Democracy in the United States of America is under assault. What’s happening before our eyes is the greatest threat posed to our democratic institutions since a civil war nearly tore us apart almost 160 years ago.
Everywhere we look today, there are flashing red warning lights going off that indicate we are well down the path towards becoming an authoritarian country. Let’s briefly dive into them.
In their book, How Democracies Die, by Harvard University government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors lay out all of the common factors and indicators that modern countries have shown as they’ve slid down the path towards authoritarianism. In terms of authoritarian behavior, they found four key “indicators of authoritarian behavior.” These are:
1) “A rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game” (which includes rejecting “the constitution” or expressing “a willingness to violate it,” suggesting “a need for antidemocratic measures” like “restricting basic civil or political rights,” using “extra-constitutional means to change the government,” and “undermining the legitimacy of elections” such as “by refusing to accept credible electoral results.”
2) “Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents” by making claims about them such as them being “an existential threat…to the prevailing way of life,” that they are “opposed to the existing constitutional order,” and “basely” describing “their partisan rivals as criminals.
3) “Toleration or encouragement of violence” like nudging “paramilitary forces, militias” etc… to “engage in illicit violence,” “praised (or refused to condemn other significant acts of political violence, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?”, and encouraging “mob attacks on opponents.” AND
4) “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media” such as by supporting “laws or policies to restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws,” threatening ” to take legal or other punitive action against critics…in the media,” and “praised repressive measures taken by other governments, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?”
Under President Trump, all four of these indicators are present on almost a daily basis now. Here a just a few examples of each of these key indicators being demonstrated by the President over the past several months.
- Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game: The President has been taking the advice of a former George W. Bush Administration attorney, John Yoo, telling him that he can basically disregard Congress, and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that were unfavorable to him. Yoo was responsible for writing the 2002 memo that tried to legally justify the use of torture by the U.S. government on prisoners of war during the War on Terror (July 22nd). The President refused to say whether he would commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election (July 19). He continues to make baseless claims of voter fraud through vote-by-mail, something which multiple Republican state officials have pushed back on (July 17). He also recently deployed unidentified federal agents to Portland, Oregon who have openly been violating basic constitutional rights of protesters there, including arresting people without cause and taking them into unmarked vans (July 20).
- Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents: Trump has resorted to claiming that his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, wants to “destroy our suburbs” (July 22). He’s run numerous misleading ads that claim that Biden wants to “defund the police,” a not so veiled way of saying this political opponent poses a threat to national security and “the prevailing way of life” (July 22). Trump has also falsely accused the Obama Administration, and former President Barack Obama in particular, of committing “treason” which is a clear attempt to paint his critics as criminals. (June 23).
- Toleration or encouragement of violence: As discussed above, the President has sent unspecified federal officials to Portland, and is going to send additional ones to other democratic-run cities to intimidate peaceful protests. These forces have been abusing people’s basic constitutional rights (July 22). A recent study done by Pro Publica looked at around 400 videos from various protests across the country that have occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. Time and time again, they found that officers, not protesters, were the ones escalating conflict. Trump has refused to condemn this (July 16). Trump has refused to condemn the countless acts of white supremacists, and other right-wing extremists, driving cars into crowds of protesters, some of which have resulted in serious injury and death to protesters. (June 21). He encouraged protests by armed, right-wing groups against governors who had issued stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, and who imposed other restrictions (April 29). Trump also said behind closed doors that he thought China’s creation of concentration camps for Uighur Muslims was “exactly the right thing to do.” (June 17).
- Readiness to curtail civil liberties: Trump threatened to use the insurrectionist act to send federal forces into cities to suppress protests, all under the guise of trying to allegedly quell “violence” by “radical leftists” (June). He tried to unsuccessfully block his former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, from publishing his book for sale to the public because it contained damaging information about him. (June 20). His campaign filed a law suit against a Rhinelander news station for airing a political ad that was critical of his Coronavirus response (April 13). Federal officers are conducting surveillance on peaceful protesters in Portland. (July 20). The most infamous example of all was federal and local officials using force to clear a peaceful protest at Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. so the President could get a photo-op. (June 1).
This is just A FEW examples of President Trump repeatedly hitting all four of these key indicators of authoritarianism over the past several months. This doesn’t even touch on how others in his party, like Arkansas Senator, and potential future presidential candidate, Tom Cotton, have been openly encouraging and enabling this behavior. It’s also worth noting how many of these stories are from the past month and half, another sign of how quickly he is escalating in his authoritarian behavior. We must remember other egregious examples too that happened well before we got here, like the fact that we are STILL holding migrants in concentration camps at our borders.
Beyond these key indicators, Levitsky and Ziblatt also lay out the three core ways in which authoritarians consolidate their power in modern democracies. These are: 1) capturing the referees, 2) sidelining “at least some of the other side’s star players,” and 3) rewriting “the rules of the game to lock in their advantage, tilting the game against their opponents.” Trump has been making progress on all three fronts, especially thanks to Republicans at the federal and state level.
In terms of capturing referees, Trump has appointed over 200 federal judges now since taking office in 2017. He was only able to fill these vacancies, including a Supreme Court vacancy, because of unprecedented obstruction by Republicans in the Senate during President Obama’s tenure in office. Trump has also continued to purge federal agencies of ANYONE who may speak out against him or hold him accountable. He’s fired four inspector generals in just the past three months, all of which were tasked with overseeing his administration. Trump also fired the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York in June, the same federal prosecutor who was in charge of overseeing investigations into potential criminal conduct by the President, and those around him.
When it comes to sidelining opponents, Trump has attempted time and time again to use lawsuits and public attacks to silence those who have been critical of him, just as we saw recently with John Bolton. His threats to have former Obama Administration officials tried for treason is another core example of trying to bully his political opponents into submission. Of course, we cannot forget that he literally tried to get a foreign government to fabricate a criminal investigation into his current opponent in the president election as well, something for which he was impeached for. There’s evidence that Republicans are trying to continue this plot too, a plot that is being led by our current Republican Senator, Ron Johnson.
Then there is the rewriting of the rules of the game. A federal court just upheld a lame duck law passed by the Wisconsin state legislature in 2018 that severely restricts early voting, and other measures designed to make it easier for citizens of our state to vote. These restrictions had been previously ruled unconstitutional by a federal court when passed in an earlier law. The U.S. Supreme Court has played a significant role in enabling rampant voter suppression efforts across the country by either withdrawing federal courts from the process, such as in the case of gerrymandered maps, or ruling in favor of these laws. We’ve also seen Republicans at the federal level block crucial bills to secure our elections. We saw Republicans at the state level refuse to do ANYTHING to make vote-by-mail more accessible during the April 7th election, and instead choose to force many people to vote in-person during the midst of a pandemic. They have taken no actions since that election either to make the November election run smoother. Republicans also plan on launching a nationwide “poll-watching” effort this fall designed to intimidate people from exercising their sacred right to vote. This is something they’ve only been allowed to do now because federal courts decided to let a “consent decree” from 1981 prohibiting them from doing this expire. That decree was in place due to them engaging in illegal voter suppression tactics in the past.
Make no mistake, our republic is under serious threat right now. Our democratic institutions are on the verge of collapse. Republicans will do whatever they think they can get away with to hold onto power. That poses a danger to ALL OF US.
We must all remain vigilant in the days and weeks ahead. The survival of our democracy may literally depend on it.