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Yascha Mounk is a lecturer at Harvard, a columnist at Slate, and the host of The Good Fight podcast. He’s also an expert on how democracies backslide into illiberalism — which was the topic of our first conversation on this podcast.
But when Mounk and I last spoke, fears of Trump’s illiberal instincts seemed to have been overblown. This was an administration too incompetent to be authoritarian.
But Mounk made a prediction then that has, I think, been borne out: Trump’s illiberal instincts would be catalyzed by his failures, not his successes. As Trump finds himself frustrated by Congress, and by the FBI investigation, and by Robert Mueller’s inquiry, and by White House leakers, he lashes out at the system he thinks is unfairly, even dangerously, constraining him.
Of late, Trump’s illiberalism has made a comeback — he’s giving speeches calling for more police brutality, he fired an FBI director who threatened him, he’s attacking his own attorney general for doing too little to shield him from investigation, he’s demanding vast changes to congressional rules, he’s calling for administration lawyers to begin exploring the reach of his pardon powers, and he's running a White House where the clear guiding principle is loyalty to Trump rather than loyalty to country. But as Mounk and I discuss in this podcast, that’s not the scary part.
The scary part isn’t Trump’s illiberalism but the political system’s acceptance of it. If you had read off Trump’s list of offenses as a hypothetical 12 months ago, you would’ve been told that neither Congress nor the public would allow any of this to go unpunished. But Trump remains around 40 percent in the polls and his support among congressional Republicans has barely wavered.
This is a lesson that goes far beyond Trump: We’re learning that American politics is much more vulnerable to, and much less offended by, leaders who want to subvert the rule of law than we thought. It may be that Trump is too impulsive and short-tempered to take advantage of that fact. But will that be true of his successors, too?
As you’ll hear in this podcast, as Mounk and I were discussing that question, we got news that Trump had fired his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and replaced him with Gen. John Kelly. You’ll get to hear us react to that in real time. Enjoy!