Is it happening here?

by Curt Bentley

Are we seeing the beginning of the collapse of American democratic institutions?

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, in his recent column Illiberal Arts, sounds the call for alarm:

Donald Trump did not ignite but merely joined a miserable, destabilizing trend of illiberalism that has been under way for years in Russia, Turkey, China, India, Southeast Asia, and Western, Eastern, and Central Europe.

. . .

As President, Trump is the putative guardian of a set of political values, and, no matter how often those values have been undermined, treated, or betrayed in the course of American history, they have served for countless millions abroad as a democratic standard, an ideal.

Trump’s illiberalism . . . betrays that faith.

[H]istory laughs at complacency and illusions of permanence.  Athenian democracy lasted two centuries, the Republic of Venice a millennium, but both eventually faced decline and dissipation.  The Trump era represents a test of sturdy-seeming American values, and the stakes are global.

. . .

The next significant chapter in this stress test for liberal values will be the midterm elections of November, 2018.  If the Democratic Party fails to win a majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, Trump will be further emboldened.

. . .

[F]or Trump and Trumpism to be rendered an unnerving but short-lived episode, history will require more than cogent critique.  It will require that millions of men and women who do not ordinarily exercise their franchise . . . recognize the imperatives of citizenship.

How far we’ve come in a mere two years!

Back in the spring of 2016, all the Democratic Party had to do was wait for demographics to destroy American fascism the Republican Party once and for all.  Today, the preservation of the world’s liberal (small or big “L,” you decide) values depends on the Democrats turning out in sufficient numbers to pick up a few seats in Congress.

Now, in a sense, it’s refreshing to see people waking to the realization that the arc of history doesn’t only bend toward justice and the sunlit uplands of enlightened democratic institutions.  Even a brief survey of world history (especially one that stretches back beyond 1607) brings into sharp relief the cycling impermanence of empires, nations, and governments.

The real question is not, “Can authoritarianism happen here?” (of course it can!!) but rather, “Why do democracies dissipate and die and under what conditions are they ripe for authoritarianism?”

We often have a tendency to the “Great Man (or Woman)” theory of history, where we see events as driven principally by particular personalities.  Like all theories, this can both enlighten and obscure as to the unseen processes driving visible effects.  And I think that it is this view (as ironic as it may seem under present circumstances) that is driving the current obsession with Trump.

I’ve taken this approach at times myself, particularly in early 2016 when I authored a post about how nominating Trump would destroy the Republican Party.

I agree with with Remnick that America’s democratic traditions and institutions are in significant danger.

But I now view Trump as a symptom rather than a cause.

I don’t think that handing the GOP (and by extension, Trump) a loss in one or more houses of Congress in the midterm elections is sufficient to defeat Trumpism.  I don’t think that rejecting Trump directly in the 2020 presidential election is sufficient to defeat Trumpism.

Those would be, in my view, not a vote for democratic values and institutions, but votes against an abhorrent personality.  They would tend to lull America (or, at least half of America) back into the same complacency that existed in March 2016, when so many of us scoffed at the idea such a narcissistic charlatan as Trump could ever be elected President of the United States.

Why do democracies die?  I think they die because they stop serving the interests of large percentages of their citizens.  More turnout isn’t, of itself, going to fix that.  A string of electoral victories by one party isn’t going to fix that — it will exacerbate it in the current climate.

And what is “Trumpism” anyway but evidence that a large portion of America is so desperate as to be willing to elect such an openly distasteful and evidently self-serving person as the leader of their country?

There’s nothing officially sacred about democratic government and liberal values.  They are held in place by a combination of habit, national pride, and self-interest.  If we ever get to the point where enough (and who knows exactly how many is enough?) Americans adopt the view that their country isn’t working for them, and isn’t likely to work for them, it’s a relatively short and sudden step toward rejection, revision, or revolution under the right (wrong?) conditions.

Those are the lessons of history.

When people look back at Donald Trump — regardless of whether he represents a major break with the what came before or just a challenging, short episode — they will see he was a long time coming, and will trace the origins of Trumpism over years rather than the months of an election cycle or a comparison with other candidates.

And the solution to the crisis of America’s democratic institutions and values will similarly require a long-term commitment to making government work for Americans and regenerating commitment to a set of enlightened, though at times endlessly frustrating, traditions and institutions.  And not only does government have to work for Americans, Americans have to believe that their government will work for them.  It’s not as simple as winning a midterm and defeating Trump in four years.  It’s not as easy as fixing a party (though I still think the GOP needs fixing, and Trump’s win has lulled it into the type of complacency that will seriously damage it).

But it doesn’t require us to try and do the impossible, either.  Americans are never all going to agree on the policies of the government in power.  Nor should they.  That would be a recipe for shallow, self-congratulatory mediocrity at best.  We don’t need (or want) a miraculous consensus.  What we need is a broad, shared commitment, among members of all parties, that despite the current government in power, America works for them and their children.

And we can pursue politics with that goal in mind.  Because as soon as we sacrifice that to short-term political gain, the whole superstructure is at risk.

That kind of trust is built over decades, or even centuries, and must be constantly fortified and renewed.  But it can be destroyed much more quickly, and therein lies the danger.  We were already a ways down this road when we elected Trump, and we show (in my view) no real signs of being interested in a course correction.

Finally, if it seems like I’ve spent some time bashing (or even less than enthusiastic in my praise of) liberal (small “l”) democratic government, I want to make clear that I believe, along with Churchill, that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

But memories are short — certainly no longer than 100 years — and if any democracy fails to prove its worth for too long and for too many then it’s in danger.

Yes, it can happen here.  While I don’t believe any kind of collapse is imminent, it’s hard to perceive structural weakness.  It behooves us to pay attention.

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