Assailing Democracies, and How to Defend Them

During the Cold War, America became “the leader of the free world” and its “exceptional” nature was clear. It won that war to emerge as the sole superpower and championed democracy across the world, pushing autocracies to follow the will of their people. However, in a move unprecedented in 250 years in American history, President Trump refused to accept the election results, culminating in a violent attack on its parliament. 

The events of January 6th have radically altered the shape of Donald Trump’s legacy as the 45th President of the United States of America. The storming of the Capitol building that day by an angry mob in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results has been variously labelled an attempted coup, an insurrection, a riot, a protest and a violent attack, among others. But with five deaths and over 130 arrests and counting, it is a unique event in the nation’s modern history. 

Over the short term, it marked the effective end of Donald’s Trump’s presidency. With a majority of Americans, including many Republican party leaders, holding the president at least partially responsible for the events, January 6th marked the abrupt end of the president’s efforts to contest the election results, and his silencing on social media to speak directly with his supporters. Over the longer term, however, it may be seen as the coda of an unprecedented four year plus assault on America democratic principles and institutions. 

These four years of fearmongering, misinformation, pandering to populist sentiment, undermining of institutions and the abandonment of broader principles and values of what were widely considered to be decent conduct, represents the real coup that was attempted on America’s democracy which, had they been only marginally more successful, would have obviated the reasons for the riot in the first place. The actions taken by Trump are clearly not new in history or in autocracies today. However, they provide important elements of the playbook that any assailant on a modern on democracy would need to follow, and any successor will need to pay attention to in order to better placed to succeed. As such, it is an essential guide to what democracies will need to focus on too. 

This month’s Sign of the Times looks at the detailed playbook that emerges from Donald Trump’s presidency that democracies around the world will need to defend against, along with agenda that is required to counter any future attacks they may face.


High Stakes for America’s New President and its Democracy

On January 20th, 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America, and much of the world, the 74m people who voted for the incumbent aside, perhaps, breathed a collective sigh of relief. Following four years of uncertainty under what proved to be a highly divisive and combative leader in Trump both at home and abroad, American leadership in the world and the post-war liberal order that it underwrote suffered more than under any other president. Joe Biden was overwhelmingly welcomed around the world and by a majority of Americans with the promise to return to ‘normality’1.

With his inaugural speech calling for unity at home and leadership abroad, hopes are high that Biden will heal America’s wounds and bridge the deep divide in its society and its politics. He has his work cut out for him: 400,000 Americans, and counting, have died from COVID-19 and defeating the virus will require both suppressing further spread and a massive vaccination program; 11m jobs have been lost in the US due to the way the virus has been handled, worse than most countries in the world2, and significant further stimulus will be required for a full recovery; the domestic political environment remains fraught with tension with 147 Republican representatives having voted against certifying the election (despite over 80 lawsuits failing to unearth any grounds for doing so); the recent violence at the Capitol has confirmed the Department of Homeland Security’s assessment that white extremism is the greatest security threat to America today3, and; US-China relations are at all-time low, with China having sanctioned several members of the Trump-era state department. These are just a few of the challenges facing the incoming administration.

For the National Populist version of the Republican agenda - which may well end up being the party’s dominant model going forward - at first glance, it would appear as if much was achieved during the past four years: three new supreme court justices have consolidated a conservative majority there, tax cuts, a record stock market, a partial withdrawal of US troops from foreign soil and the termination of numerous multi-lateral obligations to implement “America First”. The main achievement however might well be cementing the idea among a formidable base of 25-30 million fervent supporters4 that Democrats are the enemy of America. More substantively though, is the fact that nearly all of the longer-term issues that won Trump the presidency in 2016 remain unresolved: stagnating wages, continued industrial job loss, the country’s trade deficit, and the federal debt, all of which have suffered during the past four years.

Unless President Biden is able to satisfactorily address these underlying issues, he will be unable to heal the divide that blights America and stops it functioning at home and abroad as a leader. Given the systemic and entrenched nature of many of these problems, four years is not a long time to do so. Without a dramatic and widespread change in the status quo, the country could easily return to Trump’s legacy of division and confrontation in one term. And while Donald Trump’s political future is currently very much up in the air, a failure in the current administration would make it almost inevitable that somebody else will try to follow in Trump’s footsteps and pick up the torch of what has proven to be a destructive National Populism for America and the world. 

While Donald Trump’s brand of politics and governing phenomenon had never been seen before in America, this certainly does not mean that the country has now broken free of it. Its successes are likely to attract ambitious politicians and encourage them to discount (or even count on) its dangerous approach as catalysts for their ends. Having won more votes than any sitting president or past contender in history, it is more or less guaranteed that others will pick-up where he left off. And it is very possible that a successor will be more effective than Trump was at appearing to be interested, or actually being interested, in the fundamental issues while still furthering the power base of the individual (and secondly the party) in moving the country in a dangerous direction that ultimately divides it, separates it from its allies and weakens its superpower position. 


The Audacious Assault on American Power from the Inside 

President Trump is a man of consequence and he has potentially impacted the arc of history. He has shown how the most powerful seat in politics in the world can be taken by an individual and then used to pursue almost any agenda of their choosing, leading a country it into deep division, alienating its allies, overturn its international agreements, withdrawing it from institutions and stirring it to violence between its peoples. And rather than their actions, the personality, conduct, and methods of the individuals determine whether they will be loved for this by enough of the people to be re-elected to power. 

The recent storming of the Capitol, which many are labelling as an attempted coup, in many ways has highlighted Trump’s weaknesses. As far as coups go, the events of Jan 6th barely deserve the label. Despite the tragic deaths, and the fact that there could have easily been many more, it’s hard to believe that America’s government, much less its democracy, was ever under any real threat. An angry mob felt entitled to storm the Capitol building, break in, cause damage and engage in violence. They succeeded in delaying the vote certification but not stopping it, leaving it to 147 Republicans to try to stop it. This was not the Storming of the Bastille. 

However, Trump’s weakness does not stem from the failure of the mob to stop the vote certification, it stems from the fact that the mob was his last option, having lost the election by seven million votes and exhausted all legal remedies to stop the transition of power. If the aim was to simply position for his next move, with less than 30% support and his social media handles deleted, he succeeded in gaining the lowest popularity in recorded history of any out-going president5, if the aim was not to engender violence, he was inept at best. If one credits him with knowing what he was doing, it was also tragic in its execution.

In the broader context of Trump’s presidency, his efforts to overturn the election can be seen as the last act of aUnless fundamental changes are made, it is inevitable that somebody else will try to follow in Trump’s footsteps and pick up the torch of what has proven to be a destructive National Populism for America and the world four-year campaign to amass and hold on to power at all cost, with the incitement of the Capitol mob marking the coda of his ultimate failure to do so. This broader four-year effort, represents the real coup attempted on America’s democracy, which lost America the support and goodwill of almost the whole world with 84% saying they had little confidence in Trump and 66% saying they did not have a favourable view of America itself.6

Despite the failures of the mob and those that incited it, January 6th was a major event in the history of the United States. It is the day of the intentional disruption of government by a politically motivated mob, incited by a sitting, outgoing president of the United States in a bid to intimidate congress and reverse an election that by all rational measures had been clearly lost. Of the many features of democracy, the ability to remove a leader through a peaceful transfer of power is perhaps the most critical one7. And as a critical indicator of the strength of a democracy and the institutions that constitute it, this central tenet of American democracy was unchallenged for 244 years. 

