On June 1st, 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump made the news once again as reports broke out of BLM protesters being violently cleared out of an area by the St. John’s Church by the police in order to make room for his photo op. The event was perceived as a symbolic moment that encapsulated the Trump presidency through his casual willingness to weaponize racism and authoritarianism in order to garner and maintain power.
While America has long held itself as a shining ideal of how a democracy should function, in most recent years the national discourse has shifted towards becoming more self-critical of its democratic processes. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 as president was surely a catalyst for opening up such dialogue. Shocking images of a violent, repressive police force dressed in full riot gear and the brutal attack of Black bodies covered nearly every news outlet and triggered countless discussions on how American democracy was at risk.
While Donald Trump’s moments as a totalitarian-adjacent leader are by no means limited to June 1st, it is important to highlight black folks were the main target and victims of Trump’s decision to violently and undemocratically shut down the protest. In retrospect, the January 6th invasion of the Capitol that took place in the beginning of 2021 stands out as a reminder that Trump had very little qualms with his nearly all-white supporters threatening Congress and overturning the results of the election. June 1st emphasizes the connective link between authoritarianism and racism. It is no coincidence the frequency at which dictators have come into power by relying on a collective scapegoating of an outsider ethnic or religious group. The seemingly subtle and invisible effects of American democratic erosion are very much racially stratified, which means that marginalized racial communities like Black and Indigenous people will suffer the worst effects first.
It should noted that some of the most undemocratic practices and norms of the US government are very much tied into the oppression of black people, dating all the way back to the creation of the Constitution and the institutionalization of slavery. From the structure of the Senate, which was created in order to balance out the powers of the Southern slave states out with the North to the practice of gerrymandering, which disproportionately disempowers black votes, the odds have always been stack against black people in elections. Even into the present, whites in power continue to undermine black votes in new ways by making voting booths difficult to find in black neighborhoods and disenfranchising felons and imprisoned folk, who are disproportionately black. Practices that should immediately set off an alarm for an encroaching authoritarian threat such as the removal of voting rights and the undermining of elections have mostly gone under the radar because they have been endured by the underprivileged. Additionally, black people are not only kept from expressing opposition to white power at the polls, but are also monitored and controlled through a variety of government institutions such as welfare offices and the police.
How could it be that a democratic society for one group can behave so authoritarian and repressive against another? According to political scientist Vesla Weaver, the government actually has two faces: one that works to protect and secure the individual citizen’s rights, the other which functions through “the activities of governing institutions and officials that exercise social control and encompass various modes of coercion, containment, repression, surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence.” While a white person will likely encounter positive or neutral experiences with the government, whether it be through political campaigners knocking at their door, voting for a local election, or calling on the police for an emergency, black people will likely experience an entirely different array of interactions, such as being harassed by the police or having a close friend or family member be imprisoned. The outcome is that black people are deterred from political participation, again stacking the chances against them, and a plague of overpoliced, over monitored, and disempowered poor black communities across the United States. In order to combat democratic erosion and emerging authoritarianism, America may need to look deeper past simply the presidents it elects and into the communities that are already suffering due to the undemocratic features of American government.
“Learning From Ferguson” by Vesla Weaver.
I think that it is really interesting to look at the state of the government as a body that is doing two different jobs for two different groups of people, instead of a body that has one job that it is executing poorly. I wonder if the the presidency of Donald Trump as you described helped to induce this authoritarianism or occurred as a result of it.
Hello Soonie! I found this article interesting to read, especially your analysis of the systems historically used to disenfranchise Black voters and the “two faces” argument made by Weaver. One other way important way that I believe Black voters are harmed is through voter ID laws that require voters to show identification at the polls. The process for obtaining a government-issued ID can be long and arduous, and the fact that fees may have to be paid to obtain such IDs can pose a threat to many poor Americans – especially considering that BIPOC disproportionately compose a large percentage of this poorer population. While it may be difficult to label practices such as requiring voter ID laws as explicitly “authoritarian,” it is true that they dissuade many from voting, which definitely harms the ideal of a representative democracy. In regards to Weaver’s “two faces” argument, I wonder how it could connect to ideas of “stealth authoritarianism” thought of by scholars such as Ozan Varol. Could we say, for example, that a government may exercise surveillance, violence, and the likes in an undemocratic way while giving the impression that they’re simply “protecting and securing the rights of individual citizens,” leading them to use two faces to secretly erode democracy?
Hi Soonie! I loved your argument, and I loved that you took a historical view to analyze how BIPOC communities have been treated differently and how that relates to current struggles. I think it is an important thing to note that the right-wing populist rhetoric of Trump is rooted in so much historical context in our nation, and I think its an interesting thing to consider that in a way, the norms actually back up him and suppression tactics that he has encouraged. While we usually think of democratic erosion as the breaking of democratic norms, I liked that you provided a lens to view the recent treatment of protests as well as voter suppression tactics as instead a return to undemocratic norms that unfortunately have plenty of precedent in our nation. It provides a different way to think about democratic erosion as regression rather than a completely new development, and I think this can be applied to many countries with undemocratic actions in their history. Finally, I liked that you concluded with the vicious cycle that discourages black people from participating politically which only makes the government less likely to act in their interests. This is reminiscent of actions taken across the world by stealthy would-be authoritarians seeking to disenfranchise voters, and describing this cycle explains well how disenfranchisement does not have to be through explicit laws.
