There has been much speculation as to whether the most recent election in the United States highlights and enhances both democratic backslide and a new stealth authoritarian regime. In order to evaluate the state of the nation, however, we must evaluate each characteristic that various scholars say are the markers of an authoritarian, or democratically eroded government. After a brief analysis, it seems as though that those who believe Donald Trump’s America and Donald Trump himself to be authoritarian are mistaken.
To claim that the traditional democracy that used to characterize the United States has lost some of its purity is a bit easier to do than claiming that the U.S. now qualifies as a stealth authoritarian country. Political polarization, increased use of propaganda, and facts giving way to rhetoric are all effects of an eroding democracy. They also characterize the current states of American politics. Even though the country has seen a steady widening of the rift between political ideologies over the last 30 years, the trend has continued and perhaps strengthened as a result of the latest election. Some would argue that the incredible discontent with the election results from most people who identify as liberal stems more from morality, and at this point it is no longer about party but a struggle to get back to what is “right”. Some hypocritical arguments from certain liberal analysts and journalists have me believing otherwise, and just as the liberal side of American politics has its share of hypocrisy, the conservative wing is also a perpetrator. In the most recent example-the FBI memos that President Trump has considered releasing-the sense of political polarization cannot be more clear. If he had chosen to release both ideologically opposing memos, or to release neither, his actions would have been less indicative of a polarized environment. The hypocrisy from either ideology can be masked as a moral stance, or a stance against false reports, but what it really is, is a division between Democrats and Republicans with a greater magnitude than the United States has seen before within its own borders.
As with polarization, the level of political propaganda used during the 2016 election seemed to be at an all-time high, and also coincides with the obvious lack of facts that have an apparent choke-hold on the current political arena. Some argue that President Trump’s occasional disregard for the obvious truth is a mechanism for bolstering his political image in the short-run, banking on the idea that his long-term image will be unaffected because his exaggerations will ultimately be forgotten or deemed unimportant after a while. Others might argue that it is a product of a deeper issue, one that leads to the next idea of the United States as an authoritarian state rather than a democracy. No matter that conclusion, it is clear that our democracy, while still temporarily intact, has eroded as time has passed.
But is it enough to claim that we are no longer a democracy? Varol highlights several characteristics of stealth authoritarianism that must also be evaluated to determine the answer. We have already concluded that the American political arena is heavily polarized, likely more than it has ever been. The idea that this type of society becomes anti-democratic through democratic practices, however, forces us to accept that more than one component is necessary for a country to qualify as authoritarian. There are several examples of infractions in the realm of judicial review, both in recent times and over the course of American history. The most recent, however, seems to be a decent indication of Varol’s “stealthy” characteristic, in the postponement of electing a Supreme Court Justice until the next presidential election. Though it can be spun to seem more democratic, it breaches that threshold for some critics of our current state. This has several implications in both legal interpretation and presidential leeway when making policy. The idea of libel laws and lawsuits has also poked its head into our current situation, with the President’s former Chief Strategist publishing a book that was not favorable to the commander-in-chief. Though no action has been taken, there might be consideration for a law suit. President Trump’s promise to incarcerate Hillary Clinton highlights another of Varol’s characteristics for stealth authoritarian governments. His prosecution would come from the basis of what could loosely be called a war-crime, in that she reportedly failed to send aid to American soldiers that she knew were in danger. It is important to note that she has not to this date been prosecuted for these actions, though the talk of it has raised some red flags in the eyes of critics. Despite the heavy polarization, the evidence does not seem to be there. There are certainly more examples of what Varol would argue indicates an undercover authoritarian regime, and ones that might be more convincing as well, but what is perhaps the most important of his characteristics is not present.
The idea of “bolstering domestic and global legitimacy”, in my opinion, is the best indicator for whether an administration is actually authoritarian. It seems as though a leader who knows what he or she is creating is anti-democratic would feel the need to convince others that they are not actually doing that. Examples of this idea include Turkey’s government under Erdogan or Azerbaijan under Aliyev. Donald Trump, while he tries to promote his own legitimacy both internationally and domestically, hasn’t really tried to promote our democracy in that way. It is reasonable to assume that a country like the United States, who is the token democracy in the world, would not want to destroy that image. So, if we were in fact an authoritarian government, our current administration would try greatly to convince the world and its citizens otherwise. It is my opinion that bolstering legitimacy is a necessary condition for stealth authoritarianism to exist. If it is stealthy then clearly the regime does not want it to be obvious, and would thus protect the image of democracy publicly in order to mask its true nature.