Argument

Never Give Strongmen a Second Chance

Latin American history offers a clear lesson to the United States: Ban Donald Trump from running for election ever again.

A man in a Donald Trump mask joins a Mariachi Band and an immigration rights activists rally in front of the White House on June 5, 2018 in Washington.
A man in a Donald Trump mask joins a Mariachi Band and an immigration rights activists rally in front of the White House on June 5, 2018 in Washington. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Outgoing President Donald Trump’s latest offense to American democracy—inciting riots that sacked the U.S. Capitol—puts in stark relief his disregard for the country’s institutions and his insistence on putting himself above the law. Officials in Washington—both Republicans and Democrats—have now turned to the question of what to do about it.

They should pay close attention to the lesson provided by other countries that have lived under authoritarians like Trump: that they must be removed from office and banned from reelection. Research shows that protecting democracy requires eliminating the figures with authoritarian tendencies who pose a threat to it. Ousting Trump could also help to deter future would-be authoritarians from seeking office.

Latin America provides clear lessons in this regard. My own research indicates that top officials from outgoing authoritarian governments in the region during the years 1900-2015 were four times more likely to return to positions of political or economic power under democracy than to be punished for their misdeeds. And when they did, the quality of democracy deteriorated.

When authoritarians linger, representation and accountability suffer. This can both stall democratic improvement and foster democratic erosion. When authoritarians retain sufficient power to protect their interests, they can limit the scope of democracy by carving out exemptions for themselves from rules and laws, or by 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 push decision-making and policy toward their own preferences and away from the preferences of the majority. And they can hound their opponents relentlessly, volleying armies of internet trolls, relaying death threats, deploying militiamen, and using powerful political groups to target them for political attack and to fund efforts to unseat them. The result is an impaired democracy that is much more favorable to the interests of authoritarians.

Take for example Brazil. During the country’s last military dictatorship from 1964-1985, authoritarian elites were organized within the ruling National Renewal Alliance (ARENA) party, later renamed the Social Democratic Party (PDS). Many of these politicians dispersed across the political spectrum after transition. But they retained substantial influence. Four leading figures from the dictatorship’s final administration became national deputies under democracy. Two others—including former Vice President Aureliano Chaves and former Development Minister Jarbas Passarinho—obtained cabinet positions. Former Foreign Affairs 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, a national deputy.

These individuals from Brazil’s authoritarian past served as bridges to elected executives who needed authoritarian elements in the legislature to pass legislation, and who sought to avert civil-military crises. And they played a role in watering down the progressivity of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution and blocking major social and economic change for decades. Indeed, the military’s return to the fore of Brazilian politics under President Jair Bolsonaro can be linked to the country’s most recent bout of military rule.

Authoritarians also retained broad influence in Mexico, Peru, and Chile long after their transitions to democracy in ways that limited democratic deepening. All these countries are still struggling with that legacy. Take Chile: Only in 2020 on the back of enormous protests did it vote to replace the authoritarian constitution of General Augusto Pinochet, which still guides the country’s politics.

Latin America also provides positive examples of vanquishing authoritarians. Though it took several years, Uruguay excised many of its powerful former authoritarians from the 1980s. Guatemala did the same in the wake of its civil war. In Panama, U.S. invasion in 1989 resulted in the flight or imprisonment of various top-level elites from the Manuel Noriega dictatorship, including the powerful military members that comprised the so-called Gang of Six. All these countries had democratic openings following these changes. And while Guatemala’s democracy has teetered at times, Uruguay is a shining star of Latin American democracy. Panama is also solidly democratic.

More recent years have also provided lessons for the United States. As democracy has grown roots in the region, returns to outright authoritarianism have been relatively rare. Instead, the region has more often flirted with elected executives that act as would-be authoritarians while in office in much the same manner as Trump has in the United States.

A number of these politicians seek to overstay their welcome in office. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe tried and failed to reform the country’s constitution to enable another term in office in the 2000s. Former President Rafael Correa passed a new constitution in Ecuador that paved the way for another reelection. And former President Cristina Fernández in Argentina returned to power by serving as vice president to a political ally. These tricks have challenged democracy in each of these countries. But democracy nonetheless stands, and few observers think that it would be stronger had these politicians gotten their way and remained directly in office. Efforts to attack the media and the independence of the judiciary were cut short by removing them from office. And all were cut further down to size by being prosecuted for their abuses of power.

Those countries in which authoritarians got their way and remained in office indefinitely—especially Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, as well as Evo Morales’s attempts to do so in Bolivia—are clear cautionary tales.

Prosecuting Trump after he leaves office is a more controversial and risky alternative to banning him from office. It would put the burden on President-elect Joe Biden, despite the fact that incumbent American presidents have a long history of forbearance when it comes to judging preceding presidents. Prosecuting a former president who has committed crimes can potentially renew faith in clean government, but it risks polarizing the nation and jeopardizing the agenda of a new president. The current exceptional circumstances might just warrant that risk, but it is a second best.

A better approach to protect the future of American democracy would be for Democrats and mainstream Republicans to work together, building from today’s impeachment, to convict Trump and ban him from future office. Many Republicans—though not all—recognize that Trump is a major risk to their party brand. After all, he is the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover to preside over an electoral sweep by his opponents across the presidency, House, and Senate. And Trump’s unwillingness to concede an election he clearly lost followed by his incitement of the Capitol riots is testing many Republicans’ patience. Even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell now tacitly supports Trump’s second impeachment. And it is not lost on moderate Republicans like the Bushes or Mitt Romney that Trump’s stripe of Republicanism poses an existential threat to them within the party.

Banning Trump from office could occur before or after the handover to Biden. Regardless, the key lesson from Latin America is that if you don’t rule out the nefarious influence from the past, then it will linger and continue to undermine democracy.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.

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