However, while unprecedented, Trump’s failure to concede the election was perhaps unsurprising, given that he had already stated before the election, that he could not lose and if he did, it would be due to voter fraud and therefore he would not accept the outcome. What is of consequence from the perspective of assailing democracy is that 74m people nevertheless voted for him despite his threat, and after the election 147 Republicans continued to support him as the mob raged through the Capitol building. The failure of January 6th points to the inability of Trumpism to compel, but the 74m votes cast for him in the election point to its ability to beguile. Stable democracies do not fall to coups, they fall to populists who gradually weaken them from within. Learning this lesson, a less abrasive, offensive, and polarising candidate and one that is far more competent, a Trump 2.0, would be a force to be reckoned with in 2024 and beyond potentially. It also poses the warning for democracies; what happened in America, can happen in other democracies across the world. 


Eleven Steps to Undermining a Democracy

So, is America exceptional in laying a siege to its government? Many have seen such scenes the world over of course, particularly in non-democratic states. The rise of the people and the violent transition of government is the norm in many autocracies and have been generally welcomed by liberal democracies. In modern times they include the overthrow of the government in Romania in 1989 following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring of the 2010s and various protests in Hong Kong including the recent ones of 2019-2020. They are seen as the natural consequence of unfair or despotic government. 

However, 6th January 2021 was a shock to democracies the world over since this represented the instigation of violence to undermine a democracy from the inside, and a democracy that was often called ‘the leader of the free world’. The siege of democratically elected governments after an election is perhaps unique though, even more so when it is the world’s oldest democracy besieged at the instigation of its own president. The overall strategy and tactics employed by Trump from his candidacy onward through to the end of his presidency provide important insights for the success and failure of any future leader seeking to assail a democracy. While many of the actions taken follow the path laid down by populists (and nationalists) throughout history, Trump’s playbook is very much a product of the present.

Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, or Miyamoto Musashi provide deep insights into many of the strategies and tactics of waging war and fighting battles, that are still very“A basic rule of democracy is: After elections, there are winners and losers. Both have to play their roles with decency and a sense of responsibility, so that democracy itself remains the winner.”German Chancellor Angela Merkel pertinent today. However, the possibilities and potential take on a different magnitude, character and method in the modern world where everyone is connected, and information created and disseminated in real time and directly into the hands of the individual. While an assailant’s core strategy may remain essentially the same across history, the technological tools available determine the campaign and tactics, and modern technology enabling the waging of information warfare on an unprecedented level. Data analytics provides transformational levels of intelligence on one’s opponents and supporters. Global connectivity provides direct access to nearly every person on the planet and social media provides new direct channels of communication. Any successful assailant on a modern democracy will need to fundamentally master the use of all these technologies for their campaigns.

A detailed analysis shows that a playbook that can be derived from Trump’s actions is incomplete, given that it ultimately failed to keep him in power for a second term. Supporters may well argue that he would have won had it not been for the pandemic – something that one will not know – but that is like saying, one would have passed the exam if the questions were easier. The simple fact is that the strategy, tactics and deployments chosen by the president failed to navigate the problem in front of him. Would-be assailants on democracies will therefore need to look further than just the Trump presidency for a comprehensive guide to amassing and retaining power, and there are certainly a number of potential role models to be found in recent history. 

Protecting democracy and ensuring competent, transparent, and just government will require effectively countering this playbook. For America the need for this may arise sooner than expected. If the incoming administration fails to adequately address the more fundamental challenges facing America, the 2024 election could well see the emergence of a “Trump 2.0” candidate, one who has his predecessor’s personality, raw instinct and energy but has also learned the lessons of his failures to execute the playbook below comprehensively and competently. 

An additional complication is that the public spirit or expectation may have been damaged in some way and that there may be a need for non-populists to use some of the playbook too. If that is the case, politics in America’s democracy may have changed for the worse.


The Playbook for the Would-be Assailant of a Democracy 

In order to effectively safeguard democracies, it is critical to understand the playbook of an assailant. Drawing on recent events and more, the playbook to defend against looks something like this:

1. Take Over a Mainstream Political Parties and Institutions

“… this isn’t their Republican party anymore, this is Donald Trump’s Republican party. This is the Republican party that will put America first.”   Donald Trump Jr, Jan 6th “Save America” rally

In most democracies, political parties lie at the core of both the electoral process and effective governments, providing the means to win elections on the one hand and the machinery to govern once they have won on the other hand. And so, the most effective strategy for a speedy rise to power for any assailant on democracy is to align oneself with and eventually to control a political party.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Selecting the party to hijack. It must be recognized that in the US, and in many other countries, starting a party is an enormous task and even with Trump’s name recognition, that was insufficient to start a viable political party. For Trump (who has changed party affiliation multiple times over his life)8 aligning himself with the Republican party was the best fit given its open field of potential nominees and his history of attacks on Barack Obama.
  2. Entering the game, become a candidate. The first requirement is to enter the race. This is generally easy in democracies where candidacies are typically open to all citizens of legal age. Given the US electoral system, the only qualification Trump needed to run as a Republican candidate was a party registration, with a series of primaries and caucuses allowing him to build voter momentum and pick-up initial party delegates needed for his eventual nomination as the Republican party candidate. 
  3. Aligning financial support. Elections cost money and securing a large war chest is critical for a successful campaign, whether in the form of support by a handful of megadonors or through a mass of small check contributions. Trump failed to build an effective funding machine until very late in the election relative to other candidates: eight months before the election he had raised less than half as a much money as his opponent for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz (and less than a fifth as a much as Hilary Clinton). While Trump compensated for this with receiving billions in free media coverage, aspiring assailants would need to secure cash funds early in the election cycle. 
  4. Winning the nomination and securing a mass media backer. A candidate that cannot win the debates between prospective candidates cannot be backed. So, clearly any assailant must have enough political aptitude to achieve that. If there is sufficient momentum, the media can be tilted to support an outsider. In Trump’s case that required NewsCorp to throw the weight of Fox News behind Trump, following the strong ratings he generated for it during the Republican candidate debates. 
  5. Aligning the party’s power-players or making them irrelevant. Every institution has a power base that carries its “I fear that I will be the last Republican president."Former President George W Bush, 2017 values and norms and stands in the way of assailants. The most powerful way to make these irrelevant in a democracy is the support of the people. Trump’s power came from his direct appeal to the Republican voter base and so he was able to consecutively side-line candidates from the evangelical right (like Mike Huckabee), the Republican establishment (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie) and grassroots conservatives like Ted Cruz, winning sufficient delegates to make the lack of support by party leaders like Paul Ryan (the Speaker of the House) and the Bush family irrelevant to the party’s endorsement. 
  6. Taking over the party manifesto. Any takeover requires allies and enablers too though, and with increasing voter momentum, Trump was also able to gather a growing cadre of elected officials within the party who were willing to ignore or even defend actions that are diametrically opposed to the party’s traditional core values of a hawkish Russia policy, military power projection overseas, and a commitment to family values and religion, culminating in their betrayal of the Constitution itself in their refusal to certify the election result in the absence of a legal justification.
  7. Purging the party. Multi-decade autocrats set the bar in terms of ruthless control over a party. While Donald Trump may have effectively led the GOP, he never fully controlled it, and throughout his presidency faced harsh critics from within it such as John McCain and Mitt Romney. While full control of a political party will likely stop short of the periodic purging that leaders like Mao and Stalin conducted, there are many other tools available to squash dissent like official censure, withdrawal of party campaign funding or the loss of committee seats for lawmakers, tools that Trump was never able to use.


