As hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in efforts to resist Donald Trump, Professor Erica Chenoweth has been obsessed with one question: How many people exactly?
Erica Chenoweth is one the leading scholars on authoritarian regimes and how to overthrow them. In her book Why Civil Resistance Works, she compiled 323 cases of nonviolent and violent campaigns in order to assess which were more successful in achieving their stated goals of regime change. Much to her surprise, Chenoweth discovered that nonviolent campaigns were nearly twice as effective as armed campaigns over the past century.
Chenoweth says the most effective variable in toppling a dictator is the number of people participating in a movement. Chenoweth argues that many more people—and more diverse groups of people—participate in nonviolent campaigns than in activities perceived to be violent. She concludes that this means nonviolence is not merely a moral choice for an individual, but a strategic necessity for a movement.
I sat down with Professor Chenoweth to discuss how her work studying efforts to overthrow dictators abroad can relate to resisting Trump at home, and whether authoritarianism is rising in the United States.
How do mobilizations like the Women’s March and the airport rallies impact the Trump administration?
They signal that resistance to the administration’s plans is alive and well, and they signal this to lots of important audiences. The first audience is other would-be protesters, who may be more willing to participate as they see the movement growing and winning key gains. The second audience is the silent majority, who may see the protests and demonstrations as reason to interpret the Trump administration’s actions with more skepticism. The third audience is the people who actually implement policy—Congress, law-enforcement officials, civil servants, and others who may be involved—who see that implementing the policies might be too costly, thereby motivating them to resist internally. And the fourth audience is people observing abroad, who see the resistance as a sign that the preferences of the American electorate are actually quite different from those of the American president. Public resistance can help to temper the consequences of any reckless missteps from the administration.
Do you consider Donald Trump to be an aspiring authoritarian?
There are certainly demagogic aspects of his behavior: disregard for institutional limits of his own authority, disregard for democratic norms and human rights, bullying and threatening political opponents, scapegoating of the vulnerable, mischaracterizing opposition to his plans as treachery, and a seeming indifference to understanding the US Constitution. But it’s also important to recognize the broader authoritarian currents in the American polity that put him in power.