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Trump’s unprecedented call for protests is the latest sign of his drive to downgrade America’s institutions


Former President Donald Trump made this known in a social media post on March 18, 2023 he would be arrested on March 21 on costs arising from a research led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Bragg’s office is investigating hush money payments to adult movie star Stormy Daniels allegedly made to embarrass candidate Trump on the eve of the 2016 presidential election.


Scholar Shelley Inglis spent more than 15 years at the United Nations, advising governments and democracy advocates on how to strengthen the rule of law, human rights and democratic governance. We asked her about Trump’s post.

What did you think of when you heard his call to protest?

Let me start with a quick description of populism because it’s important to my thoughts on Trump’s post. Portraying Populist Movements”the people in a moral struggle against elites”, scholars Jane Mansbridge and Stephen Macedo describe it. A degree of populism is inherent in democracies where candidates appeal to election by ‘the people’.

But what I call autocratic populists use this narrative to claim that they are the only voice of “the people” and that those who oppose them are “evil” or even “evil.” They undermine any opposition to it and try to hold them accountable, including independent institutions such as courts, elections and the media. This is how such populists become so dangerous to democracy and the rule of law.

Members of the media set up cameras in front of the courthouse in New York on March 20, 2023, ahead of former President Donald Trump’s expected indictment.
AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Trump has that autocrat’s populism, saying that he is not only anti-elite but that he is “the onlywho can represent the people and call on the public to question legitimate democratic institutions – which he did even when he was the head of those institutions.

Scholars like me know that protests play an important role in societies, and the freedom to demonstrate is part of a democratic society. The idea of ​​peaceful protests is to hold the government accountable and ensure that people have freedom of expression and can participate in demonstrating their demands. But I believe protests are most valuable when they come from civil society or interest groups.

It really is a red flag when a political party or leader uses people to protest in a democracy like the US. That devalues ​​the idea that protests come from the people or what we call civil society. Instead, it is a manipulation of a democratic society.

Trump didn’t ask his followers to protest a policy, did he?

He asked for a protest on his behalf because of what an independent institution is doing. It is a protest about and for him.

It’s hard for me to think of an example in recent history where political leaders in a democracy like the US demanded that people protest, even over a particular issue, let alone for them. So Trump’s call is a genuine populist move that is actually designed to undermine respect for democratic institutions, while popular protests and advocacy can be a sign of a vibrant and healthy democracy.

Then-President Donald Trump declared “I am the chosen one” during a White House session with reporters on August 21, 2019.

But doesn’t Trump view the moves to hold him accountable as coming from the radical left, not as an administration holding him accountable?

Demonizing the institution and claiming that the institutions are controlled by an agenda is part of the narrative Trump has created. It is the populism of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Even when he was the head of government and its institutions, he pushed this story by effectively saying things like, “This election will be unfair… even though I am the President of the United States. I am already saying that these elections, conducted by my own government, albeit on several levels, will be unfair.”

Once populists come to power, they will breaking down any form of accountabilityall the checks and balances, and they lower the opposition through very clever ways of creating a narrative that somehow justifies it.

But Trump is no longer in power. How does that still work?

He continues that story, which is really to say that he is the only one representing the people of the United States as a legitimate voice. And anything done against him is actually against the United States. So his line in that post, “Take our country back,” means “Give me back power, or do something against institutions that might hold me accountable.”

It is important to me that people realize that protest is productive and healthy for democracy when it comes from the bottom up. But when it is manipulated by political actors, calling for people to protest for them and overthrowing American institutions, as on January 6, it can actually pose a major threat to democracy.

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