Tue. Oct 19th, 2021


” An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh. “I wrote it in March 2016, even before Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for the presidency. Today, the transformation of the democratic republic into an autocracy has progressed. By 2024, it could be irreversible. If it does happen, it will change almost everything in the world.

No one explained the danger more convincingly than Robert Kagan. His argument can be reduced to two main elements. First, the Republican Party is not defined by ideology, but by its loyalty to Trump. Second, the amateurish “stop the steal” movement of the last election has now become a well-advanced project. One part of this project is to remove officials who remove Trump’s attempt to block the results in 2020, but its main goal is to shift responsibility for the election outcome decision to Republican-controlled lawmakers.

So, if health permits, Trump is the next Republican candidate. He will be supported by a party that is now his instrument. Most importantly, in the words of David Frum, former George W. Bush speechwriter, ‘which the United States did not have before 2020 was a major national movement willing to justify crowdfunding to claim political power. Now do it. It does this because the members believe their opponents are not ‘real’ Americans. A liberal democracy can not last long if a major party believes that defeat is illegal and should be made impossible.

Here is a political leader who anyone who opposes him from positions of influence in his party. He believes he is being unfairly persecuted, defines reality for his followers and insists he is a legitimate election. A constitutional crisis threatens. The 2024 election, Kagan warns, could cause chaos. Imagine weeks of rival mass protests in several states, with lawmakers from both parties claiming victory and accusing the other of unconstitutional attempts to seize power. ”

Graph of the results of the survey showing that Americans have become deeply skeptical about their democracy

Assume that Trump is re-elected, legally or by manipulation. One must accept that his naive and incompetent approach to the exercise of power will not be repeated in his first term. He must now understand that he needs dedicated loyalists, of whom there will be enough, to manage the departments responsible for justice, home security, internal revenue, espionage and defense. He will surely put officers personally loyal to himself in charge of the armed forces. He will not only at least get his loyal Republican party to confirm the people he elects if it has the necessary majority of the Senate, as is most likely the case.

Just as surely he will use the pressure he can then exert on the rich and influential to align them. Crony capitalism is one of the probabilities. Ask the Hungarians living in an ‘illiberal democracy’ under a man admired by US right-wing experts.

“Americans – and all but a handful of politicians – have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it,” Kagan said. “As in other countries where fascist leaders emerge, their former opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian.”

Graph of the survey responses showing that the US is a divided country

Just think of what happened during Trump’s planned coup against the 2020 election and how Republican lawmakers and supporters have since rallied to prevent any key figures, especially Trump himself, from being held accountable. The only major players punished are those who resisted or condemned the coup. The Republicans have already crossed their Rubicon.

Why did this happen? The answer is a mixture of greed, ambition and anger in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse and an economy that does not provide a secure portion of the population with secure prosperity. It created a well-known coalition based on ‘other’ outsiders, glorifying the nation, protecting the rich and a great leader. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans consider a bad response to the vaccine to be more risky than Covid-19 itself. It is a measure of tribalism.

Graph showing that Americans have deep partisan divisions

Can a collapse of liberal democracy in the US still be prevented? Possible. But it will not be as easy as many think if the failure of Trump’s attempt to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election. He is in full control of his party. If the normal cycle of politics gives Republicans control of the House and Senate, he will be protected and served by Congress from 2022 onwards. He has, in principle, a large majority in the Supreme Court. Republicans too controls all branches of government in 23 states, while Democrats control only 15. Kagan is pinning his hopes on a decision by a sufficiently large number of Republican senators to pass voting rights legislation and the refusal of the judiciary to reverse such legislation. Yet even those who hate Trump remain loyal to the party. And as the debate over the debt ceiling shows, they are determined to make Biden fail.

Suppose Trump comes to power again in 2024, determined to take revenge on his enemies, backed by Congress and the Supreme Court. Yes, even that may be just an interlude. Trump is old: his passing could be the end of the authoritarian moment. But neither the electoral system nor the Republican Party will return to what it was. The latter is now a radical party with a reactionary agenda.

The USA is the only democratic superpower. Its continued political transformation has profound implications for liberal democracies everywhere, as well as for the world’s ability to work together on important tasks, such as managing climate risks. In 2016, one could ignore these dangers. Today, one must be blind to do so.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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