Autocracy in America?

 The ‘threat’ Donald Trump poses to democracy and how to counter it.

Stuart Bramwell Maryhen Jiménez Morales
30 November 2016

Campaign 2016 Trump. Paul Sancya AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. The actions of civil society organizations that oppose Trump are the real key to preventing autocracy in America. Trump single-handedly moved American electoral politics into troubling territory for the first time in living memory by using many tactics beloved by autocrats. He claimed that the elections would be rigged without producing any evidence. He indicated he would not support the election results if he lost. He threatened to imprison his rival Hillary Clinton. He questioned the impartiality of judges and citizens in general based on their ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also threatened media outlets and journalists with civil suits and sought to discredit every source of information and fact checking that criticised him.

Coupled with a penchant for praising foreign autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, Trump exhibited a disdain for democracy that has caused prominent intellectuals and academics to already declare that his presidency heralds ‘the end of the American republic’. Systematic study of Latin America reveals that weak normative commitment to democracy on behalf of political leaders and their ruling clique predicts democratic breakdown.

Trump’s rise, however, must be placed in the context of legitimate grievances that many Americans have with regard to economic inequality which has been on the rise in the United States for over three decades. Today, America’s rich have gotten richer, its poor poorer and its middle class hollowed out. Political thinkers as far back as Aristotle claim that economic inequality makes democracy impossible as it bifurcates societal relations between a fearful elite and jealous citizenry. Modern econometric analysis lends credence to this ancient prediction: economic inequality is a strong predictor of democratic breakdown. The United States is the most unequal country in the west, which puts it highly at risk of democratic breakdown.

America’s rich have gotten richer, its poor poorer and its middle class hollowed out

Such inequality is the result of a decaying political system which favours business elites and special interest groups at the expense of the average citizen. Support for Congress is thus at historic lows with only 1 in 5 Americans viewing the institution favourably. Political scientists have established that weak party systems facilitate the rise of populist leaders who capitalise on a country’s political and socio-economic crisis to make citizens question the capability of parties and party leaders to rule their country. Exacerbating mistrust in political institutions and elites, they praise themselves for being outsiders and anti-establishment candidates, which in turn, seduces voters into believing that they are better qualified to rule since they have no personal interest in politics and no ties to the status quo. Like previous outsider candidates, Trump belongs to the category of populist leaders, who campaign on seeking a rupture with the previous political system to establish a new one in his image.

Trump’s success spells trouble not only for traditional Republican candidates but also for the Democratic Party who mistakenly thought that nominating an establishment figure with a flawed track record like Hillary Clinton would secure the presidency in an era of distrust. Throughout his campaign, Trump attracted voters through his strongman personality and vague to non-existent political and economic reforms. This is worrying because winning elections along personal lines as against collective party efforts could lead Trump to believe he can run the country without party structures or institutional support, leading to policy disasters. Democrats thus urgently need to re-evaluate their policy and leadership not only to regain their political relevance but to counter the pernicious trend of strongman politics.

The United States has three underlying structural conditions that could help offset the deleterious effects that excessive economic inequality and political decay have had on American democracy. First, the US is one of the richest countries in the world and political science consistently finds that the likelihood a democracy will collapse decreases nearly to zero, if a country is wealthy. Second, the United States has over 200 years of a regular and peaceful succession of political leaders that has withstood assassination, periods of exorbitant inequality (such as the infamous ‘Gilded Age’) and even a four-year civil war. Abolishing this deeply ingrained ‘habit’ will be difficult for Trump who would almost certainly face determined opposition from Congress, the Supreme Court and the US media.

Furthermore America’s largest bulwark against dictatorship lies in its strong civil society and its rich history of political mobilization for the purposes of creating “a more perfect union.” An opposition movement, however, needs to bear three things in mind: 1) what they are for; 2) what they oppose and; 3) how they oppose it.

Any opposition movement seeking to protect democracy should prioritize the protection of political rights, civil liberties and the rule of law

Any opposition movement seeking to protect democracy should prioritize the protection of political rights, civil liberties and the rule of law as those values are now under threat. If the movement is to be credible, however, it must swallow a bitter pill and accept that Trump won the election in accordance with current US electoral rules. Calls of ‘not my president’ from protest movements serve only to inflame the divisions between those who vehemently oppose Trump and those who just as vehemently support him.

Instead, an opposition movement should campaign to maintain a free media, halt mass-deportation and protect the civil liberties of Muslim Americans – all threatened under a Trump presidency. The more than hundred-year-old idea of the melting pot should be cherished more than ever and not be attacked by a future president with Scottish heritage and an immigrant wife. We further recommend vocal support for Trump's plans for infrastructure spending as, first, they will deliver benefits to underprivileged Americans and, second, they will focus his attention away from his anti-democratic proposals.

The opposition movement should frame their activity within the American political tradition. They are a vital part of American history and the most successful were grounded in the language of the US constitution. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech famously compelled Americans to live up to the high ideational standards set by the Founding Fathers and quoted liberally from the US constitution most notably: “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Encouraging reform of, and establishing linkages with, the Democratic Party will further help any group to ground itself. Finally, any opposition movement must unequivocally reject violence, particularly against Trump’s supporters, because it serves no purpose other than to delegitimize opposition to Trump in the eyes of the American public. Peaceful opposition is not weak: history suggests that peaceful protest is a superior strategy for compelling leaders to make major policy concessions to inducing democratization. 

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