In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine the fact that democracies increasingly die long, slow deaths at the hands of elected leaders (Hitler, Chavez, Erdogan) who subvert the very processes and institutions that brought them to power. Based on their analysis they identify the key indicators of a slow and initially invisible backsliding into authoritarianism: a free press remains but is increasingly intimidated, political opponents are demonized as enemies of the state, violence against opponents is tolerated or encouraged, the threat of conspiracy is used to undermine government institutions and electoral processes, and the powers of the state are increasingly used to advance the personal interest of its leaders, their families and associates.
This is chillingly familiar. As many have noted, the list of outrageous actions and public statements by the President is a quantum leap beyond the kind of corruption and executive malfeasance in any modern administration and represents an unprecedented threat to American democracy. Partly this has to do with the brazenness and extent to which democratic norms and constitutional protections are violated. For example, the overwhelming evidence that the President pressured a foreign government to investigate his political rival in order to engineer his reelection (the President’s own words, the statements of his closest associates, testimony from career diplomats, etc.– Ken Vogel has a useful summary in the Feb. 5 edition of the New York Times) has simply been dismissed as a conspiracy. As this example indicates, the current danger is not just due to the extent of contempt for the law.
1) Trump has created an alternative universe of facts and partnered with and used media outlets willing to promote blatant falsehoods to create an Alice in Wonderland space where he can, just to take two of dozens of examples, side with Russia’s Putin over his own intelligence agencies and yet attack his opponents as treasonous; and where he spouts hateful racist language, hires white nationalists and yet declares that it is democrats who are “haters” when they express outrage.
2) he has shaped an entire political party willing to defend his actions, attack the reputation of any who dissent, ignore and misrepresent compelling evidence of wrongdoing, and
3) at least 1 in 3 Americans support Trump’s remake of the Republican Party, seemingly no matter what he does, as long the targets are minorities, immigrants, liberals, and non-Christians.
4) Trump and Trump’s GOP have been campaigning for the 2020 election since the day after the 2016 election, purging itself of any internal dissent, using fear and resentment to stoke the anger of the party’s base support, and covering its movement to the extreme right by relentlessly attacking the Democratic brand as socialist, anti-American, and anti-Christian and working to restrict voting access of democratic constituencies on the pretext of fighting electoral fraud that they assert exists despite no evidence.
5) In the wake of the President’s acquittal by the Senate it is not surprising that he trying to neuter the Supreme Court as well, basing a call for two liberal justices to recuse themselves from their duties based on a tweet by Laura Ingrahm, construing the justices disagreement with the administration’s legal actions with personal bias against the President; thereby demonstrating yet again perhaps the most obvious mark of a tyrant: an inability to distinguish between his person and the office he holds.
Given this track record, there is little reason to suppose that the President won’t expand political disinformation campaigns, the use of foreign governments for his political gain, attacking the patriotism of opponents, and using the power of the Department of Justice to foment conspiracy theories and legal intimidation of opponents. He now has a legion of loyal followers, many of whom can be moved to violence against those he deems “enemies of the state.” Surely we can expect that in a tight Presidential race he will allege fraud to cover his own corrupt reelection efforts (a reprise of 2016) and encourage his followers to take matters into their own hands.
In light of this, how is it that the Democratic party, and particular its Presidential candidates, are conducting themselves as if this were any normal election of the last 75 years?