Having worked in the international arena for over ten years, I have personally observed the replacement of decades-long progress in advancing democracy and the rule of law worldwide with the stunning rise of an authoritarian model of politics. Studies now document a worrisome trend: freedom and democracy are in retreat.
Democracy is not just about elections; it is about the rule of law and respect for individual rights. The retreat of democracy today is harder to detect because it hides behind a superficial commitment to elections. Elections are held, of course, but are increasingly a pathway for the rise of tyrants who have little interest in constitutional limits on power.
The patterns are familiar everywhere.
In every case, authoritarians attack and undermine opposition groups in civil society. For them politics is a zero sum game; if they can’t have what they want, no one will. They take personal control of whatever political party they manage to capture, then shred it to pieces if they must once they’ve achieved their objective.
Among the tyrant’s many enemies is the press, even as the press is used in their rise. They bully into submission reporters who get in their way. They threaten to curb the free press (“open up our libel laws”). They allow their loyal ruffians to physically intimidate adversaries, all the while denying responsibility.
In every case the demagogues and extremists blame the outsider for their countryman’s woes. Their product is paranoia, fear and contempt for anyone different from themselves. Foreigners are a part of a conspiracy to destroy their country from within, they say. Other countries are robbing them blind and they are getting nothing in return, they claim. Free trade means the theft of our jobs, never job creation.
Truth and facts matter little if at all, particularly from those calling attention to the leader’s deep personal flaws. Facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of power. So they cut off all social media and information sources but their own; others can’t be trusted.
Ruthless and narcissistic candidates rarely present a policy program to fix problems, believing that knowledge and competence is a sign of weakness. The solution is not a policy program; it is a person – the Big Man. The Big Man knowingly lies and manipulates, often with broad approval, and surrounds himself with sycophants who bow in obedience in his presence.
Tyrants always exploit society’s divisions. The most convenient scapegoat among demagogues and extremists is the least popular religious or ethnic minority. If our group has lost power, it can only mean that some other group has gained it at our expense.
Never are voters told that they share responsibility for improving their own lives, like working hard at their own education to adapt to a changing economy. Nor does the citizen bear responsibility whatsoever to help improve his country – only to vote for the strong man who will do it all for them.
Does any of this sound familiar?
There are two things that are equally shocking about the above in the age of Trump. For one, Mr. Trump apparently admires this model. He has suggested that authoritarians are better at running their countries and has advocated more advanced forms of torture. He quotes Mussolini, and in the most telling revelation of Trump’s undemocratic authoritarianism of today, he expresses admiration for Vladimir Putin, one of America’s top foes.
The second sobering reality is that a sizable block of the Republican Party has embraced Trump, apparently concluding that challenging times requires desperate measures. That voters are angry over the collapse of the America dream deserves our full respect; their choice of an authoritarian solution does not. It is a sign of broad moral failure and cultural decline. Trump is winning, fair and square, in spite of many well-known defects, offering proof that authoritarianism can be seductive even in America.
One thing is likely, whatever the outcome of this year’s election, existing party politics will almost certainly never be the same and will need to be rebuilt. Dangerous toxins have entered the blood stream of American politics.
The Republican Party is close to being captured by the very demagoguery that the Founding Fathers feared, and the Democratic Party is being riven with a movement describing itself as revolutionary, led by a self-described socialist espousing a program well outside the American mainstream. There many not be an easy short-term solution. In the meanwhile, Americans who see the dangers and wish to resist the expansion of these influences need to do what conscience requires.
Don Eberly served in the White House under two Presidents, played critical roles in Iraq and Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction, and published several books on civil society.