed crimes can potentially renew confidence in clean government, but it risks polarizing the nation and jeopardizing a new president’s agenda. The current exceptional circumstances could justify this risk, but it is second best.
A better approach to protecting the future of American democracy would be for Democrats and Republicans to work together to condemn Trump from today’s impeachment and get him out of office. Many Republicans – if not all – recognize that Trump poses a huge risk to their party brand. After all, he is the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover to lead an election campaign by his opponents in the presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate. And Trump’s unwillingness to allow an election he has clearly lost, followed by instigating the riot in the Capitol, is testing the patience of many Republicans. Even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell now tacitly supports Trump’s second impeachment. And for moderate Republicans like The Bushes or Mitt Romney, it is not lost that Trump’s streak of republicanism poses an existential threat to them within the party.
Trump’s ban from office could come before or after he was handed over to Biden. Regardless, the main lesson from Latin America is that unless you rule out the shameful influence of the past, it will persist and continue to undermine democracy.