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Trump And The Authoritarian Temptation

Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE). He is also principal author of Democracy Web, a civics education curricular resource project of the Albert Shanker Institute. This article is adapted from a longer version that appears on IDEE’s new website.

In 1976, the French political theorist Jean François Revel critiqued what he called the “totalitarian temptation” among intellectuals who attacked Western political democracy at a time of severe threat. Forty years later democracy is again under threat.

Revel wrote when the Soviet Union was at the height of its military strength and international influence. In the West, Eurocommunist parties were rising in popularity and non-communist political parties on the Left were developing a strong anti-American sentiment, with some political leaders and intellectuals equivocating in their defense of NATO against the Soviet bloc. Revel, himself a socialist and humanist, argued that one had to be “inoculated to the virus of reality” not to see that communism brought only mass political repression and economic misery. He had a dark theory for his colleagues’ blindness: “Does there lurk in us a wish for totalitarian rule?” he wrote. “If so, it would explain a great deal about how people behave, about the speeches they make, and the times they remain silent.”

To his relief, Revel’s fears for the West’s survival were not born out. Soviet communism’s collapse in 1989-91 ended the most significant post-war threat to the Western alliance. But Revel’s analysis of the dangers existing within democratic political systems is once again relevant as the West faces new international challenges and a rise of new anti-democratic threats. There are many: Russia’s reversion to dictatorship and imperial Soviet-like behavior; China’s assertion of dominance in Asia; the Arab Spring’s descent into a winter of death, destruction, and dictatorship; terror campaigns waged on innocent populations by jihadist armies.  These challenges —and more — threaten freedom and cause international disorder and misery. Yet, as Revel warned, the most serious threat to democracy may be internal. It is seen in the rise of intolerant, extremist parties and politicians attacking the very basis of liberal democracies. That threat has now reached the U.S.

We cannot look away from the danger. Donald Trump, a businessman with no qualifications other than wealth and celebrity, has run a successful campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States based on a nationalist platform and an appeal for strong-man leadership. To win the nomination, he adopted many parts of the authoritarian toolkit from the last century:  chauvinism, preying on people’s fears of national decline, promising an idyllic vision for the future based on a unique individual ability to lead the people, and encouraging mass adulation for a political savior of the nation.

Trump organized his successful campaign in classic authoritarian fashion: through mass rallies and mass media manipulation. In each speech and media appearance, Trump displayed remarkable discipline in his message. He appealed to an overwhelming sense of victimization of those who feel their way of life has been taken away by alien forces; he blamed the country’s national decline on the stupidity, corruption, and incompetence of current leaders; he warned of national collapse if he is not elected; and he promised to end the humiliation his followers feel (“you will get tired of winning”). He offered a new model of political experience — that of a domineering businessman — to lead the nation and solve the country’s problems. He promised to govern by issuing executive orders, making political threats, and by appointing other businessmen and generals (that is others used to authoritarian control over hierarchical structures) to carry out his domestic and foreign policies.

Many writers and publications have finally gone beyond the anodyne analyses for explaining the rise of Trump (populism, voter anger, the desire for an outsider) and pointed out Trump’s authoritarian characteristics (for example, here, here and here). Yet, political elites and the media continue to downplay the larger danger that the candidate represents, namely the large following he has engendered through his campaign. Many of Trump’s followers were drawn to him by his bullying and vulgar displays of wealth and power (as witnessed on “The Apprentice” and professional wrestling shows). He gained their political support with chauvinist statements about dangerous immigrants and promises to build a wall on the border with Mexico. But what has made Trump a true authoritarian threat was that his following grew through the brutality of his promises. Trump’s poll numbers and election results kept improving as he raised the bar of his authoritarian pledges: to ban all Muslims from entering the country; to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants; to muzzle “the disgusting media” with restrictive libel laws; to order the military to use torture on terrorism suspects. It was with such promises that Trump secured the majority of delegates for the Republican nomination.

In theme, platform, speech, and behavior, Trump is an authoritarian who has built a political movement to take over the Republican Party. Yet, as disturbing as Trump and his campaign have been, it is the accommodation of the Republican political establishment and its broader electorate to Trump and Trumpism that makes the possibility of America electing its first authoritarian president a very real one. Even those Republicans who refuse to accommodate to Trump advocate counterproductive political strategies to meet the danger Trump poses, such as boycotting the election or organizing a third-party campaign. This political behavior is truly puzzling. Accommodationists and non-accommodationists alike stated how dangerous Trump is to American and world democracy. They described him as psychologically unstable, a pathological liar, a racist, and a con man. They attacked his platform as incongruous with American democratic principles, the American constitution, and Republican Party principles. They expressed opposition to Trump’s America First doctrine that would abandon democratic allies and make deals with dictatorships. And they expressed true alarm at his having the codes to use America’s nuclear weapons.

Yet, accommodationists and many non-accommodationists continue to state that the only credible non-authoritarian alternative in the general election, the Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, would be a worse choice for America. Clinton has flaws certainly — most politicians do in any democracy. Still, whatever attacks might be leveled at her, Clinton’s record, policies, positions, and temperament all conform to a general democratic standard — the standard for opposing an authoritarian candidate. Her platform is considered centrist, while her experience clearly qualifies her for the serious position she seeks. To be sure, there are unwanted political and ideological consequences to a Clinton presidency for conservatives and Republicans, but these are reversible in a functioning democracy.  The consequences of a Trump presidency would be irreversible.

One wonders, then, if Revel is correct. To paraphrase, does there lurk in us a wish for authoritarian rule? Has a significant part of America‘s political class and electorate convinced itself that political rule under Trump is preferable to a continuation of what both accommodationists and non-accommodationists have come to believe (and state openly) to be the depravities of American democracy? Have ideological differences with the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee become so deep as to blind people to the dire consequences of an authoritarian winning the American presidency? Could this explain how people are now behaving, the statements they are making, and their silence to the danger Trump poses? Indeed, the authoritarian temptation exists on both political sides. A number of Bernie Sanders supporters also express the view that Clinton is no better or an even worse choice than Trump in the general election.

Revel argued that rejecting anti-democratic political parties and opposing anti-democratic speech and political behavior is a moral imperative in a democracy — otherwise democracy is weakened. That moral imperative exists now as America faces a genuine authoritarian danger. The only responsible political behavior of those who favor democracy to authoritarianism is to advocate the most decisive defeat of Trump in the general election as possible. This is what French voters did in 2002 facing the surprising second-round presidential candidacy of the proto-fascist and anti-Semite Jean Marie Le Pen. Socialists and others on the Left united to defeat Le Pen and deliver the Gaulist Jacques Chirac, their ideological rival, 82 percent of the vote — the largest electoral victory in France’s history. Given the importance of the U.S. to safeguarding democracy’s fortunes, Trump poses a much graver danger even than Le Pen. Indeed, there is no greater authoritarian threat in the world than the one now existing in the United States. We cannot expect that democracy can defend itself or thrive anywhere else in the world if it is undermined so fundamentally here at home.  Americans of whatever political party should thus unite to defeat Trump and Trumpism in favor of the clear democratic choice in the general election. The world depends on it.

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