2. Organize, Mobilise and Direct the Voter Base

“I have the most loyal people … I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”   Donald J Trump, Campaign speech, 2016

Any leader needs followers, most preferably highly loyal followers.  The most successful assailants on democracies build ‘cults of personality’ around themselves with large bases of political supporters that are personally loyal to them, rather than to a party, to a nation or to shared values and beliefs.  Building personal loyalty makes it both much harder for adversaries to displace them, and easier for assailants to remain opportunistic on policies and views, leaving them free to change direction without being accused of betraying an ideology or core value.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Possessing personal identity and brand. Any potential leader needs to stand out from the crowd and differentiate themself from potential competitors. In terms of identity, Trump’s celebrity status provided him with upfront brand recognition while his self-avowed position as a successful businessman rather than a political insider, differentiated him at a time when trust in political institutions was at an all-time low.  
  2. Selecting issues that resonate. Holding the attention of the crowd ultimately depends on telling them what they want to hear. In terms of content, Trump spoke to the concerns - industrial job loss, immigration, the perceived dilution of American culture and values - of growing parts of the population who felt unheard.  With these groups feeling left behind by both parties, Trump’s lack of experience, credibility and concrete plans to address these issues was less important than that fact that he was acknowledging them in the first place. 
  3. Truth-proof at best, truth confusion as second best. Storytellers know to never let the truth ruin a good story and this applies to demagogues as well. Trump augmented his messaging with an unprecedented amount of misinformation and untruths, with some sources fact checking over 30,000 false or misleading claims9  during his presidency, which despite being untrue, resonated with his base.  
  4. Tailoring the messaging to key voters. Data analytics and social media enable micro-targeting of key voter groups and swing voters with tailored messaging, something that Trump and his supporters did very well.  Florida’s Cuban community is a potential election decider in the country’s largest swing state, and the Trump campaign specifically sought to paint Democrats as communists to this fiercely anti-communist group.  More nefariously, the community was also targeted by supporters of the president with significant tailored fake news about the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, personalised false profiling of Joe Biden and various conspiracy theories to sway their vote10.
  5. Direct and personal engagement of the people. Disintermediation of the opposing media is difficult to do in a vibrant democracy. However, and perhaps most innovatively, in terms of communication strategy, Trump disintermediated the traditional media and used technology and social media to communicate directly to his nearly 90m followers on Twitter, sending an average of nearly 20 messages every day during his presidency.  In a perverse sense, even negative coverage was positive since it created familiarity and so the opposing media became an asset. Enabled by technology that placed the message directly into the palm and with social media allowed engagement with him and others, a strong sense of personal attachment was created in a huge community.  
  6. Speaking to the people, from online to the real world. The creation of events to engage cannot be substituted for with technology. The use of mass rallies creates a deeper sense of community, reinforces the daily touch, and is powerful in enabling the mobilisation of crowds to turn on the opposition.  Trump was able to do this against otherwise popular Republican rivals, the media, the political opposition, and even ultimately to incite a mob to storm the Capitol.


3. Establish Alternative Media to Overcome the Mainstream

“The Democrats don't matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Steven Bannon, Former White House Chief Strategist 

“You know why I [attack the press]? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”   Donald Trump, 60 Minute interview, 2016

Undermining the credibility of opponents and critics that cannot be subverted is critical.  Directly attacking the fourth estate and experts damages public trust in them and reduces their ability to act as an effective check and balance on government actions and powers.  Fake news and misinformation are particularly effective in that they can be used to both directly damage the reputation of an opponent and reduce public trust in the the truthfulness of media more generally. In places where the fourth estate is strong, overcoming the mainstream media can be best accomplished by creating new channels of propaganda to spread the message directly.

Key playbook elements:

  1. Flooding the airwaves. The key to media power (in the absence of owning it outright) is media exposure. With his unorthodox and controversial speeches and rally performances, Trump was able to draw the media’s attention to himself like no other candidate. Trump received nearly US$2bn in free media coverage11, being the subject of more than quarter of all election coverage through February 2016, when he was still competing for the Republican nomination in a field of 12 candidates. 
  2. Undermining the value of truth and inconvenient facts. Recognising that a central concept of human “This term “Enemy of the People” automatically made it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven. It made possible the use of the cruellest repression, violating all norms of legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin.”Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, 1956psychology is to avoid psychic discomfort, "ego defense" means that people wish to change their beliefs rather than face the fact that they allowed themselves to be duped. So, lying to them and persistently doing so works because people ignore the lies once they are vested in the liar. Fact checkers point to over 30,000 untrue or misleading statements, in some cases with blatant lies easily proven to be untrue. By continuously feeding misinformation and ‘alternative facts’ into the news cycle, trust in mainstream media fell to an all-time low, particularly among Republicans, only 18% of whom currently trusted traditional new sources.12.
  3. Subverting and aligning the mainstream media. The best way to deflect critical reporting is to co-opt the media as supporters (or be co-opted by them). Fox News’ initial critical reporting turned to a whole-hearted endorsement as Trump emerged as the Republican frontrunner (and one that resonated with key demographics of Fox News viewers) and in turn he began to provide preferential access to Fox over other channels. Between 2016 and 2019 Trump made more than 60 appearances of Fox, nearly four times the number of interviews granted to all other outlets combined. 
  4. Undermining the media where it cannot be aligned. Would-be assailants will need to neutralise media and journalists who cannot be swayed. Over the course of his presidency Trump referred to journalists and news outlets as ‘fake news’ over 2,000 times, effectively ‘weaponizing’ the term to delegitimise reporting that was critical of him, undermining their credibility and the value of fact checking and responsible journalism in general. 
  5. Building direct 24/7 access. Unfiltered access is a great prize. With nearly 90m followers, Trump was the eighth most followed person on the planet (before being exited from the platform), allowing him to fully control his messaging to attack opponents, boost his reputation and divert attention away from almost any topic potentially harmful to him, in turn suppressing negative related media coverage.13
  6. Energising the base with direct contact. Mass events create a hard core as evangelists and this is as much true for politics as it is for musical concerts, stage dramas and protest movements. Trump reset the bar for US politicians in terms of physical campaigning in an increasingly digital world, holding over 320 rallies during the 2016 election and unusually for a sitting president, holding dozens of rallies outside of any campaign season, allowing him to speak directly to his audience unfiltered and at length, while getting free news coverage to further spread his messaging.


