Sometimes political change happens suddenly. You wake up, and a military junta has taken over your country, or some other kind of revolution has happened. But other times, the climate shifts little by little. A few big gestures of aggression, and then things settle down. Then the cycle repeats, until one day the tipping point is reached and you find your democracy has been transformed into an autocracy.
We’re at serious risk of this happening in America.
Trump’s first 100 days have been a lesson for him in what he can and cannot easily do. He’s followed the authoritarian playbook in attacking those sectors of society that uphold the value of evidence (the judiciary, the press, researchers). He’s purged the bureaucracy; hired family members (who thumb their noses at conflicts of interest); bullied critics on Twitter; and incited a climate of hatred toward targeted groups (Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, and more).
Many of those attacks have been successfully thwarted thus far. Trump has faced significant and sustained pushback to his programs and methods — including cherished measures like the travel ban and repealing and replacing Obamacare — from the press and the judiciary, and even by factions of his own party. Civic engagement and political activism have also grown exponentially in response to the dangers to our freedoms that he represents — as has funding and support for investigative journalism.
Authoritarians, however, are most dangerous at such moments, when they feel vulnerable. With the #TrumpRussia scandal widening, we can expect the White House to become much more aggressive in imposing its agendas. Non-whites will bear the brunt of this, under the guise of crackdowns on immigration, crime and drugs.
Like many demagogues before him, Trump bills himself as a modernizer who can “repair” a broken system. Apparently, checks and balances are in the same category for him as old bridges and leaky borders: things that need fixing to work efficiently. Ian Bassin, a a former White House associate counsel and Executive Director of United to Protect Democracy, a watchdog organization led by former White House and administration lawyers and constitutional litigators, noted to me that if Trump isn’t content with upending democratic norms and starts to change their underlying laws, “there’s no end to how much power he could try to amass.”
But, many might ask, wouldn’t government run better in a more streamlined manner, allowing Trump to manage by decree, as he does in his business life? A supporter interviewed by the Washington Post at his Harrisburg, Pennsylvania rally, thinks so. “I wish we had no parties — they just lock into left or right, and nothing gets done. [Trump] wants to fix stuff.” It’s a common theme heard among Trump’s followers: just let him come in and run things “like a business.”
But there’s a name for a system with no parties and a strongman leader at the helm: dictatorship.
–Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Trump at his most dangerous