Brian Klaas: Prioritize the Battle for US Democracy Because the Window to Fix This is Closing
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Dr. Brian Klaas, who is an associate professor of global politics at University College London, a columnist for the Washington Post, and the creator/host of the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast. Klaas, an American, has interviewed presidents, prime ministers, rebel leaders, coup plotters, election riggers, and former despots around the globe. He is the author of four books, including The Despot's Apprentice, and How to Rig an Election. His new book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, publishes on November 9. Klaas received his BA from Carleton College, his MPhil from the University of Oxford Our conversation took place on October 11, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Your forthcoming book is about how people can be led into corruption by an attraction to power. Can you talk about this and how this helped Donald Trump to domesticate the GOP?
Brian Klaas (BK): A main argument of the the book is that while it's true that power corrupts people, actually we've built systems that attract and promote corruptible individuals much more. So there's a self-selection that happens. You have to be a bit of a megalomaniac to think out of 330 million people you should be president of the United States. Trump harnessed the latent authoritarianism that's long been in the Republican party to his advantage, and then effectively purged its pro-democracy elements. As you've noted many times in your work, this isn't the first time we've seen this film, so to speak.
There's a tradition and a trajectory. Trump used a playbook, probably inadvertently, probably through instinct. I don't think he's a student of history. He's just got instincts that are similar to a lot of abusive people throughout history, like the need for absolute fealty in everyone around him. He arrived at a political moment where there was a lot of appetite for that in the Republican party. It was a perfect storm that he exploited very effectively and we are going to be dealing with it for a generation now.
RBG: You have been prescient about what might happen. You predicted in a May 2020 column that Trump would lose the election and then claim it was rigged and reject the results, creating a climate that could lead to political violence. How does it feel as an American based in England to see things unfolding in this way?
BK: Well, it's utterly depressing. I worked in US politics, managing a gubernatorial campaign in my home state of Minnesota, before I became an academic. And I left politics to study failed states, broken systems, the collapse of democracies, and the rise of authoritarianism elsewhere, because I thought that US politics was broadly functional.
And then all the red flags started to crop up in 2015-2016. But when I would speak to people who study the intricacies of the US Constitution and the checks and balances of the US system they would say "[authoritarianism] doesn't happen here." As though there's something magical about the United States that makes us immune from phenomena that happen elsewhere.
RBG: There is a certain blindness, and/or attachment to the idea that we still have a bipartisan politics. Biden has foregrounded the theme of democracy versus autocracy, but Democratic messaging as a whole is often inadequate. Can you talk about that?
BK: I've been encouraged by Congressman Adam Schiff's (D-CA) recent statements that the GOP basically built an autocratic culture around a single individual. That was one of the first times that I've seen it stated so clearly by someone so senior. I think the problem is that a traditional strength of American democracy was this idea of the Senate as elder statesmen of the country. They were all friends. That had its problems, but they smoked together across party lines.
And I think a lot of the people who were socialized politically in that world don't realize that the people they extend the olive branch to now have become authoritarian. Holding out an olive branch to someone who disagrees with you about tax policy is fundamentally different than doing so to someone who wants to burn down the system of government and install authoritarianism. I think people just haven't made that shift yet.
This is a different level of battle than every other battle that exists. Because if you lose the battle for democracy, you don't get to have another battle for taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, or any of the policies that change lives. In places I've studied where democracy has died, it's still dead pretty much everywhere. And if it's resurrected it is a kind of cookie cutout of democracy with rigged elections and deeply flawed institutions and so on.
I think the window is closing to fix this. If we don't fix it in the next two to four years, I don't think it's going to get fixed. The problem with that message is that it's not uplifting. One of the corollaries between authoritarian politics debates and climate change is that you're trying to galvanize people to preserve the status quo. You're saying, if you work really, really hard, you can have what you've always had. From a political messaging point of view, that's difficult You're saying that we'll go back to having the same old political divides we used to have. Our system will be just as broken. And that's the really big rub the Democrats are grappling with.
RBG: What can people do?
BK: Go out and protest right now to your member of Congress. Or, a longer-term solution. If you mobilize support in 2021, you're going to stave off some problems in 2030. Running for office locally, getting involved in local politics, that's the kind of thing that transforms the political system at the national level over the long run. Barack Obama was a nobody up until fairly recently before he was president. He got involved and he did the groundwork and he transformed the system in a very positive way. And I think we need a pipeline of really committed, good people who are going to try to fight for democracy, not just in 2021, but in 2031 and 2041. It's not an easy, quick payoff, but it's the right answer to this problem.
RBG: I recently interviewed Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which pursues exactly that strategy. Where else in the world is democracy most endangered, and are there lessons there for America?
BK: Turkey is an instructive example. I went back and looked at the New York Times coverage of Erdogan's election in 2002. And it's amazing because the coverage was normal. He was presented as a breath of fresh air, a reformer shaking things up, someone going against the elite and the status quo, and so on. He was a populist who was supposed to bring democracy to Turkey, and for 19 years now, he's chipped away at democracy.
Democracy is very much like a sandcastle. You can build a lumpy sand castle, like a child would make. Anybody can do that pretty quickly. To make a prize-winning sandcastle takes decades. And then to destroy one, you can either have one big wave, like a coup or a civil war or a revolution, or it goes slowly.
In Turkey, it's been 19 years of small erosions, and now it's an authoritarian mess. And I think that's where we're headed. Each time the wave comes up, it takes 20 grains of sand with it. That was the situation every day during the Trump years. And by the end our sand castle was seriously damaged. Even if it's going to take some time, it's still worth stopping the erosion because the sooner you do, the more quickly the sandcastle can be repaired.