4. Place Loyalists in the Levers of Power

"Sessions [the Attorney General] should have never recused himself [from the Russian election interference investigation] and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else." Donald J Trump, New York Times interview, July 2017

“I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive and more than energy.” Donald J Trump, Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and in Life, 2007

No government can be controlled by one man, no matter how capable they may be, so control and power depend on occupying the critical levers of power using loyal followers as agent. Institutions like the courts, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, regulators and government watchdogs are all potential restraints on executive power and placing individuals who are personally loyal to the leader to run these agencies undermines their institutional missions and is an overt part of the agenda of assailants.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Picking loyalists. Loyalty and competence rather than one of the two is the requirement. President Trump by his own admission valued loyalty above all other considerations and made key political appointments based on the expectation of loyalty rather than on a track record of competence, hiring former business associates and even family members with no previous policy experience into senior administration roles. The shortfall in competence or inability to be blindly loyal led to the highest turnover of any modern presidency.14
  2. Demanding demonstrations of loyalty. Loyalty needs to be tested if it is to be relied upon. Further, Trump demanded repeated expressions of loyalty, whether explicitly, (e.g. asking the then-FBI director Comey to pledge loyalty to him), publicly, (e.g. televised cabinet meetings where each member in turn praised the president) or implicitly, through wholly unreasonable demands (like the-Press Secretary Sean Spicer having to defend Trump’s lies about the size of his inauguration crowds). 
  3. Raising the stakes. Loyalty’s use to an assailant on democracy is that, if sufficiently strong, it can override critical principles like truth, justice and even the law. With his appointees’ loyalty firmly and publicly established, Trump often raised the stakes in terms of his demands, testing and pushing the boundaries of what they were prepared to do for him, for example requesting that White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx support the investigation of outlandish therapies without any clinical evidence or demanding that law enforcement agencies either drop or start investigations based on their potential impact on trump personally, such as Attorney General William Barr investigating Hunter Biden.15
  4. Punishing and replacing as needed. For an assailant on democracy, loyalty is only as useful as the objectives it can be used to achieve. When the loyalty Trump demanded (and needed) was deemed insufficiently forthcoming, the result was either rapid and public firings (such as in the case of FBI director James Comey) or public humiliation (such as in the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson). The end result creates an atmosphere of living with fear and obedience or leaving ignominiously; this presidency had the highest rate of cabinet turnover in living history, with 14 cabinet members being replaced in just four years.16


5. Pick Policies as Battles Based on the Ability to Win Them, Rather Than on their Benefits

"They built the Great Wall of China. That’s 13,000 miles. Here, we actually need 1,000 [miles] because we have natural barriers.” Donald J Trump, Campaign speech, March 2016

“Today we celebrate an extraordinary milestone, the completion of the promised 450 miles of border wall, 450 miles. Nobody realizes how big that is.” Donald J Trump, Speech at border wall, Jan. 2021, Note: Only 47 miles of new border wall were actually built.17

Successful populists build support and a reputation for effectiveness by picking the battles they can win and defining their goals to ensure they can be met. If a leader’s overarching goal is to remain in power, popularity replaces values as the guiding principle for strategy and policy, implying a tactical flexibility that allows for rapid policy shifts and even reversals, as well for throwing erstwhile allies under the bus when required. Political opportunism like this is, of course, not just limited to populists, but they do much better than more traditional politicians since they place fewer limits on what is acceptable.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Flexibility on values and positions. An unprincipled end is rarely achieved by principled means and would-be assailants on democracy will likely pick positions of convenience, rather than of principles, to achieve their goals. Trump first registered as a Republican in 1987 and since that time has changed his party affiliation no less than five times. Since this period, his position on core political issues including abortion and gun control has also shifted, in some cases multiple times. This flexibility allowed Trump to freely chose the causes he wanted to champion, rather than tying himself to party issues like abortion or LGBT rights that have vexed previous generations of politicians. 
  2. Playing to the crowd, not the facts. An effective assailant never loses sight of the need to be popular. Issues therefore need to be looked at through the lens of personal reputation and popularity, potentially at the expense of actual effectiveness. Blocking flights from China during the start of the coronavirus pandemic played well to Trump’s base, but ultimately had little impact on the spread of the virus which was already endemic at the time, while potentially effective measures like lockdowns and mask mandates were studiously avoided due to their perceived lack of voter support. 
  3. Focusing on controllables … and claiming lucky wins. Any successful populists will consistently demonstrate the ability to secure ‘wins’, or at least claim them. As a candidate, a large number of Trump’s campaign promises focused on actions entirely within his control via executive order, such as leaving the Paris Climate Agreement or dismantling environmental protection regulations or appointing conservative judges. This, combined with claiming wins outside his doing or control (like touting his employment wins while inheriting the lowest unemployment figures since the Global Financial Crisis), has led to a long list of campaign promise successes and policy accomplishments. 
  4. Massaging the metrics that define success. Importantly, actions also need to be defined as wins even when the outcomes are minimal, if necessary, by changing the metrics that measure success. During Trump’s presidency for example only 47 new miles of border wall were added to the US-Mexican border. However, by adding wall maintenance and replacement to the calculation, Trump was able to claim nearly 500 miles of wall built, to which existing natural barriers could be added to come up with an even larger ‘length of border secured’ claim.


6. Deploy Scorched Earth Policies

“We want to do trade with the UK but to be honest with you, this deal, under certain aspects of the deal, you can’t do it. You can’t trade. We can’t make a trade deal with the UK.”    Donald J Trump, on the need for the UK to do a “hard” Brexit split from the EU, LBC radio interview, Nov 2019

Effective democracies work not just on the basis of majority rule but also on the principle of compromise, with leaders seeking to build the largest possible consensus for important actions, on the basis that governments change, and controversial policies can therefore be undone.  Potential assailants on democracies, on the other hand, employ scorched earth tactics to entrench their power and enshrine their policies against future challengers.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Identifying objectives that cripple the opposition. Scorching the earth is most effective when it occurs on an opponent’s sacred ground. Healthcare is such an issue for Democrats, with the Affordable Care Act being the signature legislation of the Obama Administration. Given the time and political capital that was required to pass “Obamacare” it would have been near impossible to reinstate had Trump’s effort to repeal and replace it succeeded, thereby erasing a major part of Obama’s legacy, and likely scorching the earth for future proposed Democratic legislation on the topic. 
  2. Scorching the ground. A powerful weapon is scorching the earth such that the opponent cannot retreat from the path set. The UK’s Brexit is perhaps the best example of an effective scorched earth strategy: while the exit negotiations conducted by the UK and the EU may have been long and painful, they pale in comparison to the complexity of the decades of agreements and legislation that they replaced, so that there is no clear path to reversing Brexit even if the country unanimously wished to do so. Given how good the deal was that they had (independent currency, free access to the neighbouring market which was the biggest in the world, unhampered financial markets access and return subsidies for their impoverished regions), it is unlikely the EU would offer a returning UK such a good deal, making it even more unlikely. 
  3. Creating legal barriers. The use of legal barriers, preferably in the form of comprehensive legislation, canstymie one’s opponents more effectively than presidential decree. One of the Trump’s greatest shortcomings in terms of creating scorched earth was his over-reliance on executive orders, issuing more of these than any president since Jimmy Carter.18
    While these were easy to issue, they are equally easy to undo, with much of Donald’s Trump legacy already undone with Joe Biden re-joining the Paris Agreement and the WTO and repealing environmental deregulation. Complex and comprehensive legislation would have created much higher barriers, costing time effort and political capital to overcome. 
  4. Poisoning the Debate. The final step is to poison the debate and make the issue toxic for one’s successors. Again, the UK provides an example in its Brexit. The acrimony and animosity generated over the four-year Brexit process for example almost guarantees that subsequent governments for a generation or more are unlikely to touch the issue of re-joining the EU, thereby ensuring that the UK will go its own way in the future, for better or (more likely) for worse.

