Just in case you didn’t notice, authoritarianism was on the ballot in the 2022 midterm elections. An unprecedented majority of candidates from one of the nation’s two major political parties were committed to undemocratic policies and outcomes. You would have to go back to the Democratic Party-dominated segregationist South of the 1950s to find such a sweeping array of authoritarian proclivities in an American election. While voters did stop some of the most high-profile election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and pro-Trump true believers from taking office, all too many won seats at the congressional, state, and local levels.
Count on one thing: this movement isn’t going away. It won’t be defeated in a single election cycle and don’t think the authoritarian threat isn’t real either. After all, it now forms the basis for the politics of the Republican Party and so is targeting every facet of public life. No one committed to constitutional democracy should rest easy while the network of right-wing activists, funders, media, judges, and political leaders work so tirelessly to gain yet more power and implement a thoroughly undemocratic agenda.
This deeply rooted movement has surged from the margins of our political system to become the defining core of the GOP. In the post-World War II era, from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964, from President Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in its current Trumpian iteration, Republicans have long targeted democratic norms as impediments to establishing a neoliberal, race-based version of all-American authoritarianism. And that movement has been far too weakly opposed by far too many Democratic Party leaders and even some progressives. Don’t think of this phenomenon as right-wing conservativism either, but as a more dangerous, even violent movement whose ultimate aim is to overthrow liberal democracy. The American version of this type of electoral authoritarianism, anchored in Christian nationalist populism, has at its historic core a white nationalist pushback against the struggle for racial justice.
Liberal Democracy for Some, Racial Authoritarianism for Others
Liberal democracy had failed generations of African Americans and other people of color, as, of course, it did Native Americans massacred or driven from their ancestral lands. It failed African Americans and Latinos forced to work on chain gangs or lynched (without the perpetrators suffering the slightest punishment). It failed Asian Americans who were brutally sent to internment camps during World War II and Asians often explicitly excluded from immigration rosters.
The benefits of liberal democracy — rule of law, government accountability, the separation of powers, and the like — that were extended to most whites existed alongside a racial authoritarianism that denied fundamental rights and protections to tens of millions of Americans. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s defeated the longstanding, all-too-legal regime of racist segregationists and undemocratic, even if sometimes constitutional, authority. For the first time since the end of the Reconstruction era, when there was a concerted effort to extend voting rights, offer financial assistance, and create educational opportunities for those newly freed from slavery, it appeared that the nation was again ready to reckon with its racial past and present.
Yet, all too sadly, the proponents of autocratic governance did anything but disappear. In the twenty-first century, their efforts are manifest in the governing style and ethos of the Republican Party, its base, and the extremist organizations that go with it, as well as the far-right media, think tanks, and foundations that accompany them. At every level, from local school boards and city councils to Congress and the White House, authoritarianism and its obligatory racism continue to drive the GOP political agenda.
The violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, was just the high (or, depending on your views, low) point in a long-planned, multi-dimensional, hyper-conservative, white nationalist coup attempt engineered by President Donald Trump, his supporters, and members of the Republican Party. It was neither the beginning nor the end of that effort, just its most violent public expression — to date, at least. After all, Trump’s efforts to delegitimize elections were first put on display when he claimed that Barack Obama had actually lost the popular vote and so stolen the 2012 election, that it had all been a “total sham.”
During the 2016 presidential debates, Trump alone stated that he would not commit himself to support any other candidate as the party’s nominee, since — a recurring theme for him — he could only lose if the election were rigged or someone cheated. He correctly grasped that there would be no consequences to such norm-breaking behavior and falsely stated that he had only lost the Iowa caucus to Senator Ted Cruz because “he stole it.” After losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College in 2016, Trump incessantly complained that he would have won the popular vote, too, if the “millions” of illegal voters who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton hadn’t been counted.
