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 dictators, vilifying 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 repeatedly flouts the rule of law and constitutional and institutional norms, often with the assistance of Attorney General Bill Barr, who has used the Department of Justice to intervene in Trump’s legal battles and those of his allies to protect them, all while seeking to buttress Trump’s spurious claims of deep-state antagonists within the federal government. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill have aided Trump’s autocratic quest by seeking investigations of his political enemies.
- Trump views the federal judiciary as beholden to him. He declared that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett needs swift confirmation so that she can vote in his favor in any post-election challenges, all while proffering election-related conspiracy theories in a way that would have made Fidel Castro proud.
- Trump uses the military and federal law enforcement for his own political goals, from threatening to send troops into American cities to quell protests of racial injustice, to using federal law enforcement to clear protesters for a photo op. Images of federal officers whisking away protesters in unmarked cars in Portland were reminiscent of citizens who were “disappeared” in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
- Trump exerts political pressure on federal agencies to stay in line with his political message, even when it means suppressing the truth about the deadly domestic terror threat posed by white supremacists or science-based reports about COVID-19.
- Trump has declared the press the enemy of the people and celebrated violence committed against journalists — even using such incidents to draw cheers at his campaign rallies.
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.