I vividly remember my experience six years ago, huddled over the dusty desk in the nook of my room, unable to concentrate on my geometry homework. Why? I was watching coverage of the 2016 election and Florida was just called for Donald Trump.
It’s almost impressive how far we’ve come. The United States has taken a 180º turn and charted a path straight toward authoritarianism, and many of our worst dreams are coming true.
For a second, let’s put aside the partisan preferences and focus on the objective facts. For years, scholars have been sounding the alarm. Generally, the American public has swept those red flags to the side. We have more pressing things to worry about, we tell ourselves, and 225 years of democracy isn’t going to revert overnight.
But the warning signs of authoritarianism, and the potential death of our democracy, are all here. According to How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, we have real cause to worry when four things happen.
NUMBER 1: RULES AREN’T IMPORTANT… RIGHT?
Some rules aren’t important, e.g. the five-second rule. We’re probably going to eat it anyway. Rules that govern a democracy, however, are critical. If they can be broken once, they can be broken again, and again, in ever-increasing severity.
Levitsky and Ziblatt give us some litmus test questions to determine when politicians are breaking democratic rules, among which are questions like “do they suggest a need for antidemocratic measures, such as banning certain organizations or restricting basic civil or political rights?” and “do they seek to use extraconstitutional means to change the government, such as violent insurrections?” It even includes “do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?”
Former President Donald Trump tests positive for many of these basic tests. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has a 37-page document with a detailed list of every civil rights offense perpetrated by the Trump administration, including a travel ban for Muslim refugees, removing protections for transgender students under Title IX, rescinding the DACA program, and more.
And as the January 6th Hearings begin this week, it is being made clear the involvement former President Donald Trump had in the January 6th insurrection. According to the New York Times, Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the Select House Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol said that “Donald Trump was at the center of this conspiracy. And ultimately, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy.”
That’s certainly an extraconstitutional way to change the government through a violent insurrection if I’ve ever heard it.
The same article highlights Trump’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Republican Liz Cheney, the vice chairwoman of the committee said, “President Trump engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to convince huge portions of the U.S. population that fraud had stolen the election.”
NUMBER 2: ANYONE WHO DISAGREES IS A THREAT TO THESE UNITED STATES.
We don’t have to like everyone, but in a democracy, it helps if you don’t actively believe that your opponents are out to get you. Hyperpolarization is incredibly dangerous to a functioning democracy, and it can be exploited by politicians for their electoral advantage.
Litmus test: “Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law (or potential to do so) disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena?”
Yeah, this happened too. There were countless times during former President Trump’s term when he attacked the legitimacy and motivation of his opponents. This includes accusing Obama and Biden of spying on Trump’s campaign in 2016, calling them criminals who needed to be indicted. He also infamously called Hillary a crook – or even the devil. I guess you can’t get worse than that.
NUMBER 3: LET’S FIGHT.
Politicians who tolerate or encourage violence are not a good sign. The litmus test for this one is “Do they have any ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias, guerrillas, or other organizations that engage in illicit violence?” and the answer is certainly yes.
Vox, when discussing former President Trump’s ties to white nationalists, said “White nationalist goals can only be achieved by dismantling the US government, and there, too, Trump has appeared to align with a violent element, like when he called on armed groups to “liberate” their states.”
Many white nationalist groups are, in fact, domestic terrorist groups, paramilitary forces, and militias – many of which support Trump. And Trump himself has done little to rebuke or reject these claims in words or actions.
NUMBER 4: MY OPPONENTS DON’T DESERVE RIGHTS – ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA.
An authoritarian leader indicates their willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
According to an assistant professor of journalism and media studies with the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers-New Brunswick, “Trump and his encouragement of retributive violence towards perceived opponents has made it more difficult for reporters to do their jobs and show up at events out of fear for their safety.”
That – along with calling certain outlets “fake news” and harassing reporters – is an attack on the media; however, we are not quite at the level of curtailing civil liberties… yet. In 2022, Freedom House still ranked the United States three out of four concerning freedom of the press. While the general independence and freedom of the press remain intact, there has been a rise in press violations reported by the US Press Freedom Tracker since 2019. It is a developing situation that needs to be watched very closely.
SO, WHAT NOW?
It’s up to the gatekeepers of our democracy: party leaders. Republicans had ample chance throughout Trump’s presidency to distance, denounce, and even remove Trump from office. Here’s what political parties need to do:
- Keep authoritarians off the ballot by distancing themselves from extremist, authoritarian candidates.
- Root out and eliminate antidemocratic grassroots extremists from their ranks.
- Avoid alliances with anti-democratic parties, candidates, and organizations. No political union is worth our democratic union.
- Isolate, don’t legitimize, populist and authoritarian figures.
But we can help, too. If party leaders feel our pressure on them, we can remind them that they are accountable to us, not a bully at the pulpit.
I know this is incredibly scary for my fellow Americans and citizens around the world but we cannot dig our heads into the sand. We must be aware of the state of our nation and be active drivers of the path we take.