Stepping back, this part of the playbook may be where Trump accomplished the least during his presidency as outlined above. Even in an area like foreign policy, where Trump’s ‘America First’ sought to undo much of the international liberal order, defunding the UN and its agencies, dismissing NATO, alienating allies, abandoning the principles of free trade, and withdrawing from multi-lateral alliances that it once led, the changes brought about are not irreversible. But even failed attempts to scorch the earth can have long term implications: While the rest of the world will clearly welcome America reembracing the liberal world order, the experience of the past four years will leave many wary of trusting the permanence of America’s commitment, leading them to rely less on US leadership and form contingency plans of their own. 


7. Divide, Deepen the Divide, and Damn the Consequences

“[Black Lives Matter] is a symbol of hate…” Donald J Trump, Twitter, July 2020

“When people proudly had their Confederate flags they're not talking about racism. They love their flag.” Donald J Trump, Fox News Interview, July 2020

Dividing and ruling is an age-old adage and one that continues to be valid to the current era. Populist leaders sow and exploit division within societies by playing on grievances, both real and imagined, offering simple answers to often complex issues, and crowding out voices that call for more nuanced engagement. By playing directly to their target audiences’ fears, and by setting up us vs them narratives and dynamics, leaders can position themselves as saviours to problems and create scape goats to divert blame at the same time.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Selecting target demographics and grievances. Effective “Divide-and-Rule” strategies require choosing sides and identifying a part of the population with grievances to exploit. Trump found the most willing targets in America’s white working-class male population, who felt left behind by the social, economic and political change happening in the country. Their perception of lost opportunities the dilution of their culture and the perceived preference being given to other disadvantaged groups (despite being better off than most urban minorities on indicators like income, childhood mortality, social mobility, and life expectancy),19 created a power cocktail of anger and resentment for Trump to continuously exploit. 
  2. Keeping loyalty even when betraying the interests of the loyal. The ability to create an almost “cult” like loyalty is the ultimate benchmark. The flexibility to change one’s tune and keep loyalty is required to do that. This requires an Orwellian ‘Animal Farm’ like mantra and machinery of control. Interestingly, the combination of a simple message in ‘Make America Great Again’, its iconic merchandising as MAGA, the muddying of the truth beyond rescue and a constant assault on the senses through media created a mass loyalist movement well beyond the mundaneness of the four-year vote cycle. This enabled Trump to make decisions that disadvantaged his base (on tax cuts being heavily weighted to the rich, the stock market rises having disproportionate benefit for the participants and the highest death counts from the pandemic affecting the poor) without losing his core support. 
  3. Identifying enemies and scapegoats. Once grievances have been identified, assailants on democracy will need to pin them on scapegoats. In an America already suffering from greater division than at any time since the Civil War, Trump’s choice of targets effectively leveraged these divisions and fanned the flames of political enmity, the racial divide and the culture war, with racist undertones being picked up throughout: liberals are giving hand-outs to lazy (minority) people, Mexicans are stealing American jobs, and the woke are destroying (white) American culture.20
  4. Widening divisions from disagreement to disliking. With the sides set, the divide can be deepened further to energise one’s base and create a shared worldview for them to cluster around. In America, this deepening divide has led to political disagreement transforming into personal enmity, which makes any bipartisan governing highly challenging. Rather than disagreeing on policies, an increasing number of Americans hold the opposing party and its followers themselves in contempt, with Democrats being labelled immoral and lazy and Republicans being considered close-minded and dishonest.21
  5. Fostering affective partisanship, divided from reality. With partisan affiliation increasingly determining beliefs, supporting Trump’s false statements and claims even in the face of well-established scientific facts, has become an effective demonstration of loyalty: denying climate change, downplaying the risk of the coronavirus or agreeing with his claims of a stolen election, leading to over 70% of Republicans saying they agreed with President Trump’s contention that he received more votes than Joe Biden, rather than with the more than 70 judges and countless volunteers, Republican election officials, and independent observers who found that Biden won in a free and fair election.22
  6. Demotivating and dividing opponents. An important step to division is demotivating opponents and breaking their cohesion to fight back. This is where the major shortcomings of Trump’s approach can be found. Rather than demotivating his detractors and energising his supporters, his personal attacks actually energised his opponents to fight back harder. Rather than consistently backing opponents into a corner with no option but to fight back, a smarter assailant on democracy would have always offered some compromises or sops that would have split the left and broken their united front.


8. Raise the Stakes, Make the People Afraid

“Antifa-Alert: They'll attack your homes if Joe's elected. Pres Trump needs you to become a Diamond Club Member.” Trump campaign text message, 2020 

“MOBS of far-left groups [are] causing absolute mayhem [and] DESTROYING our cities.” Trump campaign ad, 2020

Modern democracies succumb to attacks from within, rather than external forces, and this often requires the population to willingly give up their rights and cede control. By invoking internal and external threats to the public and stoking real or imagined fears assailants of democracy can get their frightened citizens to acquiesce or accept the granting of emergency powers that are held on to long after any manufactured crisis has passed.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Creating the hate figures and events. Ruling by fear requires the existence of ever-present and looming threats. Donald Trump launched his presidential bid with the invocation of existential threats by Mexican invaders (“The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists”23.) This was followed by the raising the false spectre of Muslim terrorists arriving by plane (“keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America”24,) and finally by branding anti-racism protests following the killing of George Floyd as "domestic terror" by violent mobs. (“These are not acts of peaceful protest but really domestic terror.”25)
  2. Feeding the fear by dramatizing the risks and inadequacy of existing protections. For a threat to induce fear it also needs to be high risk. In Trump’s case, this was best communicated by pointing to the inadequacy of existing protections (e.g. immigration and border security were a ‘mess’ that he inherited) or to the incompetence of his political opponents (e.g. emphasizing the looting and rioting in Democrat-run cities over the summer), or simply by inventing attacks that never happened (like Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s citing of a wholly fictitious “Bowling Green massacre” carried out by Muslim terrorists).26
  3. Positioning as the sole protector. ‘Strong men’ successfully present themselves as the saviour of the “A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient.”Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951people and this allows them to rally the population in times of uncertainty (that they’ve often created themselves). Trump’s repeated claim throughout his presidency was that he was the only one capable of keeping America safe and only one who would take the needed actions, which were usually highly visible for their resonance with his base than for their actual effectiveness. The Muslim travel ban for example covered seven countries, none of which were home to any of the 19 hijackers in the September 11th attacks or the leaders of Al Qaeda, or the border wall stopping the flow of drugs into America, c.90% of which actually enters the country through ports).
  4. Keeping the fear fresh. Fear of the unknown is one of the most powerful forms of fear, implying that threats need to be kept fresh to be effective, particularly when they fail to materialise as threatened. This is why the 2016 election was fought over fears of a wave of illegal immigration (which failed to materialise despite America’s border wall remaining virtually unchanged,), and the 2020 election was fought over urban riots and looting as the risk du jour facing white middle-class and working-class Americans (virtually none of whom lived in the areas where violent outbreaks occurred).
  5. Using the fear to grow power. Leaders in countries with weaker democratic institutions, including the Philippines and Hungary, effectively used the coronavirus pandemic to expand executive power and restrict individual rights.27 Trump in contrast constantly threatened to take far reaching actions beyond the remit of the presidency, claiming that he had “absolute authority” to force states to reopen from lockdowns (“[w]hen somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total”)28 or that he could adjourn Congress, but never made good on these threats. While any such attempts would likely have failed, they would have set a precedent that would have lowered the bar for the next attempt and those thereafter, chipping away at the institutions to check executive power.


