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Trump’s dangerous attacks on rule of law have US historical precedents | Corey Brettschneider


Past politicians tried to undermine democracy. They failed because Americans refused to tolerate their wrongdoing

Donald Trump’s threats to democracy – including his promise to govern as a dictator on “day one” and his refusal to abide by the norm of a peaceful transition of power – are often called unprecedented. While commentators and journalists are rightly focused on the danger of the moment, there are precedents for what we face today. Three examples, far from minimizing the current danger, show both how fragile American democracy has always been and how American citizens can fight successfully to save it.

The first example of a presidential threat to democracy came close to the founding. The second US president, John Adams, criminalized dissent and sought to prosecute his critics. The number of these prosecutions was vast. The most recent research on the subject identifies 126 individuals who were prosecuted. These cases were not just based on the hurt feelings of a thin-skinned president (although they were partly that). They came in response to reports that Adams’s party was attempting a kind of self-coup, not unlike the events of January 6.

Corey Brettschneider is professor of political science at Brown University and the author of The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought To Defend It

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