Donald Trump decisively lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, 74.2 million to 81.2 million in the popular vote and 232 to 306 in the Electoral College, leaving only one path to victory (other than insurrection) — finding a way to discount millions of black votes in key swing-state cities. From birtherism and Islamophobia to anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric, racism had propelled Trump’s ascendancy and his political future would be determined by the degree to which he and his allies could invalidate votes in the disproportionately Black cities of Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, and Latino and Native American votes in Arizona and Nevada.
The GOP effort to disqualify Black, Latino, and Native American votes was a plot to create an illegitimate government, an unholy scheme that took an inescapably violent turn and led to an outcome for which the former president has yet to be held accountable. Sadly enough, the forces of authoritarianism were anything but dispatched by their defeat on January 6th. If anything, they were emboldened by the failure so far to hold responsible most of the agents who maneuvered the event into motion.
Democracy, Authoritarianism, or Fascism?
The last decade has exposed a severely wounded American democratic experiment. Consider it Donald Trump’s contribution to have revealed how spectacularly the guardrails of liberal democracy can fail if the breaking of laws, rules, and norms goes unchallenged or is sacrificed on the altar of narrow political gains. The most mendacious, cruel, mentally unstable, thin-skinned, vengeful, incompetent, narcissistic, bigoted individual ever elected to the presidency was neither an accident, nor an aberration. He was the inevitable outcome of decades of Republican pandering to anti-democratic forces and white nationalist sentiments.
Scholars have long debated the distinction between fascism and authoritarianism. Fascist states create an all-engulfing power that rules over every facet of political and social life. Elections are abolished; mass arrests occur without habeas corpus; all opposition media are shut down; freedoms of speech and assembly are curtailed; courts, if allowed to exist at all, rubber-stamp undemocratic state policies; while the military or brown shirts of some sort enforce an unjust, arbitrary legal system. Political parties are outlawed and opponents are jailed, tortured, or killed. Political violence is normalized, or at least tolerated, by a significant portion of society. There is little pretense of constitutional adherence or the constitution is formally suspended.
On the other hand, authoritarian states acknowledge constitutional authority, even if they also regularly ignore it. Limited freedoms continue to exist. Elections are held, though generally with predetermined outcomes. Political enemies aren’t allowed to compete for power. Nationalist ideology diverts attention from the real levers and venues of that power. Political attacks against alien “others” are frequent, while public displays of racism and ethnocentrism are common. Most critically, some enjoy a degree of democratic norms while accepting that others are denied them completely. During the slave and Jim Crow eras in this country — periods of racial authoritarianism affecting millions of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans — most whites in the South (and perhaps a majority outside of it) either tolerated or embraced the disavowal of democracy.
Under the right confluence of forces — a weakened system of checks and balances, populist rhetoric that taps into fears and perceived injustices, an anemic and divided opposition, deep social or racial divides, distrust of science and scientists, rampant anti-intellectualism, unpunished corporate and political malfeasance, and popularly accepted charges of mainstream media bias — a true authoritarian could indeed come to power in this country. And as history has shown, that could just be a prelude to full-blown fascism.
The warning signs could not be clearer.
While, in many ways, Trump’s administration was more of a kakistocracy — that is, “government by the worst and most unscrupulous people,” as scholar Norm Ornstein put it — from day one to the last nano-seconds of its tenure, his autocratic tendencies were all too often on display. His authoritarian appetites generated an unprecedented library of books issuing distress signals about the dangers to come.
Timothy Snyder’s 2017 bestseller On Tyranny was, for instance, a brief but remarkably astute early work on the subject. The Yale history professor provided a striking overview of tyranny meant to dispel myths about how autocrats or populists come to and stay in power. Although published in 2017, the work made no mention of Donald Trump. It was, however, clearly addressing the rise to power of his MAGA right and soberly warning the nation to stop him before it was too late.
