In a number of previous posts I’ve lamented that America has begun a grievous transformation from democratic republic toward an unplanned, largely unnoticed autocracy. My reason for concern about the deterioration of our 132 year old republic has built up during the Trump administration, the two year Republican hegemony of Senate and House, followed by a majority in the Senate for most of an additional two years. Inasmuch as this post concerns momentous damage to America, I need to state a proviso: I have no reason to believe that Republicans in the Senate and House or in the Republican Party more broadly had or have any intention to reorder American politics into an autocratic state. Further, I do not mean to cast aspersions on anyone’s fidelity to the United States with the exception of President Trump. Short of such explicit intent, however, I do allege that most elected Republicans at the national level are guilty of political negligence and inordinate careerism, repeatedly choosing the president’s favor over the good of the country. Presidential historian Jon Meacham said it better than I: “Republicans sold their soul to President Trump . . . and the check bounced.”
I promised in my last post (August 2) to examine where we are now, what may be next, and how can it be avoided. To do so, I’ve been obligated to go beyond my limited knowledge in order to learn from others. I sought authors whose wide international knowledge of autocracy aborning might shed light on the American experience and where it might head. My task was to read about that deterioration at different times and locations. I sought insights that might inform us in the here and now, more-or-less in the way a scientific theory can enlighten the understanding of specific events. Books that helped me are listed at the end of this post. Because various authors shared similar findings, I have only identified quotations when findings specific to one author or a particularly meaningful wording helped make understanding easier. This is an opinion post, though—I hope—with reasonably chosen substantiation; it is not intended to have the exhaustive treatment of of either publishing or graduate school standards.
I found very little that qualifies scientifically as a “theory” of encroaching autocracy. One important aim of fields of study is to discover whether there are similarities among them despite differing circumstances. The closest to theory I found may come from the work of Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, Carl Schmitt, who conceptualized a phenomenon he called a “state of exception.” When an emergency, “a singular event that shakes up the accepted order of things,” the would-be autocrat, to save the day or exhibit leadership, “creates new, extralegal rules, addressing the emergency. The leader thereby amasses enough power to declare a ‘state of exception,’ gaining even greater, unchecked power. The change becomes irreversible and, in effect, makes the state of exception permanent,” and the autocrat firmly entrenched. The German example stretched from the 27 February 1933 Reichstag fire until Hitler’ death.
Other histories that exhibit all or part of Schmitt’s state of exception theory include the December 1934 murder of the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, then used as a pretext for a state of exception. Another was Putin’s reliance on “a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions, for example, a 1999 series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia, the tragedy that enabled Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed ‘terrorists’” and also becoming an excuse for a new war in Chechnya. Happily, though, Schmitt’s prediction of events in Russia were not as catastrophic as World War II.
“Insurance” against evolving autocracy
“We like to believe the fate of government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, we think, democracy will be safe. This view is wrong. It assumes too much from a democracy”—to Arendt “the people’ cannot change at will the kind of government they oppose.” For example, it’s hard to find any evidence of majority support for authoritarianism in recent Venezuela. Adjudged by the 1998 Latinobarómetro Survey, 60% of Venezuelans signified agreement with “Democracy is always the best form of government” versus 25% who chose “Under some circumtances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one.” Yet Hugo Chávez was elected by a majority vote. Even more telling was the 1920 experience in Germany and Italy. Before the Nazis and Fascists seized power, less than 2 percent of the population were party members, and neither party achieved anything close to a majority vote in free and fair elections. Rather, solid electoral majorities opposed Hitler and Mussolini—before both men achieved power with the support of political insiders blind to the danger of their own ambition.”
Not only is the democracy-to-autocracy sequence found widely, it is obvious that the “it can’t happen here” syndrome is merely faux consolation. It happened in otherwise satisfied democracies around the world where citizens’ uninformed blindness sought not solutions but comforting assurance. Example countries other than those above include Brazil, Peru, Hungary, and others. Unfortunately, having been accustomed to democracy does not protect from a decline into autocracy. “Given the right condition,” summarized Arendt, “any society can turn against democracy.” There is no reason to think the United States is exempt from that conclusion, much as we believe our exceptionalism protects us—a hope as fleeting as that Trump would become “presidential” or our hopeful reassurance to each other that American institutions are stronger than any one candidate or even any one president.
