The threat to democracy we all should have seen coming

But the President’s tweet was yet another display of democratic backsliding — a term used in political science to describe the erosion of institutions that sustain democracy.

His baseless tweets about mail-in ballots and other matters have sowed doubt about the legitimacy of this fall’s election and have been widely criticized. His recklessness continues to be one of the biggest stories for the American press.

Some of this behavior was predictable from the very beginning. That’s why I thought back to Sunday, January 22, 2017, and the importance of believing your own eyes and ears.

Anchoring a weekly news program like CNN’s “Reliable Sources” can be strange sometimes. You get one shot a week and have to make it count. So in late 2016 and early 2017 I repeatedly brought up the president-elect’s authoritarian tactics, mostly with regard to his attacks on the media.

Republicans openly challenge Trump's tweet on delaying election

When I invoked the scourge of autocracy, and interviewed reporters who described what it’s like to work in authoritarian climates, right-wing blogs piled on the ridicule.

I second-guessed myself from time to time, like any journalist should. I probed my own scripts and segments for weaknesses.

On the morning of the 22nd, before my 11 a.m. program, I had a heated call with then White House press secretary Sean Spicer about crowd-size-gate. The content of our call was off the record, but it was clear to me that something had changed. Spicer was publicly defending Trump’s lies about the crowd size at his inauguration which took place two days earlier. The White House was telling us not to believe what we saw.
That weekend CNN’s programs were anchored from a gorgeous rooftop in Washington, D.C., with the Capitol dome in the distance. I read a monologue with 50 questions about the new era. I asked: “Will President Trump deny reality? Will he make up his own false facts and fake stats?”

Perhaps I was naive, since we knew his past as a businessman, knew his willingness to say anything to promote himself and demean his rivals. But we didn’t know how a Trump White House would operate yet.

So I asked lots of questions. “Will reporters give up trying to fact-check?” (Thankfully they did not!) “Is that the goal — to wear us down, to wear us out?” (Seems that way.) “Who will you trust?”

I went on: “Is Trump gaslighting us, trying to manipulate, make you doubt your own eyes? Does he know what gaslighting means?”

In retrospect, this is what the Trump years have been all about: “What will you believe? Will you and your neighbors just shrug, or will you demand more honesty from your government?”

At the end of the segment, I said my final questions were uncomfortable, but needed to be asked. I said: “Do citizens in dictatorships recognize what’s happening right here, right now? Are they looking at the first two days of the Trump administration and saying, ‘That’s what my leader does?’ What should we learn from them today?”

I felt like I was out on a limb a little bit. Maybe I had gone a little too far. Dictatorships? America’s democracy was strong. The president was brand new. I mean, he wasn’t floating the notion of delaying elections! But he was already making un-American noises.

Three plus years in, the noises are much louder. My lead story in mid-February, on the last Sunday before coronavirus completely took over the country’s news cycle, was about “creeping authoritarianism.” It is a worldwide story, as advocacy groups like Freedom House have documented.

Back in February, I quoted from “How Democracies Die,” the 2018 book: “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy, gradually, subtly, and even legally, to kill it.”

The usual critics came out of the woodwork again and said the segment was an overreaction. That’s how it always goes. But democratic backsliding is real. It is one of the biggest stories of our time.

The point is not about me or my monologues — it’s about believing your own eyes and ears. We can see the story right in front of us. We can keep asking questions — and now we can answer some of them.