9. Build Financial Resources for Fighting Elections and Debts That Can be Called On

“You people with this phony Emoluments Clause.” Donald J Trump, Cabinet meeting, Oct 2019

“I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.” Donald J Trump, Jan 2017

Winning requires money and in American elections, vast amounts of it. The saying, ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ applies well in this context. Once leaders have built sufficiently strong bases, there are fewer and fewer restraints on the abuse of the power for personal gain, whether financial or political. By blurring their personal affairs with their official roles, leaders can and do amass significant additional powers and benefits to maintain their hold on government and enrich themselves through means legal and illegal.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Creating and maintaining a platform for accumulating wealth in office. For any form of venality more complex than envelopes stuffed with cash, some form of platform or business is typically required. Trump is the first president in 40 years who failed to divest his business interests or place them into a blind trust, instead handing over day-to-day operations to his sons while maintaining that he “could actually run [his] business and run government at the same time,” an arrangement that watchdogs said would not prevent conflicts of interest.29
  2. Directing taxpayer dollars to one’s advantage. This is a highly dangerous strategy in a functioning democracy. During his presidency Trump’s businesses reportedly derived over US$8 million in income for his real estate and hospitality empire from government business, with the president more or less exclusively golfing at his own resorts and charging the government for their use of the facilities there.30 Beyond attracting direct taxpayer dollars, Trump’s hotels also generated significant income from lobbyists, Republican donors and foreign government representatives31 seeking to peddle influence with the president.
  3. Mixing business and government deal-making. This is also a risky strategy which with the right governance processes has been deployed in many countries. In Trump’s case the lines between family and official business were significantly blurred with Trump’s family benefitting from his presidency. China for example granted over a dozen accelerated trademarks to a business owned by the president’s daughter, also a government employee at the time, during a period of ongoing trade negotiations between the two countries.32 Meetings were regularly held at the president’s properties and his golf course and resort was floated as a potential site for the G7 meeting in 2019.33
  4. Taking care of friends and allies. While US public procurement laws don’t allow simply throwing cash at one’s allies, other ways are often deployed to take care of friends and followers. Trump for example pardoned or commuted the sentences of supporters who committed crimes in service to him and remained loyal after getting caught, like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, both of whom were convicted of crimes in relation to the Russian election interference probe.34
  5. Maintaining a virtuous image while doing what is necessary. The most astute do not over-rely on their position being unassailable in the face of accusations of corruption. Toppled leaders like Muammar al-Ghaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Ferdinand Marcos failed to be modest in the show of their wealth and ultimately this was a highly visible sign of their corruption, ultimately facing them with ignoble removal. Their modus operandi of appointing family to power, using their positions to amass enterprise for themselves and families, blurring personal and states assets were part of their undoing. Trump failed the most obvious test in placing his family in the White Hose and in positions of power and his use of his golf courses and hotels and avoiding transparency on his taxes, promoting a lower standard than the office required and opening himself up to attack, which represented unnecessary risks.


10. Change Electoral Parameters to Stack Vote in One’s Favour

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Donald J Trump, Twitter, Jul 2020

In established democracies the easiest way to maintain power is to win re-election. As recent events have demonstrated, reversing election results is very difficult, and so smart aspiring autocrats focus on never losing in the first place, winning by all means necessary before the day of the ballot. In more lawless countries this often implies massive electoral fraud, the criminal persecution of political opponents and the organisation of sham elections. In more established democracies methods like district gerrymandering, voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement are all designed to ensure the retention of power by ruling parties and individuals.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Controlling the electoral map. While district gerrymandering cannot impact the presidential election directly (if the system counts votes are tallied on a whole state basis), it can have a meaningful impact on state legislatures which determine the times, places, and manner in which elections are held. The importance of this was brought into sharp relief in the 2020 election where two of the key battleground states, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were under GOP rule despite the party having lost popular elections in each state, thanks to the drawing of legislative district lines. 
  2. Changing the rolls. State legislatures also have the power to change not just where votes are counted but who can vote in the first place, both legally, through the use of voter ID laws, a legal measure by Republican governments to keep minorities from voting in circumvention of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,35 or the purging of voter rolls, and by reducing the number of polling places in Democratic neighbourhoods and depriving the remaining ones of key resources like poll workers and voting machines. Cumulatively these actions impact the ability of millions of citizens to vote in the election.
  3. Demotivating detractors. The final stumbling block to create for an opponent’s voters is motivation, is getting them to not turn out in the first place. The Trump campaign mastered this tactic in the 2020 election, using data analytics to target 3.5m black (historically Democratic) voters in key swing states with negative ads on social media to stay at home on election day.36
  4. Accepting (and soliciting) help from all sides. Given the goal is to win at all costs, a candidate will take whatever help he can get, foul or fair. An official government investigation found Russian interference in Trump’s favour in the 2016 election in a "sweeping and systematic fashion."37 And while the same investigation (which saw several of his senior associates indicted and convicted) cleared him of acting in concert with Russia, Trump refused to ever acknowledge that any foreign interference took place in the first place. Trump was however directly implicated in the solicitation of a foreign power to aid his re-election during the 2020 election, urging the Ukrainian president to investigate his political rival Joe Biden in 2019, and was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as a result, albeit without being convicted given that this requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate. The extraordinary bipartisan support such a supermajority implies potentially works in favour of an assailant in the US, but not in many other countries.


11. Foster the (Violent) Fringe to Intimidate and Change the Rules of Engagement

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” Donald J Trump, 1st presidential debate, Sept. 2020

In parallel to subverting the state, successful assailants also undermine the state’s monopoly on violence by encouraging, fostering and fomenting the violent fringes of society to organise and if needed to act on their behest. Non-state violence avoids the institutional and legal restrictions that legitimised violence are subject to and provides a leader with a tool for violence that is personally loyal to him.

