The United States is fast approaching a tipping point. Consider the following:
- A coordinated mobilization of armed militias threatens elected officials in Democratic states, with open White House backing;
- The most powerful member of the national legislature interferes in judicial appointments to gain his party permanent dominance over this branch of government;
- A top official who has admitted his guilt in a major breach of national security is released from prosecution by the nation’s chief judicial officer.
These attacks on democratic norms should have rung every alarm we have. But more than three years of Trump’s transgressions have numbed much of the progressive base. The steps outlined above document a clear and present danger: whatever `democracy’ we have acquired, through enormous struggle, is now on the line.
Tyranny by another name
For good reason, many people will snort at the notion that the U.S. has ever lived up to the core premises of liberal democracy: the rule of law applied equally to all citizens; majority rule through free and fair elections. As the author of “Why the United States is Not a True Democracy, Parts 1 and 2,” I can hardly disagree! Majorities do not rule in this country. Basic citizenship rights, whether the right to vote or to be secure in one’s own person, are routinely violated by local and state governments.
But it could get much worse if Trump wins again. In a second Trump administration, with Republicans controlling the Senate and the federal court system, it is more than possible that the U.S. will move sharply towards illiberal democracy.
“Illiberal Democracy” is not a play on words. It is the self-description for a new model of authoritarian governance sweeping large parts of the world, from India (soon to be first in the world in population) to Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and a brace of central and eastern European states (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary).
In an illiberal democracy, a temporary electoral majority uses its grip on power to subvert the main institutions of the state and civil society: the independent media; the judiciary; the police. All the while, a façade of electoral democracy is maintained, with multi-party elections, a parliament that meets and debates, and some toleration of dissent. But the essence of democratic rule is regularly violated.
In each of these cases, the winning party has polarized popular sentiment via appeals to xenophobic, nativist, religious, and ethno-racial phobias. Muslims are the target in India, Roma in Hungary, Jews and LGBT people in Poland, the indigenous in Brazil, Kurds in Turkey, a full rainbow of “foreign,” mostly non-white peoples in the U.S. and Russia.
Here are a few examples.
In India, Narendra Modi’s BJP government has incited pogroms against Muslims, stripped citizenship from millions of non-Hindus, and intimidated the press into sycophantic adoration, all while winning elections.
In Turkey, Recip Erdogan’s AKP regime dominates the judicial system and routinely jails journalists, while Erdogan and his family own 90% of the media outlets.
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro presides over a “death squad democracy,” giving a green light to groups that murder indigenous and Afro-descended Brazilians in rural areas, while urban police and militias kill at will in favelas.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government controls all the electronic media, disappears critical journalists at home, assassinates opponents abroad, and changes the constitution as Putin sees fit, to maintain his grip on power.
In Hungary, the Fidesz Party controlling parliament has granted Prime Minister Victor Orban unlimited authority to rule by decree.
In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski ‘s Law and Justice Party has systematically attacked the entire judicial system, using the state media to harass any judge who disagrees.
What might it look like here?
Pundits, scholars, and activists have sketched many bad things that could happen if Trump wins in November. But most of those scenarios presume the basic legal structures of the U.S. state continue to function, even if under Republican rule they are temporarily skewed.
My presumption is different. I think those structures will be pulverized and a fundamentally lawless regime will set about maintaining itself in power, while pretending to democratic norms. Indeed, this assault on democracy is already happening. So far it is aimed mainly at people who are not Trump loyalists who hold some power: the Governor of Michigan or longtime officials in the so-called “Deep State,” meaning the federal civil service. (The organized left is not yet significant enough to be high-priority targets on Trump’s to-do list, perhaps one reason some progressives do not fully understand the threat he poses).
In a second Trump Administration, I see this assault on democracy proceeding in four stages:
First, pack the judiciary. Second, plant loyalists in all decision-making posts in the larger state apparatus. Third, green light paramilitary violence. Fourth, seize control of the state’s monopoly on legitimate coercion via the police.
Keep in mind that implementing this progression does not require the popularly understood signs that a dictator has taken over: tanks in the streets and thousands jailed overnight. Trump likely would let the New York Times continue publishing, and the formal mechanisms of parliamentary representation would continue. Old-guard Democrats would remain in Congress and state houses, because their impotent voices would legitimize rule by a Republican Party committed to staying in power by any means necessary.
The attack on the democratic gains of the 1960s – in particular, voting rights for African Americans – began long before Trump. Republicans recognized decades ago that changing demographics would make it less and less likely that a party anchored in overt white supremacy could win many victories in a genuine one-person, one-vote system. GOP gains in voter suppression are part of the reason Trump was able to win in 2016. Since his inauguration, attacks on voting rights have increased, and a second Trump term promises much worse.
An independent judiciary no longer
Nearly everyone alive today grew up believing that the federal judiciary would either extend rights, or at least guarantee them against erosion. Even as the Burger, Rehnquist, and now Roberts Supreme Courts turned ever more rightward, the precedents set by the Warren Court in 1953-1969 were presumed to hold, in part because new rights were occasionally added, as specific gay and lesbian rights were in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). The 1980s and after rulings that enabled racialized mass incarceration largely escaped notice, so that by the time Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow appeared in 2011, the damage was already done.
Shelby v. Holder in 2013, which ruled key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, and the 2019 Rucho v. Common Cause ruling that “Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts” were massive setbacks. The Court’s April 2020 refusal to block Wisconsin Republicans’ attempted mass disfranchisement clarifies that we are in the middle of a judicial counter-revolution.
