Discover more from David Moscrop
The Return of American Authoritarianism
It may be difficult to accept just how dangerous the moment we're living through might be, but threats are piling up and we need to confront them.
How do we expect people to behave when living through a dangerous inflection point in history? I’m not sure, but it’s something I think about often. Staring down several crises from climate to affordability to democratic retrenchment to healthcare to global conflict, things are bad and the probability they will become worse is high. And yet, what do expect people to do? Wake up and tear out their hair? Run screaming through the streets every afternoon? Band together in solidarity to solve our collection action problems and demand economic and political justice? That last one is welcome, though we haven’t seen as much of it as you’d expect, or hope.
Moments like this feel a bit like when Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff. A running start, skidding across the edge, the realization things have gone too far, a pause and a look down, just before plummeting. That’s the current moment — the pause before we look down.
I won’t sort through all our problems here in detail. I touched on them above and a population living through them need not be taken through dozens of paragraphs to confirm what they already know to be true. But I do want to focus on one challenge that poses an immediate, real, and significant threat: the prospect of another Trump administration in the United States.
In January 2017, I wrote that Trump was an authoritarian who brought expressly authoritarian politics to the White House. It was evident then to anyone who understood authoritarian politics what was coming. Pundits and partisans on both sides of the borders were hesitant to accept this fact — how could that happen here/there? But if one were to apply the U.S. standard of evaluation to itself, let alone undertake a scholarly assessment, it was obvious what Trump and his administration were.
Later, I wondered if Trump was something even worse than a mere authoritarian — a fascist. I wasn’t the only one. In a Washington Post piece, J.R. McNeill wondered the same and rated the then-president on a Mussolini scale, finding that Trump, while wretched, did not rise to the level of Full Il Duce — not that being a partial Il Duce is without its problems. Then, Trump lost. Next, he tried to overthrow the election. Now he’s back, like an antibiotic-resistant infection.
Hey there, please consider joining as a paid subscriber, or an unpaid one. Either way, it’s nice to have you here.
In August, Trump said that he would jail his political opponents if he were to win the presidency in 2024. “You have no choice, because they’re doing it to us,” he told Glenn Beck during an interview. Trump makes no distinction between legitimate legal proceedings against him and partisan witch hunts. To him, they’re the same thing, or, at least, he maintains they are the same thing. So too do his acolytes.
Should Trump win and proceed with his threats, which I have no doubt he will, the U.S. and the world will be forced to grapple with the prospect of current or former high-ranking American officials facing the choice to remain in the country and risk becoming political prisoners or fleeing to a safe destination — perhaps Canada. The scenario is one, no doubt, that Canadian officials are thinking through. And while the U.S. has a long history of meddling in foreign states and of behaviour similar to the sort so many Americans find rightly appalling at home, the prospect of it happening stateside, so explicitly, and to the powerful no less, is extraordinary.
On Sunday, Trump admitted it was his decision to try to overturn the 2020 election. In short, the former president admitted to undertaking a coup. For a country that has long pretended to be the world’s foremost democracy — that has convinced itself of the delusion that American democracy is exceptional in the best sense of the world — the idea that a president might attempt a coup at home is tough to process (abroad, not so much). The idea that the same president, an authoritarian, might win an election while facing court proceedings for that coup attempt and more, is tougher still. And yet, here we are.
Trump is the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president. He’s way ahead of his chief rival — Florida governor Ron DeSantis — by something like 40 points. According to a recent poll, in a hypothetical rematch of the 2020 presidential election, Trump trails Joe Biden by just one point.
Voters are anxious about a second Biden term. Just over a third believe he would complete another four years in the White House compared to 55 percent who believe Trump would. The same poll found that a significant number of Americans feel neither man is fit for another term. Biden is 80 years old and Trump is 77.
The presidency could go Trump’s way again. That is absolutely within the realm of possibility. Barring the unlikely scenario in which he’s prevented by running again by law, he’s a lock for the Republican nod and his support among party faithful is high, though his support among the general population is much soften. Campaigns matter and plenty can happen between now and the election, but another Democratic presidency, Joe Biden’s or another’s, is no lock.
If Trump does win in 2024, whatever bets are left in America, are off. He will be vicious, and millions of his core followers will follow him wherever he leads.
Partisanship in the United States is such that for millions of people it moves beyond the realm of support and into the realm of identity. Partisanship in this case isn’t something you do, it’s something you are — you don’t merely vote Republican or Democrat, you are one. And that identity is a lens that shapes your worldview, preferences, expectations, and even your assessment of facts and reality. In that sense, partisanship is a tremendously powerful and dangerous force, since as one seeks to protect their identity and social/political in-group, and to reconcile cognitive dissonance (for example, my side is good and right versus my guy is an authoritarian who tried to do a coup), people will invent or believe the wildest things and excuse the worst behaviours.
For partisan Trump supporters, the former president’s indictments are proof that he’s on to something — that the establishment is out to get him, to keep him out of power. Such thinking also drives beliefs that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and it’s so deeply embedded in psychological, social, and political structures that those who buy it are unlikely to change their mind. Campaigns online and offline seek to reinforce and exploit these beliefs, and online efforts are low-cost and can be, at scale, effective at securing and mobilizing support.
We are in the middle of a very dangerous time in which American political institutions, long in decay, could fully give way to authoritarian politics well beyond the White House. If that seems unbelievable, recall that to many so too was the idea Trump would be nominated, the idea he would win, the idea he was an authoritarian, and the idea he could support — or instigate — a coup attempt.
Wrapping our heads around this moment is difficult; ignoring or normalizing or minimizing it is easy. But it is important for us, Americans and non-Americans alike, to accept and understand the developments in a country whose politics shape the world. Action, material action, and better outcomes depend on accepting reality. That acceptances requires us, for now, to look down, even though that glance might precipitate a frightening collision with gravity and, worse yet, the ground.