As Snyder wrote of the institutions of our democracy, they “do not protect themselves… The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions — even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” He particularly cautioned against efforts to link the police and military to partisan politics, as Trump first did in 2020 when his administration had peaceful protesters attacked by the police and National Guard in Lafayette Square across from the White House so that the president could take a stroll to a local church. He similarly warned about letting private security forces, often with violent tendencies (as when Trump’s security team would eject demonstrators from his political rallies) gain quasi-official or official status.
The period 2015 to 2020 certainly represented the MAGAfication of the United States and launched this country on a potential path toward future authoritarian rule by the GOP.
The Vulnerabilities of Democracy
Journalists have also been indispensable in exposing the democratic vulnerabilities of the United States. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has, for instance, been prolific and laser-focused in calling out the hazards of creeping authoritarianism and of Trump’s “performing fascism.” She writes that while he may not himself have fully grasped the concept of fascism, “In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.”
While Trump is too lazy, self-interested, and intellectually undisciplined to be a coherent ideologue, he surrounded himself with and took counsel from those who were, including far-right zealots and Trump aides Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller. Bannon functioned as Trump’s Goebbels-ish propagandist, having cut his white nationalist teeth as founder and executive chair of the extremist Breitbart News media operation. In 2018, he told a gathering of European far-right politicians, fascists, and neo-Nazis, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
Someone who knows the former president better than most, his niece Mary Trump, all too tellingly wrote that her uncle “is an instinctive fascist who is limited by his inability to see beyond himself.” For her, there is no question the title fits. As she put it, “[A]rguing about whether or not to call Donald a fascist is the new version of the media’s years-long struggle to figure out if they should call his lies, lies. What’s more relevant now is whether the media — and the Democrats — will extend the label of fascism to the Republican Party itself.”
Mainstreaming Extremism and Democracy’s Decline
Given these developments, some scholars and researchers argue that the nation’s democratic descent may already have gone too far to be fully stopped. In its Democracy Report 2020: Autocratization Surges — Resistance Grows, the Varieties of Democracy (VDem) Project, which assesses the democratic health of nations globally, summarized the first three years of Trump’s presidency this way: “[Democracy] has eroded to a point that more often than not leads to full-blown autocracy.” Referring to its Liberal Democracy Index scale, it added, “The United States of America declines substantially on the LDI from 0.86 in 2010 to 0.73 in 2020, in part as a consequence of President Trump’s repeated attacks on the media, opposition politicians, and the substantial weakening of the legislature’s de facto checks and balances on executive power.”
These findings were echoed in The Global State of Democracy 2021, a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that argued, “The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”
The failure of Donald Trump’s eternally “stolen election” coup attempt and the presidency of Joe Biden may have put off the further development of an authoritarian state, but don’t be fooled. Neither the failure of the January 6th insurrection nor the disappointments suffered in the midterm elections have deterred the ambitions of the GOP’s fanatics. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, however slim, will undoubtedly unleash a further tsunami of extremist actions not just against the Democrats, but the American people.
Purges of Democrats from House committees, McCarthyite-style hearings and investigations, and an all-out effort to rig the system to declare whoever emerges as the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidate the preemptive winner will mark their attempt to rule. Such actions will be duplicated — and worse — in states with Republican governors and legislatures, as officials there bend to the autocratic urges of their minority but fervent white base voters. They will be supported by a network of far-right media, donors, activists, and Trump-appointed judges and justices.
In response, defending the interests of working people, communities of color, LGBTQ individuals and families, and other vulnerable sectors of this society will mean alliances between progressives, liberals, and, in some instances, disaffected and distraught anti-Trump, pro-democracy Republicans. There are too many historical examples of authoritarian and fascist takeovers while the opposition remained split and in conflict not to form such political alliances. Nothing is more urgent at this moment than the complete political defeat of an anti-democratic movement that is, all too sadly, still on the march.
Clarence Lusane is a political science professor and interim political science department chair at Howard University, and Independent Expert to the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance. His latest book is Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy (City Lights).