America must learn authoritarian history or Trumpism will destroy US democracy – Business Insider
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“If I lose to him, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Donald Trump told attendees of a September 2020 rally held in North Carolina, expressing the utter dread of being defeated by his opponent, now-President Joe Biden. “You’ll never see me again.”
Instead, when his worst fears were realized and Biden was elected president, Trump was everywhere in the media, claiming he had actually won the election. The “stop the steal” campaign he and his GOP allies promoted culminated in the January 6 coup attempt: an assault on the Capitol building meant to stop the certification of Biden’s victory and keep Trump in power.
While Trump left office on January 20, the events of the previous months gave Americans first-hand experience of some guiding principles of strongman history. Once such individuals get into power, it can be difficult to get them out. Their exits from power are rarely peaceful, and the way they leave can open the door to their return to power. Here are a few lessons from this tumultuous history we can heed to strengthen American democratic values.
When a strongman leader is dead or in exile, his propaganda apparatus goes the way of his government: dissolved, or taken over by political forces that disavow his ideology. The challenge comes when the former head of state and his party remain political forces in the country and can continue to commandeer prime-time coverage for their propaganda. When his personality cult endures, along with support from elites and his base, the autocratic-leaning individual can style himself as the “shadow leader” of the country and enlist the media to delegitimize the new, democratic-supporting government in the eyes of millions, with an eye to returning to power.
This is the situation America faces now. Media outlets not strictly aligned with the former leader take on a huge importance in protecting the integrity of the democratic process by combating disinformation surrounding the election and the violence of January 6.
Instead, the opposite has happened: GOP officials and lawmakers, who support Trump and refused to convict him of impeachment for inciting the coup attempt, regularly appear on major news shows, gaining audiences of millions for their falsehoods. On February 21, for example, the non-aligned network ABC allowed Rep. Steve Scalise, a Trump loyalist, to spout election-related lies on This Week, failing to interrupt or fact-check him Scalise even when he refused to acknowledge that Biden won the election.
Strongman history speaks clearly on this point. No one who has lived in an authoritarian state has looked back and wished its propagandists had gotten more media coverage during the window of transition from democracy to something else — which is potentially our situation if Trump returns to power in 2024. That media outlets are assisting the rehabilitation of an impeached former leader who, in autocratic fashion, made the press a target —journalists were among those threatened with violence on January 6 — is tragic as well as politically obtuse.
The authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure, and strongmen can become vindictive as the reality of losing power dawns. That’s why, in those rare cases when an illiberal ruler is voted out of office, a constitutionally-mandated swift exit is preferable.
Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in Chile via military coup in 1973, offers a case in point. After fifteen years of dictatorship, he was voted out; he lost a 1988 plebiscite on whether he should continue in office as well as the 1989 presidential election made possible by that vote. During the year he was allowed to stay on as president, he tried to sabotage the incoming democracy. He stacked the Chilean Supreme Court to make sure his loyalists had a majority, presented the plebiscite as an illegitimate conspiracy against him, and passed laws that made it more difficult to prosecute his military torturers and undertake democratic reforms.
Trump’s actions in the months after he lost the election raise the question of whether the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates this long period, should be revisited. Trump had plenty of time to attempt to alter the vote by pressuring election officials at the state and national level, and to plan, with his many allies, the January 6 coup attempt. We now know that planning for the rally that preceded the armed assault began in December. Trump has left a roadmap to be repeated, either by him or someone else with similar scorn for democracy. We need to shorten the window for possible autocratic actions.
Democracy is an honor system: we take it on good faith that its norms and customs will be respected. But strongmen like Trump, whose aim is always to stay in power at any cost, have no respect for democracy. We must refuse to amplify their messages and be ready to revise those laws and procedures that leave us vulnerable. Under the right circumstances, no country is immune from democratic erosion. We must act now to protect democracy or pay the price later.