Authoritarianism: It can definitely happen here

How serious is the threat of authoritarianism in the United States today? A new book by two Washington Post reporters reveals that shortly before the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol last January, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned aides that the U.S. was facing a “Reichstag moment.” Milley was referring to the crisis in Germany in February 1933, one month after Adolph Hitler took power, when the German parliament was set on fire. Hitler and the Nazi Party used the opportunity to declare a national emergency, suspend Germany’s democratic constitution and ban opposition parties. Germany descended into fascist dictatorship for the next 12 years.

The comparison is extreme but not entirely farfetched.

The Jan. 6 assault on Congress was an attempted coup d’etat. The protesters aimed to stop Congress from legally certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory and reverse the 2020 presidential election result. It was an assault on democracy, incited by Trump himself, who was subsequently impeached, but not convicted, for a high crime. Trump’s response to Milley’s charge is characteristic: a personal attack. Trump said, in a statement issued by his political action committee, “If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is Gen. Mark Milley.”

The coup attempt failed, of course.

No coup has ever succeeded without the active or tacit support of the military. President Trump may have expected the military to intervene to keep him in power. What saved the country was the deep conviction among military leaders that the military should stay out of politics.

The test of democracy is not holding an election. Authoritarian governments like the Nazis in 1933 sometimes do win elections. The true test is unelecting a government. In a democracy, the people must have the ability to remove a government from power — peacefully — when It loses the confidence of the people.

Democracy gives the people the right to say what Trump used to say on his television show: “You’re fired!”

Trump nearly failed the test by insisting that the 2020 election was fraudulent and by trying by any means to reverse the result — even though there is no convincing evidence of voter fraud — but he eventually did leave the White House.

Is the danger over, then?

Not entirely. 

Because Trump and his supporters have succeeded in doing something that poses a continuing threat to our democratic system: They have taken over one of our two major political parties. The radical right now controls the Republican Party. In a two-party system like ours, a party in power is bound to lose the confidence of the voters after a period of time. Eventually the desire for “change” will build, and the opposition party will come to power. It could take longer if the opposition party is seen as radical, but eventually it is bound to happen. That’s how two-party systems work.

It took 20 years for a Republican president to get elected after Franklin D. Roosevelt won in 1932, but eventually Republicans came up with a candidate who had no taint of radicalism (which in those days meant McCarthyism) — Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the World War II military victory in Europe. 

Republicans have flirted with radicalism before, most notably when Barry Goldwater won the GOP nomination in 1964 (“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”) — but Goldwater didn’t win. Trump did. And that convinced many Republicans that Trump’s brand of crude populism and racism could succeed.

Is there popular support for Trump’s brand of authoritarianism? More than you think. Both national and state polls taken during last year’s presidential campaign regularly overstated Joe Biden’s margin of victory. According to a report by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, one plausible explanation is that statements by President Trump that “polls were ‘fake’ and intended to suppress votes  . . .  could have transformed survey participation into a political act whereby his strongest supporters chose not to respond to polls.”

In 2016, Matthew MacWilliams reported in Politico that “Trump’s electoral strength — and his staying power — have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations.” That appears to be the case with older Americans who are “socially disconnected.”

And less educated.

Of the ten states with the lowest education levels, only two voted for Biden (Nevada and New Mexico). All ten of the best educated states voted for Biden.

Now consider this: The ten states with the highest percentages of the population fully vaccinated against COVID all voted for Biden. Of the ten states with the lowest vaccination rates, all but one (Georgia) voted for Trump.

Trump supporters would say that proves they are the least authoritarian because they refuse to take advice from government. They don’t want government telling them they have to get vaccinated. But what it really means is that Trump supporters don’t trust expertise — government experts and scientists who claim to know more than they do about what’s good for them. Even if they do.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Authoritarianism Capitol attack Donald Trump Far-right politics in the United States Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden Mark Milley Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States trumpism

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