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Like the rest of the world I have been following the US Presidential election with a combination of fascination and concern as the current President of the United States, supported by his offspring and a subservient, compliant Republican Party, has been calling his defeat a fraud, without any evidence to support this assertion. It is a scene we might expect in Turkey or China, or Russia or Syria or Catalonia, but the USA?
I was struck by an analysis of the situation by Masha Gessen, who in turn referenced work on autocracies by Bálint Magyar, a Hungarian sociologist who has developed analytical tools to understand the slide towards autocracy in many Eastern and Central European countries. (Note: per Magyar, less than a decade after Hungary entered the EU with a liberal functioning democracy it has become the model “illiberal state,” with constitutional checks and balances in near-total collapse, foreign investment in flight, the independence of the judiciary and independent media no longer guaranteed, civil society groups under attack, political prosecutions and rigged elections the subject of credible allegations, levels of intolerance against minority groups rising, and a single governing party controlling all public institutions in a non-transparent manner and digging itself in for the long haul. The rotation of political power is now no longer secure).
I quote Gessen: “Magyar divides the autocrat’s journey into three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. The attempt is a period when autocracy is still preventable, or reversible, by electoral means. When it is no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully, the autocratic breakthrough has occurred, because the very structures of government have been transformed and can no longer protect themselves. These changes usually include packing the constitutional court (the Supreme Court, in the case of the U.S.) with judges loyal to the autocrat; packing and weakening the courts in general; appointing a chief prosecutor (the Attorney General) who is loyal to the autocrat and will enforce the law selectively on his behalf; changing the rules on the appointment of civil servants; weakening local governments; unilaterally changing electoral rules (to accommodate gerrymandering, for instance); and changing the Constitution to expand the powers of the executive.”
Gessen unsurprisingly concludes that ‘for all the apparent flailing and incompetence of the Trump Administration, his autocratic attempt checks most of the boxes’.
Just take a superficial look: He has appointed three Supreme Court Justices (and with the Republicans’ help stopped the appointment of another during Obama’s final year in office). He has appointed a record number of ‘politically supportive’ federal judges. The Justice Department, under William Barr acts as his personal attorney, bending and twisting decades of norms to Trump’s advantage. Unable to force Congress to confirm appointments, he has created an army of ‘Acting’ officials loyal to only Trump, some of them operating in violation of federal regulations. As we have just seen at the Pentagon, senior ranks are being gutted to be replaced by men loyal first to Trump, not the constitution. We have seen the continuation of a process where, instead of a government built on checks and balances, Trump is building an organisation that puts loyalty to the ‘Supreme Leader’ first – by a long margin over anything else.
This election has seen Joe Biden win with the greatest share of the vote for a challenger since FDR. It is almost certain that he will have the same number of electoral college votes that Trump won four years ago (and Trump called it a ‘landslide’ at the time). So, despite the shenanigans of the last four years, when Biden takes up his office on the 20th January, can we all breathe a sigh of relief that the jackbooted march towards autocracy has been stopped, that norms will be re-established?
I would argue that America is at a crossroads and it is uncertain whether this slide towards autocracy will be reversed and that would have enormous repercussions for the free world. Trump is already talking about running in 2024 and the willingness of the Republican party to toe Trump’s line rather than place the country’s interests first is worrisome. If the Republicans win even one of the two Georgia senate run-offs in January, the ability of Biden to take corrective action is likely to be significantly constrained.
Trump has driven a coach and horses through the norms and regulations that have governed how American democracy works over the last four years. Besides the challenges of a pandemic, climate change, a stuttering economy, massive societal inequalities, systemic racial prejudice and a broken healthcare system, over the next four years Biden needs to start addressing four things if America is to avoid an unstoppable resurgence of Trumpism and the irreversible ‘autocratic breakthrough’:
First, the democrats need to find out and understand why so many people were beguiled by Trump’s ideology, even voting for him when it was against their interests in many cases. Then they need to take action to change actualities and perceptions.
Second, the rips in the fabric of government that allowed Trump to impose his personal agenda need to be repaired so that it is not possible for a President to force officials to place loyalty to the President above loyalty to the Constitution. Decent norms must be reinforced with laws, not conventions (for example, to stop anyone defying Congressional subpoenas as they exercise their oversight duties).
Third, the checks and balances put in place by the Founders need to be overhauled to reflect communications and life in the 21st Century, not the 18th Century. Expanding the Supreme court to better reflect the values of the whole population is probably necessary and, although it won’t happen in the next four years, there is also a strong case for changes to the Constitution to protect democracy, such as the elimination of the Electoral College.
Fourth, while the concept of free speech must remain sacrosanct, there need to be penalties and constraints on propaganda and those spouting it. Falsehoods pedalled to affect perceptions with the aim of reinforcing an autocracy cannot be good for democracy.
I am pessimistic that any of this will happen. I hope I’m wrong.