How the Democratic Eroding Tactics of Emerging American Populist Leaders Disproportionality Impact Black, Indigenous and People of Color:
Throughout the summer of 2020, police lined the streets in their heaviest riot gear, laced with tear gas and military level weapons in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. On January 6th, 2020, officers were barred from using their most aggressive weaponry in response to the capitol storming. Soonie Kim addressed the targetization of BIPOC in emerging American authoritarian oratory, drawing a parallel in the treatment nature of these events. I agree with Kim’s stance that minorities are disproportionately impacted by attempts to erode our democracy in comparison to their white counterparts. Throughout this response, I will further discuss how unresolved racial polarization fosters a political environment where “the people” merely constitutes the white majority, leaving minorities as scapegoats in populist tactics. I will also examine how as populists gain power, democracy disenfranchises, and people of color are denied the democratic norms to a free and fair election.
Primarily, it is important to recognize that long lasting, unresolved racial polarization poses a threat to the democratic bargain. Kim notes that the U.S. government and our constitution was founded upon the instituionalization of slavery. To build off of Kim’s point, in the 1700s and 1800s Federalists and Republicans each wanted to eliminate the other party, and in efforts to increase their own power, changed the size of the supreme court. The debate over slavery destroyed all democratic norms that formed. It was not until The Compromise of 1877, that the two parties were able to get along. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance allowed the U.S. political system to run smoothly in the 20th century, until the Civil War when this compromise was revisited. The North’s victory spurred lasting resentment between parties (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018).
The institutional racism embedded into our society promotes an “us vs. them” rhetoric to form, creating mutually exclusive categories and villainizing the other. Kim identifies the use of minority scapegoating as a tactic for the rise of an authoritarian leader. I invite you to recognize that blaming disfavored minorities as the cause of problems cultivates resentment and division. Democratic erosion is largely built off racially directed conflict, thus intensifying the impact on BIPOC. Our former president Donald Trump, an emerging populist, used immigrants as a scapegoat when it came to job opportunities, claiming the influx of workers would be a competition to “the people.” This economically routed resentment is a result of unresolved racial polarization (Müller, 2016).
Populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people. However, the core assertion of populism is that only some of the people are really “the people.” As Kim points out, there are two faces of the government: one for white people and a different one for BIPOC. People of color do not fit the populists view of the people causing government institutions, like the police, to distribute differing treatment among these citizens. To further extend this factor raised by Kim, Muller explains populists are able to prevent the need for debate by assuming “the people” speak with one voice. They issue an imperative mandate. The people are merely a metaphorical illusion based on what will align with the populists agenda (Müller, 2016).
Furthermore, Kim notes that practices of gerrymandering disempower black votes, thus jeopardizing free and fair elections, a process fundamental to a democracy. Elitists in power are able to manipulate the voting process to remain in power. Kim identifies tactics such as disenfranchising imprisoned individuals who are disproportionately BIPOC, and the lack of voting booths in black and brown neighbors as means of catering results in their favor. An interesting point emphasized by Dahl are two major preconditions of democracy: government responsiveness and political equals. Government responsiveness highlights free and fair elections. Political equality underlines universal suffrage. Gerrymandering prevents universal suffrage, thus threatening democracy (Dahl, 2000). Might you also consider the redistricting of voters in Alabama that the Supreme Court has ordered. This redistricting process is putting black voters in Alabama at a disadvantage in relation to their white counterparts, thus preventing them from electing their favored candidates (Liptak, 2022).
I foresee two main points of criticism in the above writing. First, the claim that populist rhetoric is not used in American Politics, thus invalidating my examples using Donald Trump. Second, the denial of different treatment towards minorities among politicians. In addressing the first point, it is necessary to define what constitutes populist rhetoric and ways in which Trump has demonstrated these tendencies. Three major indicators of a populist are their denial in legitimacy of an opponent, condoning of political violence and executive aggrandizement (Corrales, 2022). In the United States specifically, each of these indicators was demonstrated by our former president, Donald Trump. Trump denied the legitimacy of his opponent president Obama by claiming he was not born in the United States, and called to imprison his opponent Hillary Clinton. Trump condoned the violence that took place on the January 6th capitol storming, and in terms of executive aggrandizement, Trump broke the norm by using executive power to make trade decisions & emergency decrees (Lee, 2021). I illustrated a plethora of evidence in my above writing that supports the difference of treatment of minorities in America including immigrant scapegoating and Alabama redistricting. Populist leaders like Trump are able to instill fear in his people by spreading false claims that crime is high and that terrorists are active in America, and in turn, place blame on our BIPOC. This rhetoric combined with actions such as building a wall, further polarize heterogeneous cultures.
Corrales, J. (2022). Telltale Signs of Democratic Backsliding. Persuasion.
Dahl, R. (2000). On democracy. New Haven Yale Univ. Press.
Lee, F. (2021). Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints: Vols. 18, Issue 2. Perspectives on Politics; Cambridge.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die. Crown Publishing.
Liptak, A. (2022, February 7). Supreme Court Restores Alabama Voting Map That a Court Said Hurt Black Voters. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/us/politics/supreme-court-alabama-redistricting-congressional-map.html
Müller, J.-W. (2016). What Is populism? Penguin Books.