Authoritarianism Adjacent


As far back as the very earliest weeks of this blog, back in the summer of 2017, I wrote about what strikes me as the greatest and most insidious threat to our representative democracy: the slow, steady Republican attempt to undermine its fundamental institutions and entrench permanent right wing control in defiance of the public will.

At the time, I described this effort as a slow motion coup d’etat. (The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup – July 12, 2017.) Since then, Trump has taken to using the word “coup” frequently (I don’t want to say “liberally”) to describe what he says is a sore loser effort by “angry Democrats” to undermine and even end his presidency—principally, through the “witchhunt” of the Mueller probe, oversight by Congress, scrutiny by the free press, and other mechanisms that the rest of us without delusions of imperial grandeur understand are the normal functions of a working democracy. As a result, the term “coup” has lost its currency; I certainly don’t want to lower my argument to a false equivalence by laying claim to the same terminology.

But the point remains.

Of course, the GOP scoffs at the very idea. Perish the thought! Do you expect them to do any less? But the evidence speaks for itself, and has been well-catalogued in these pages, among numerous other places. It was well summarized this week by New York Times columnist Michael Tomasky:

(T)he Republican Party is no longer simply trying to compete with and defeat the Democratic Party on a level playing field. Today, rather than simply playing the game, the Republicans are simultaneously trying to rig the game’s rules so that they never lose.

The aggressive gerrymandering, which the Supreme Court just declared to be a matter beyond its purview; the voter suppression schemes; the dubious proposals that haven’t gone anywhere—yet—like trying to award presidential electoral votes by congressional district rather than by state, a scheme that Republicans in five states considered after the 2012 election and that is still discussed: These are not ideas aimed at invigorating democracy. They are hatched and executed for the express purpose of essentially fixing elections.

We might add to Tomasky’s list the Merrick Garland travesty, the shameless attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, the obstructionism toward numerous Congressional investigations (to include defiance of subpoenas), the attempt to turn the DOJ into Trump’s personal police force and law firm, the disinformation/propaganda machine that is right wing media, and oh yes, the willingness to accept and even solicit illegal assistance by foreign powers.

It is important to stress that Trump himself is merely one aspect of this broad and far-ranging campaign, not its apotheosis or even its primary instigator. For all the air time he gets, he is but a symptom and not the underlying disease, as many have noted. That dubious distinction belongs to the broader GOP, with its long descent into no-holds-barred proto-authoritarianism, a descent that has its roots in early 20th Century nativism, runs through McCarthyism and the John Birch movement, showed its true colors under the criminal reign of Dick Nixon, rebounded with the ascent of Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, grew to maturity (as it were) with the rise of Fox News, the Tea Party, and Mitch McConnell, and has now come to full, toxic flower with the con man from Queens.

Still I hear Republicans snorting in derision. So let’s review what we have at the moment:

  • A Republican president who lost the popular vote, yet still ascended to office. (True of both of our last two GOP presidents, as it happens. In fact, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote in only one of the last five elections)….
  • A Senate that similarly remains in Republican control because of anti-democratic measures built into the Constitution, and is willing to protect that President from political and criminal jeopardy come hell or high water…..
  • A right wing majority on the Supreme Court—achieved by the outright theft of a seat rightfully belonging to the nominee of the last President—moving in almost lockstep to defend the interests of the Republican Party….
  • And a judiciary increasingly packed with hardline right wing ideologues, part of a concerted, overt decades-long project toward that end.

Sound like what the Founders had in mind, or not?

Oh, and by the by, that aforementioned countermajoritarian Republican POTUS got into office with the demonstrable help of a hostile foreign power that held damaging information on him that he was desperate to hide from the American people, having repeatedly lied about it.

Yeah, that sounds like a perfectly healthy Western democracy to me.


Which brings us to last week’s disgraceful 5-4 Supreme Court decision—along party lines, of course—to abdicate any responsibility of the judiciary to address hyperpartisan gerrymandering.

The SCOTUS is a pretty regular topic of this blog. (See The Ghost of Merrick Garland – November 25, 2017, The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II – October 10, 2018, Five Blind Mice – July 11, 2018, and “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018.) And once again, with this decision, the Court has shown itself willing to be a pretty brazen arm of the Republican machine, despite highfalutin pretense of being above the partisan fray.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes of last week’s decision:

(T)he five members of the Supreme Court’s Republican Machine (two of them named by Trump) shoved aside mounds of evidence, threw up their hands and declared themselves powerless to contain the radical gerrymandering of legislative seats. They did so even while effectively conceding the obvious, well-described in Justice Elena Kagan’s history-will-remember dissent: that gerrymanders “enabled politicians to entrench themselves . . . against voters’ preferences” and “promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will”….

Please read Kagan’s scathing and at times wickedly mocking dissent. She shows how (Chief Justice John) Roberts and his allies are willfully blind to how much the world of political mapmaking has changed because of “big data and modern technology.” These tools not only allow very precise election-fixing (creating the “voter-proof map”) but also provide courts with easy ways of detecting in a “politically neutral” way “the worst-of-the-worst cases of democratic subversion.

“These are not your grandfather’s—let alone the Framers’—gerrymanders,” Kagan writes. “For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply”….

