Choose your favourite moment from the Republican Party’s recent lurches in respect to the presidential election result.
Is it Rudy Giuliani’s press conference meltdown Thursday, the one that looked like a Saturday Night Live skit, the one marred by a stream of dark mystery slime rolling down his cheeks as he trotted out accusations of voter fraud already dismissed by the courts?
How about Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon, now back in the loop even though he faces criminal charges, posting a video advocating that public health expert Anthony Fauci be decapitated? For good measure, he added FBI Director Christopher Wray. “I’d put the heads on pikes.”
Or how about, as shown by several opinion polls, a majority of Republicans, yes a majority, agreeing with Mr. Trump that he rightfully won the election and supporting his decision not to concede it; this even though Joe Biden decisively captured the Electoral College and the popular vote and no significant evidence of fraud has been uncovered?
For the highlight reel, to be considered also is Mr. Trump’s immediate tweet-firing on Tuesday of Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for having the nerve to assert that there is “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
Or maybe Senator Lindsey Graham allegedly going to Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to suggest he throw out legally cast ballots?
For me the shocker topper is the stunning number of Americans – according to those opinion surveys, it would be tens of millions – who are supporting Mr. Trump’s logic-defying conspiracy claims that he’s been swindled out of an election victory.
It is evidence – clear and depressing evidence – that what America is going through is not just an accident of history wherein the population mistakenly fell into the temporary grip of an unhinged demagogue. Rather it is affirmation that the standards in the great republic have fallen so low that one of its two major parties and its supporters actually embrace this man’s form of repressive rule.
In the citadel of democracy, who would have thought it possible? In fact though, says an expert on authoritarianism, it is not all that shocking. Matthew MacWilliams, who has written books on the subject and has polled extensively on authoritarian attitudes in the U.S., says what’s happening now was predictable. Prior to the 2016 election, his research found that roughly 40 per cent of Americans were highly or moderately predisposed to authoritarian governance.
That is why, he said in an interview, Mr. Trump drew such mass support back then and continues to have such a strong cult-like hold on so many Americans today. These Americans support robust executive power, moves against the media, white nationalism, limiting the power of the opposition.
The potential has always been there, Mr. MacWilliams observed, for someone to channel the underlying currents. McCarthyism furnished one example, he noted, but Mr. Trump was able to take things to an unparalleled level because he is a master “snake oil salesman” who has tapped into the new unfiltered communications infrastructure wherein grievance politics and fear-mongering flourish.
The media environment, polarized like never before, he said, sees Americans sequestered in cocoons with alternative facts being sold to them as real.
Democracy has failed Americans too often for them to continue to consider it the be all and end all. A most recent example was the abject failure of Congress, while facing the horrors of a once-in-a-century pandemic, to legislate – Republicans blame the Democrats – a massive relief package for the millions who are suffering.
To start the year, Republicans displayed their lack of principles in rejecting en masse the impeachment censure on Mr. Trump for his underhanded work with a foreign government (Ukraine) to tarnish the reputation of Joe Biden.
The Grand Old Sham of a Party sustained its level of support for Mr. Trump the past four years no matter what democratic precepts he violated. Most of its leadership have yet to move against the President in his bid to subvert the election, his latest outrage being to put pressure on states against certifying the results.
If Mr. Trump went so far as to try to stage a coup, said Mr. MacWilliams, he would get support from a great many Americans. But he doesn’t think he’ll try it because there’s too much institutional resistance.
But even if, as is likely, his bid to undo the result fails, the level of approval his defiance has drawn and the backing he has going forward demonstrate the dangerous trajectory the country is on.
“Trumpism has become a new political party,” the prescient Mr. MacWilliams said, a party far too comfortable with authoritarian power. He believes if traditional Republicans don’t take the party back, American democracy will “teeter on the edge.”
Given what we’re witnessing in the wake of the election, given how so many Americans have embraced authoritarianism, who can doubt it?
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