Key playbook elements: 

  1. Rally support by aligning to their causes. Domestic (white) extremist groups have been identified as the most persistent and lethal threat to the US by the Department of Homeland Security, finding that these groups believe that their “liberties are being taken away by the perceived unconstitutional or otherwise illegitimate actions of government officials or law enforcement.” Donald Trump’s attacks on the ‘swamp’ of Washington politics and his professed role as an outsider legitimised him to the eyes of these groups, while his national populist rhetoric on issues like confederate flags, attacking kneeling during the national anthem, or fighting removing public statues associated with slavery signalled his alignment on core patriotic values with these groups. 
  2. Paying lip-service to restraint. While it is inadvisable to openly speak in racist and extremist language at the risk of losing large sections of the population, it is understood that the racist and extremist groups form the base of violent actors that a would-be assailant can use. So, Trump’s attacks on political norms, opponents, institutions and support for their causes and beliefs were very effective at capturing the attention, readying and encouraging these groups to act. Trump setting up a committee to combat what was said to be “decades of left-wing indoctrination” about race and oppression that has “defiled the American story”, appealed to white power extremists and legitimised their view. 
  3. Incite to action. Inciting violence without leaving an overt fingerprint on the action is a key capability of would-be assailants in engendering fear. Trump’s rhetoric has been heard as a call to violent action beyond the storming of the Capitol. In a less overt, but still not well concealed call to act, Trump had repeatedly attacked Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, for her coronavirus lockdown measures and tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” to his supporters. One month later, 14 members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia were charged with a domestic terror plot to kidnap the governor, and otherwise violently overthrow the state government, the attempt was foiled. 
  4. Avoid condemnation of action groups. The challenge is not to make a public condemnation and if unavoidable to condemn without condemning. Trump consistently refused to condemn even some of the most extreme right-wing groups like the KKK and the Proud Boys, often claiming to be ignorant of them (“I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”) as well as explicitly defending cases of right-wing violence, like the supporters who fired pepper spray and paintball guns at anti-racist protesters in Portland or the 17-year-old supporter who fatally shooting two demonstrators in Wisconsin. 
  5. Lure, bait, divert and deceive and practice moral equivalence. Legitimate opposition needs to be turned into illegitimateThe ability to turn the public against legitimate concern, protest and opposition, to blur it with illegitimate violence and to use it to incite populations to counter-attack is an essential skill of demagogues at home and conquerors abroad and is the route to true ‘divide and rule’. opposition and this requires the opposition to be incited sufficiently to open themselves up for attack. This turns out to be relatively easy. Trump used many of these tactics to divert criticism, re-characterise peaceful protesters as violent ones and draw out more extremist opponents to fight his more violent supporters. Examples include the now famous “good people on both sides” statement about the KKK marching against peaceful protesters, making light of right wing extremists in comparison to left-wing threats (“Proud boys, stand back and stand by, but I tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left”) and when rioters took advantage of peaceful BLM street protests to loot, it was easy for him to conflate the two.
  6. Covert but direct control. An important step that may be required is to direct violence without being accountable for the results. Trump’s attempt at this in inciting the attack on the Capitol was too obvious and even if acquitted in the senate, it lost him a significant portion of his popular support, with his net approval rating dropping dropping nearly 7% immediately following the riot.38 Doing so allows a ruler to direct violence using a force that is both personally loyal while not being constrained by legal or institutional limitations, providing flexibility to act where state institutions, even co-opted ones cannot.39 A recent potential example are the Hong Kong organised crime syndicates assaulting peaceful democracy protestors, allegedly at the behest of pro-Beijing members of government, it is unclear whether they were directed but the hypothesis illustrates the value of this measure well.40

The would-be assailant on democracy requires an array of stratagems, tactics, resources, personal attributes, and highly tuned detached and measured approach to life. It also requires a level of ruthless personal ambition and megalomania, if not psychosis, to be the protagonist. That Trump got so far without so much of this serves to illustrate how powerful his personal attributes are. More importantly, it illustrates how vulnerable the democratic system is to assault. 


The Agenda for Pre-empting, Countering and Defeating Assailants on Democracy

What does the playbook of the assailant mean for the defenders of democracy? The existence of a playbook for assailing a democracy also implies the possibility of developing a playbook to counter such an assault. Such an agenda for defending democracy would share a number of similarities with the assailant’s playbook, as well as a number of critical differences. 

In terms of similarities, any successful agenda will of course need to be symmetrical with the strategy it is countering but more radical asymmetric measures may be needed too, each angle of attack being met by a targeted pre-emption, defence, or counterattack. So, the defenders of democracy will need to employ, or at least engage with, the same weapons as an assailant, particularly with regards to technology and media. Herein is a critical moral dilemma for the defenders of democracy; once one uses the same tactics, how is one morally superior and does one not set the precedents for this to become the norm? 

Importantly, an agenda to defend democracy differs from the assailant’s playbook in at least three critical ways. Firstly, while an assailant on If defending democracy requires methods that match and even exceed those of the assailants, and that may well be the case, then democracy ends up where it never intended, undermineddemocracy can fight with no-holds barred, up-holders of democracies are constrained by values and the very principles that underly them, implying the need for effective alternatives. Secondly, although attacks on democracy can be masterminded by a single individual (with much help of course), its defence is from the democracy (which is a collective effort) and requires the participation of governments, media, civil society and citizens as individuals, many of whom will exercise their right to be non-compliant and so can make for an inefficient and ineffective resistance. And thirdly, the win-loss equation for democracies is different than for the assailant. The assailant either usurps a democracy, and wins, or fails and loses. A democracy on the other hand can fight off an assailant and still lose, because the fight so weakened it and its institutions that it is left wide open for the next attacker. Democracies therefore need to reinforce key institutions even when they are not currently under attack. 

Civil movements represent a highly effective means of countering would-be assailants. Indeed, the idea of “the resistance” is part of the story of the heroes that fought autocrats, invaders and political bad actors throughout history. The agenda for defenders of democracy needs to strengthen the institutional protections to forestall and handle even more sophisticated assailants. Although such an agenda by the defenders of democracy will of course vary from case to case in response to the nature of the assault it is facing, some of the key elements of a successful agenda are common ones, based on a series of core principles.


I. Truth Transparency and Trust

  1. Stop the flow of fake news with legal and regulatory measures and punitive measures. Preventing fake news and promoting truthfulness is critical for informed decision making, requiring standards for both publishers and broadcasters of information. Given private sector’s inability to date of creating effective and consistent standards on their own, the task will likely require government regulations and rules.
  2. Block the lies, censure on social media from the start, requiring compliance from media platforms and penalties on perpetrators. Media bias reduces public trust and creates echo chambers that prevent the free flow of information and ideas. Trusted and impartial media is critical for informed decision making by the public. 
  3. Have a zero tolerance for hate speech and verbal abuse with civil and criminal penalties, regardless of status. Pre-empt the use of hate speech on social media, mainstream media, rallies: expressions of hatred against a group of persons based on ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion and even political views must fall outside of free speech, as should verbal threats, abuse insults and harassment.
  4. Elevate personal data protection to a human right with strict mechanisms for protection beginning at low value transgressions. Protect personal data to give consumers and citizens full control in order to crack down on manipulation and misinformation. With many technology companies’ revenue models dependent on the monetisation of user data, top-down regulation is likely critical to strengthen citizens’ data privacy.
  5. Introduce an ethical financing code for corporates to penalise individual and institutional perpetrators of lies and hate. Create an enhanced code a conduct for businesses and financers that defunds and sanctions advertising, media companies and other corporates fall short of the code’s standards on fake news, hate speech and privacy.