We now have a Court like those which permitted Jim Crow’s apparatus of repression, violence, and disfranchisement from the 1870s to the 1940s. In that era, the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection and due process explicitly did not apply to the states. As long as poll taxes and literacy tests were nominally nonracial, they were permitted; similarly, in the 21st century, we can expect that “voter identification” laws, purges of voter rolls, and gerrymanders will be permitted under almost any circumstance.
In a second Trump administration, the Supreme Court, already under right-wing control, will be further undermined by threatened impeachment and forced retirement of the remaining liberal justices. That judicial purge will be extended to the entire federal bench, as signaled by Mitch McConnell personally pressuring judges to retire so Trump can replace them. We should expect a scenario in which there is no possibility of judicial review or restraint, and the remaining independent judges are subjected to public and private intimidation.
That we have to consider this possibility suggests how far the process of “illiberalization” has already moved. If Trump wins and McConnell consolidates his take-over of the federal bench, we move very far back to a world of constant quasi-legal repression–grand jury indictments, tax and fraud prosecutions, weaponizing the IRS against political groups and individual activists, a barrage of injunctions to block protests, strikes, and any effort by local and state governments to resist Trump.
Monopolizing the state
Since he was elected, Trump has steadily undermined structures of government that benefit ordinary people, whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Labor Relations Board, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Labor, the National Park Service, or the Environmental Protection Agency. All the above have been corrupted for narrow partisan purposes.
The current attempts to destroy the Postal Service and politicize the United States Census, two of the success stories of American governance since the 1790s, are the most perverse illustrations of this larger attack.
Trump’s special targets, however, are those parts of the government that regulate and enforce laws domestically and abide by norms and agreements internationally. He has moved to turn the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the entire intelligence apparatus from institutions accountable to Congress (and hence on some issues forced to respond to popular pressure) into enforcers of his personal agenda. Even the military, formerly sacrosanct, has been humiliated by his overturning the court martials of war criminals like the SEAL “Eddie” Gallagher.
Richard Nixon once attempted to move at least part way in this direction with his efforts to gain personal control of the FBI and CIA. But the terrain was different then, and he was beaten back. It was FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt who acted as the Deep Throat informer to blow up Nixon’s plans.
If Trump games the November election, the FBI will become Trump’s personal police, with the President acting as the new J. Edgar Hoover who led the Bureau from 1924 to 1972. Any individual or organization will be fair game for infiltration, disruption, suppression, and blackmail at the behest of the White House. Trump’s enemies in the Democratic Party, the press, and the state apparatus will likely be first-priority targets. More and more people will disappear from public life in a campaign of vengeance that will make Nixon’s “enemies list” look small-scale. Once they have been knocked down, any kind of grassroots opposition by progressives will be next in line.
Gangs of armed men
The next possibility, signaling a descent into the tactics historically associated with fascism, would be outright political violence condoned from the top and hailed by his base. We have not seen that kind of politics since the routine floggings and killings of Black and white Republicans by Democrats during Reconstruction. The Bundys’ occupation of federal lands, the Nazi gangs marching through Charlottesville, and the mass gun-rights rallies at state capitols just before COVID-19 hit, featuring men in body armor with automatic weapons, are now escalating into armed parades in streets and legislative chambers.
We need to take these escalations seriously. Every day I get emails from websites like Conservative-Daily.com calling Schumer and Pelosi “traitors.” Trump began his rise to power by suggesting that his opponent should be “locked up.” Last year he regularly stoked crowds chanting “Send Her Back!” against Representative Ilhan Omar and the Squad, and last month he urged mobs to “liberate” their states. How long before zealots act on that language, and give traitors what they deserve?
Welcome to a privatized police state!
Brutally violent, repressive policing, aimed directly at people of color and political dissenters, is a deep-rooted feature of U.S. society. But the systemic impact of that coercion has been curtailed by the dispersed structure of our policing system. A national paramilitary police force directed from the White House would be genuinely new, and extraordinarily dangerous.
This potential was signaled in February when Trump sent what is essentially a military unit, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), into sanctuary cities to work with ICE. Beyond that, what do you think will happen if ICE or FBI agents start arresting his most outspoken opponents? Would the New York or Chicago police departments disarm federal officers rounding up leftwing Black and Latino city council members and Members of Congress?
In this previously unimaginable scenario, Trump would appeal to the “thin blue line” to come to his aid, and armed men in uniform would answer his call in the Blue states, while Red state governors and legislatures respond enthusiastically. At that point, it will not matter that there is no constitutional authority for a president seizing control of local police.
The fork in the road
We must stop hoping that the millions of Republicans who supported Trump’s opponents in 2016, and believe themselves to be law-abiding people, will object to an ever-more authoritarian government. Of course, not every Republican is a hater or a permanent enemy. But their class interest and racial blinders—functionally the same thing—precludes any rocking of the boat. They have gained greatly under him, and the consequences of admitting his increasing despotism, in terms of personal ruin and moral responsibility, would be very grave.
Here is the parallel from our history of authoritarian governments. For three-quarters of a century, the overwhelming majority of southern whites defended the Jim Crow system as natural and fitting. They ignored the racial terror deployed against their black neighbors, just as today’s Republicans avow how much they wish the President would stop tweeting, or not say such terrible things, or tone it down. They “don’t agree with everything he does,” but they will vote for him anyway. With a few exceptions like Mitt Romney and the Lincoln Project, they insist the Emperor is wearing fine new clothes even though his gross old torso is naked in plain sight.
Given the real possibility of Trump winning again via votes suppressed and votes bought, just enough to take the Electoral College, we face a stark necessity. The majority must mass together to defeat Trump and crush Trumpism. We cannot stay where we are, we will move forward or we will move back. Democracy, all that we have fought for and not-yet achieved, is on the line.