The autocrat him or herself
Many authoritarians can be easily recognized before they come to power. Hitler led a failed putsch; Chávez led a failed military uprising; Mussolini’s Blackshirts engaged in paramilitary violence; Peron helped lead a successful coup two years before running for president. Of course, not every strong leader is bound to become an autocrat. Various authors cited these characteristics: disdain for excellence even to the extreme of kakistocracy (government by the least qualified); failure to distinguish the difference between fact and personally generated fiction, referred to by Gessen as “unmoored from lived reality;” use of absurd lies not as reflections of idiocy but demonstration of power over others; a monomaniacal focus on being seen as unerring and all-powerful; and disregard for human life.
However, there is continued work at finding more organized and insightful conceptual framing. On this, Juan Linz seems to have led the way. Building on his work, Levitsky and Ziblatt developed four key indicators of authoritarian behavior: We should worry when a politician: (1) rejects in word or action the democratic rules of the game, (2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, (3) tolerates or encourages violence, 4) is willing to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Within each of those categories are further subcategories with more specificity. Here are a selected few: (a) attempts to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results; (b) baselessly describes partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law—or potential to do so—disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena; (c) tacitly endorses violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it; (d) threatens to take legal action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media.
Apart from the personal characteristics of someone who is, has been, or is likely to be an autocrat (or any one of its synonyms), the process by which a country risks autocracy, becomes a candidate for autocracy, and finally becomes a full-fledged autocracy should be made more clear. Gessen “coined the term ‘mafia state,’ and described it as a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members.” More to the point here, Gessen developed the concept of “autocratic transformation, a process that proceeds in three stages: [1st] autocratic attempt, [2nd] autocratic breakthrough, and [3rd] autocratic consolidation.”
Existing leaders’ influence
It would be hard to identify influencers more guilty in our current state than the McConnel-led U.S. Senate. In fact, the Republican Party in general fits the description. I will not say more than I already have in multiple posts about their complicit behavior in terms of allowing, enabling, and actively supporting America’s own chief executive-cum-autocrat. Finally, after backing Trump through many iterations of his terrible behavior and incompetence, Republicans—after basically patting him on the back with an impeachment aquittal—reacted appropriately when Trump floated the proposal that this November’s election should be postponed (and, of course, extending his presidency). Even the worst of Trump’s enablers in Congress dismissed out of hand the idea of delaying the election. But Trump’s suggestion was more than just imbecilic. Steven G. Calabresi, a founder of the Federalist Society, a conservative national lawyers’ group of which he’s long been a member, nailed it: “Trump’s suggestion was ‘fascist.’ It was the ploy of a would-be dictator, albeit an inept one.” George T. Conway, Republican opinion writer and organizer of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump lobbying group, added that Trump “should have been removed [from office] already twice over, for obstructing the Russia investigation and extorting Ukraine. His effort to sabotage a democratic system he swore to protect only confirms his unfitness for the job.”
This post is the result of further inquiry into the general nature of tyranny, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and autocracy, specifically to examine the transformation into one of these forms from previous democratic republics such as the United States. I had promised further comment on such transformations in my August 2, 2020, post. I obtained and read, in no particular order: How Democracies Die (2018) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt; Surviving Autocracy (2020) by Masha Gessen; On Tyranny (2017) by Timothy Snyder; The Captive Mind (1951) by Czeslaw Milosz; The Origins of Totalitarianism (1978) by Hannah Arendt; Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020) by Anne Applebaum; The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (1978) by Juan Linz.
I recommend these books as extensive sources of what accompanies democracies as they begin to weaken and teeter on the precipice that marks an almost irretrievable decline into autocracy. I regret that time and space prevent me from utilizing as much richness as these volumes contain.
May the United States of America avoid this sequence.