II. Resilient Citizens and Civil Society

  1. Augment the education system for self-awareness, tolerance and anti-propaganda. Education is no proof against lies and misinformation, but ignorance leaves one widen open to them. Improving education needs to start with basic civics to ground knowledge of the rights and obligations of citizens and extend to teaching critical thinking to identify fake news and misinformation and to enable people to develop informed judgements on issues.   
  2. Re-establish and strengthen civil society through civil service community programmes. Promote participation in civil society based on a commitment to democracy and shared fundamental values is critical to overcome polarisation and identity politics.  This could extend to a mandatory period of civil service for secondary school graduates across healthcare, education, or social services, among others.


III. Establishing Politics for United Action

  1. Establish a bipartisanship five-year rolling agenda as a formal part of the political process. Re-establish the middle ground in politics and society to narrow the paralysing partisan divide that assailants exploit. Make bipartisan collaboration a key tenant of major political parties’ platforms, including five-year bipartisan agendas setting major legislative goals. 
  2. Implement a code of ethics for political leaders with strict penalties for transgression regardless of level. Create an independent and enhanced code of ethics for major public servants (legislative, executive, and judicial) covering financial dealings and disclosures, appointments, and behaviour, with defined sanctions and remedies in place.


IV. Underwriting the Democratic Processes

  1. Provide for independent, third party, election integrity. Create fair and consistent non-partisan rules governing who votes how when and where, as well as independent oversight of electoral processes to underwrite voting in a free and fair election as the most basic civil right in a functioning democracy. 
  2. Reform political campaign financing creating limits on expenditures and donations. Implement comprehensive campaign finance reform that delinks contributions from free speech, prevents outsized influence by wealthy individuals and organisations and levels the playing field for candidates.


V. Creating Economic Equity and Opportunities

  1. Launch national development institutions and programmes along the lines of the UN for under-developed populations and regions. Recognise that even the most advanced nations contain highly disadvantaged social, ethnic, or regional groups and establish development institutions to support and fund opportunities for these populations.


VI. Pre-empt and Counter International Assailants

  1. Strengthen defences against foreign interventions with clear escalation and de-escalation protocols. Implement a comprehensive programme of defence and counterattack against targeted foreign interventions in politics, the media, civil society and the economy, with both on and off line defences. 
  2. Bring bad actors to account. Develop the escalation protocols required to bring bad actors to account, with escalation and response protocols in place for a wide range of foreign interventions, commensurate with responses to conventional attacks on the homeland.

In some countries, such an agenda would seem counter-cultural, perhaps even an alarming assault on civil liberties, and in others seem highly rational and practical. This is the dilemma for defenders of democracies. Their very protection of civil liberties provides the opening for assailants. Of course, every country is different, with different histories, different laws, different electoral systems and different values, and so the way to protect the system will vary across countries. Some countries have already enacted the agenda in part and to varying degrees as well. The table below provides a rough initial high-level comparison between the US and two other major western democracies, the UK and Germany, one being one of the world’s oldest democracies and the other being a democracy formed specifically with the prevention of future assaults on it in mind.


Conclusion: Developing a Playbook for Defenders of Democracy

Democracy has been falling in the world, with 2019 marking the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.41 Assailants on democracy have successfully used democratic systems to rise to power and then used their positions to further their personal agendas, which has invariably cost their people freedoms and economic opportunities while straining their countries’ societies. 

Hopeful Americans that voted for Trump saw someone who heard their pain, cared about their issues and promised to address them. Indeed, Trump Perhaps the most important lesson from America’s recent tryst with anti-democracy is that resilience comes from leaders driving real change in a country, and the world at large, that promotes dignity, opportunity and inclusiondelivered a number of traditional Republican policy goals during his four years in office: deregulation, economic prosperity, tax cuts, a stock market boom, conservative judges. However, Trump also spoke the language of hate and exploited divisions, saw the world as for or against him, believed his own fake news and oversaw one of the worst economic recessions, death rates and hate crime waves in recent history, and for the first time in nearly 250 years of American history, he refused the peaceful transition of power. These failures created the circumstances of his fall from power. And as a president that failed to navigate the political system, much was transitory and not enshrined in law and so, a good part of his ‘America First’ legacy was undone within 24 hours of his leaving the presidency, with Joe Biden signing 21 executive orders reversing key Trump-era policies. 

The Trump legacy presents a flawed but concerted and near-successful attempt to assail longstanding democratic traditions. More instinctually strategic than architected as a grand plan, it failed on some of the very factors that brought Trump to power: personality and character, self-promotion over substance, fake news over truth, bullying rather than persuasion, division as a norm rather than compromise and transactional rather than strategic. 

As a result, for its many pointers for a would-be assailant on the democratic establishment, that narrowly focused playbook is flawed. However, this provides no cause for complacency. The playbook very nearly won over a second term. The defenders of democracy have the need to erect the defences now to pre-empt the next more charming and competent assailant. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from America’s recent tryst with anti-democracy is that resilience comes from leaders driving real change in a country, and the world at large, that promotes dignity, opportunity and inclusion. Creating sustained and meaningful change in a country has proven to be difficult to do. Short of bringing about change through violence in the form of civil wars and revolutions - something that even the most opportunistic assailants on a democracy will be keen to avoid - the only mechanism for change is an inclusive one that builds widespread support in the public and in the political leadership on all sides on the need for change, the goals to be achieved and the broad path of transition the country will need to take. 

The world looks on at the debacle of an American president denying a lost election, encouraging a fight and the ensuing violence as if it could not happen to them. They would do well to look again at the National Populist movements and extremist groups and parties in their own countries and the issues of race, class, caste, immigration and economic inequalities and imagine the leader and the strategy that would propel them to power. The playbook for peace, prosperity and freedom is one the leaders of democracy urgently need to write together.



  1. Support for Donald Trump internationally hit an all-time low of 16% in the Sept 2020 Pew Global Attitudes Survey
  2. Source: OECD
  3. Source: DHS 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment
  4. Sources:
  5. Sources:,
  6. Source:
  7. An argument elegantly made in Karl Popper’s 1945 work “The Open Society and its Enemies
  8. Source: PolitiFact
  9. For a summary of various fact checks, including links, see
  10. Source: ABC News
  11. Sources: mediaQuant, SMG Delta, as reported in
  13. Source:
  14. Source:
  16. Source:
  17. Sources: US Customs and Border Patrol,
  18. Adjusted for term-length
  19. Sources:,;
  20. Sources: Examples of analysis and commentary on Trump’s appeal(s) to racists include:;; For a more academic analysis on racial resent and political polarisation in during the administration see:
  21. Source: Pew
  23. Source; Trump Presidential campaign launch speech 2015
  24. Source: Trump speech at signing of the Muslim travel ban, 2017
  25. Source:
  27. Source:
  28. Source:
  29. Sources: U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Transparency International, reported in
  30. Source:
  31. While Trump has promised that profits from foreign business would be donated to the treasury, only $343,000 was provided out of US$81m of revenues over a year period, with the actual income impossible to verify in the absence of tax returns
  32. The Chinese government granted a total of 41 trademarks to companies linked to Ivanka Trump by April of 2019—and the trademarks she applied for after her father became president got approved about 40% faster than those she requested before Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election
  34. Sources:,
  36. Source:
  37. Mueller Report
  38. Source:
  39. Source:
  40. Source:
  41. Source: Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World Index 2019’