Much of the material for this article comes from an article published in the May/June 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs entitled “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?” It was written by Robert Mickey, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way. I was so struck by what I read in that article that I felt it was important to get this message out immediately.
The United States seems to be at a crossroads. This is due as much to the anger and ideological purity of the conservative Republicans as it is to the ubiquity of dark money for their causes. Republicans have spent the last eight years growing angrier about feeling that they were ignored or disdained. These emotions precipitated the super majority of republicans in the house, the senate, and the governors of the US. It was also responsible for the greatest upset in presidential campaign history.
For those who study the ways of power in third world corrupt countries, certain themes and methods have become so common, that they are almost a playbook by which to become a dictator. Progressives who compare Donald Trump to Hitler are overreacting. The United States has many structural features, like three co-equal branches of government, which will provide resistance to authoritarian rule. But while an overtly fascist government is unlikely, movement in that direction is quite plausible in the current political climate.
The steps in the “How to become a successful dictator” primer include:
- Rewrite the rules so that your party finds it easy to stay in power.
- Politicize state institutions. This provides a way of rewarding your supporters and punishing your opponents.
- Politicize the courts. This powerful mechanism of constraint can completely choke off opponents’ political efforts. Judges can be bribed, or bullied into compliance.
- Politicize taxation. This allows the party in power to penalize opponents and keep them from gaining enough economic support to have a chance to succeed politically.
- Politicize the police forces. This is a very important factor. When the police are loyal to the party in power, political repression is inevitable.
- Silence the free press, and discourage free speech. When people don’t know what is happening, when they don’t know about malfeasance, people are ignorant, pliable, and alone.
- Gain the support (by collusion) of the most successful businesses and individuals. Create an oligarchy. Doing this ensures that you have maximum control over peoples personal economy, and gives the ruling party the ability to affect even single individuals.
- Co-opt the military. This last step is critical as a final protection against any political movement that gets big enough to overcome all the other items in this list.
The point of each of these steps is to incrementally move the political climate into control of the ruling party, and tilt the playing field, so that the probability of success by opponents is greatly diminished, without being overt. The more you deceive the public into thinking that nothing has changed, the more you will create credibility in your own propaganda efforts, and the more you will control the people of what should now be called “your regime”. When state institutions are controlled by loyalists, they will be used to attack opponents, and cover up government malfeasance.
So, what are republicans doing with their power?
Changing the rules: In 2010, they gerrymandered voting districts across the United States, in order to provide republican congressional seats which statistics and demographics declared virtually invincible. This has allowed the filling of those seats with ideologically far right purists. They can then be a road block to all legislation that is not in line with their goals. They forced a very conservative House Speaker John Boehner from congress, because he wasn’t extreme enough. They held the first attempt at passing the ACA hostage until it could become even more destructive of government support for affordable health care.
They changed the rules for approving a Supreme Court nominee forever. As long as they hold the congress, they will elect the members of the Supreme Court and have politicized the courts.
Politicize state institutions: Where positions are approved by congress and senate, these were already politicized. There has been no recent movement in this area.
Politicize the courts: The biggest change here has already been noted under “Changing the rules”, but it is worth noting that not only did the rules get changed, but Dark Money financed a national ad campaign to support the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. This was unnecessary, since the only people who vote on his appointment are in the House and Senate. So why was this done? To convince the American people that the courts are nothing but political entities.
Politicize taxation: Donald Trump is the only presidential candidate since Nixon to refuse to release his taxes. This has decreased transparency, and made taxation a political issue.
Politicize the police forces: Trump’s Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions is more actively involved in the nations policing operations and policies than any AG in modern times. Cities that are pursuing consent decrees concerning their operations are facing resistance from Mr. Sessions. He has had a laissez-faire attitude towards the need for police reform, in clear disregard of the escalating problems between urban police departments and the public they serve. This will create police departments favorable to the administration that protects them from litigation, and sweeps their malfeasance under the rug at the people’s expense.
Silence the free press, and discourage free speech: The Trump administration has labeled any media outlet that publishes unfavorable stories about him as “enemies of the people”, “the most dishonest people on the planet”, and “publishers of fake news”. Jeff Sessions was responsible last week for the sentencing of a woman who laughed at him in a speech to one year in prison. There has been legislation introduced in 18 states to curb protests.
Create an oligarchy: Trump filled his cabinet with ex Wall Street bankers, money launderers, and business billionaires. Republican policies will give tax breaks that benefit almost exclusively the top 1% of the countries people, ensuring that they will continue to support republicans in office.
Co-opt the military: Here, there is less observable progress by republicans. However, it must be noted, that Trump plans to increase the military budget by over 50%, and that he has reduced his oversight of military operations.
Trump’s rhetoric and friendship with dictators also indicates that he admires “strong men”, without regard to their ruthlessness or corruptness. That he feels this way would be cause for concern in any case, but when you measure the actions of Trump and the Republican Party, it is deeply disturbing. It may be alarmist to shout that the sky is falling, but surely, this is no time to fall asleep. Certainly, we need to be active and awake regarding all these attacks on American institutions, rights, and liberties.