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Democracy Isn’t in Peril—It’s on Its Deathbed

Trump has shown us with disturbing deft how authoritarianism doesn’t suddenly march on democracy like a military parade. Instead, it creeps in bit by bit, being normalized at every step.

Despite Trump’s attacks on the election, voters still have the ability to clutch democracy from the jaws of death before it’s too late and begin what will be a long and arduous process of rebuilding it. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite Trump’s attacks on the election, voters still have the ability to clutch democracy from the jaws of death before it’s too late and begin what will be a long and arduous process of rebuilding it. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

If there was any doubt that President Trump values despotism over democracy, it was erased by the spectacle of his return to the White House after being hospitalized for COVID-19.

With cameras rolling for the campaign video that would be cut within minutes, Trump emerged from Marine One, ascended the stairs to the White House South Portico, dramatically removed the mask that shielded others from his infectiousness and stood — labored breathing and all — staring out over the South Lawn in a display that evoked equal parts Benito Mussolini and Eva Peron.

As historian Michael Beschloss aptly noted in a tweet: “In America, our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems.”

But for Trump it was right on brand. Less than a week earlier, he attacked democracy brutally at the first presidential debate: falsely claiming mail-in ballots are illegitimate; calling for his supporters to show up at polling places to “watch very carefully”; telling a white supremacist militia, whose members quickly declared him their commander in chief, to “stand by;” ending by declaring the entire election “fraudulent.”

We’ve watched Trump kill democracy, bit by bit, in plain view.

This display of despotism should have been a shock to the senses. But it has come to be expected in an America led by a man who reached the White House with a campaign driven by the fascist themes of praising dictatorsvilifying the free press, and vowing to keep out dangerous” foreigners.

In four years, Trump has shown us with disturbing deft how authoritarianism doesn’t suddenly march on democracy like a military parade, of the kind for which Trump has a fondness. Instead, it creeps in bit by bit, being normalized at every step until citizens belatedly realize that they no longer recognize their own nation.

Democracy in America isn’t just in peril. It’s on its deathbed.

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“It’s where we are. This is the endgame,” said Matthew C. MacWilliams, author of “On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History” and a visiting research associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “This is the most dangerous time in this country since before the Civil War.”

We’ve watched Trump kill democracy, bit by bit, in plain view. Trump inflicted its mortal wounds by a thousand cuts, with acts that seemed to constantly flare up and then quickly fade in the flurry of a nonstop news cycle, constantly muddled by the president’s lies and misrepresentations. But that approach, too — obscuring facts and attacking truth-tellers while propping up propaganda — is how authoritarians operate.

Trump doesn’t simply heap gushing praise on strongman leaders like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong Un. He leads like them. Let’s count a sample of the ways:

But it’s Trump’s dedication to fear-mongering and stoking racial divisions that has proved most dangerous. Not only has he defended far-right violence, members of his administration have been told to do the same. He’s tried to shore up support from white voters with baseless claims that suburban communities are under attack, and has pushed “patriotic education” and condemning teachings about slavery as “ideological poison.” He ordered government employees and federal contractors to stop mentioning systemic racism in employment training.

“Trump’s trying to rewrite history, sanitize it, whitewash it,” MacWilliams said. “He criticized political correctness, but now his political correctness is trying to put Americans in a straight jacket of what we can say, what we can think, how we can act, what we believe, and what we know. He’s kicked everything up a notch."

Despite Trump’s attacks on the election, voters still have the ability to clutch democracy from the jaws of death before it’s too late and begin what will be a long and arduous process of rebuilding it. If they don’t, democracy will die in broad daylight.

Kimberly Atkins

Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer at The Boston Globe. She is also an MSNBC contributor. 

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