And not only does the Court’s right wing junta take this helpless stance, pleading an aversion to judicial activism, but it does so selectively, usually when it benefits the GOP. Dionne again:

Conservatives who were happy to override decades of precedent to throw out laws limiting money’s influence in politics and to gut the Voting Rights Act suddenly discovered judicial modesty on gerrymanders. I was reminded of former congressman Barney Frank’s quip skewering the GOP’s “Reverse Houdinis” who tie themselves up in knots and then say they cannot act — because they are all tied up in knots.

Notice: When judicial intervention helps Republicans, expands the power of the wealthy or undercuts the ability of minorities to vote, the court’s conservatives are activist. When restraint helps the GOP, they are overcome by humility.

Anticipating the complaint from my conservative readers (both of them):

It’s true that that same Court narrowly struck down the White House’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, an action that would have significantly skewed the GOP’s electoral advantage going forward. It did so only because Roberts sided with his progressive colleagues this time, as he occasionally does in his role as the closest thing the current Court has to a swing vote. That in itself is telling, given that the Chief Justice is a solid conservative.

Roberts has a reputation as an honest broker, and is said to be very invested in the legacy of the Court that bears his name. I don’t deny that he periodically lives up to that rep, as he did in upholding the constitutionality of the ACA in June 2012. Other times—such as his convoluted opinion defending the Muslim ban as not religiously based, even as Trump himself crowed to his cheering followers that it was—he seems to function as a reliable GOP team player, even when it requires yogi-like contortions to explain his position.

Moreover, as Thomas Wolf and Brianna Cea of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice write in The Atlantic, the entire Court—and not just its right wingers—still accepted at face value the administration’s false contention that there is a historical argument to be made on behalf of the citizenship question. Even if Roberts voted against adding the question to the 2020 census, rejecting the administration’s brazenly laughable claim that it would help it protect minorities, it’s worth remembering that his four conservative colleagues were perfectly fine with it.

Trump, of course, immediately tried to go around the decision, which he predictably railed against as “totally ridiculous,” asking if the census could be delayed until the GOP can find a way to win. He has even implied he might just ignore the Court’s ruling.

Of course, never in American history has the Supreme Court been truly impartial or above partisan considerations. (See: Bush v. Gore). But some eras and some moments are worse than others, and right now, its stock is at a nearly all-time low. The FiveThirtyEight points out that other non-judicial solutions remain to address gerrymandering, but the cause just got infinitely harder. The unwillingness of Court to step in, and its weak-kneed claim that it has no business (or capability of) doing so, even as it takes on other electoral matters like the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is a shameful display that smacks of the pure politics that it claims to be above.


So what to make of this rise of incipient authoritarianism within the GOP, a rise that has been radically accelerated by Trump, even if the broader trend long predates him? An ocean of ink has been spilled on the topic—little of it by conservatives of course, after eight years of hyperventilating allegations that Barack Obama had claimed for himself the powers of an emperor.

To be fair, Tomasky does not believe that the GOP has become authoritarian. But he comes close:

It doesn’t have a name, this thing the Republicans are trying to do. It’s not true democracy that they want. But it’s also a bit much to call them outright authoritarians. And there’s nothing in between.

I admire his discretion and cautiousness, but I see no reason to call “this thing Republicans are trying to do” anything but the Big A. At the very least it is damn sure “authoritarian adjacent,” as the real estate brokers would say. Or perhaps a better metaphor is “authoritarian curious.”

Indeed, for my money, in its demagoguery, anti-intellectualism, merger of church and state, hypervalorization of the military, nativism, cult of personality, attacks on the press, and (selective) obsession with “law and order,” at times it veers dangerously to the Big F.

Tomasky makes the case for the term “competitive authoritarianism,” coined by the authors Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in their 2010 book Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. (Levitsky is also the co-author of last year’s much-discussed How Democracies Die, with Daniel Ziblatt.) They define such systems as “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.”

Even now, almost ten years later, Levitsky—like Tomasky—does not believe that we are quite there yet, arguing that, “The playing field between Democrats and Republicans remains reasonably level.”

I guess the operative word there is “reasonably.” The trend is worrying, however, and certainly runs the risk of getting worse. Levitsky himself raises that alarm, echoing the view that Trump is only a symptom—not the cause—of this GOP turn toward the dark side. Tomasky quotes him:

“Recent Republican behavior—from the 2016 stolen Supreme Court seat to the legislative shenanigans that followed gubernatorial defeats in North Carolina and Wisconsin to voter suppression efforts across numerous states—suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened. The fact that the Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian poses a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump.”

Again, “suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened” is an almost comically generous description of the modern GOP. But I guess that’s why he is the esteemed political scientist, while I am a guy who walks around Times Square in an Elmo suit.

Tomasky concurs, noting how, thanks to gerrymandering, the GOP managed to maintain a House majority under Obama even when Democratic Congressional candidates won more votes. And Trump has taken it to a new level:

Think of his efforts to do things like politicize the institutions of the executive branch, to try to turn the Department of Justice into his personal law firm. Think of his threat in 2016 that he would honor the results of the election “if I win,” and his recent musings about staying beyond two terms. Think of his commerce secretary’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, which would benefit the Republicans electorally.

He goes on:

Who doubts that Mr. Trump, with quiescent and tremulous congressional Republicans watching, will keep up his assault on them, intensifying in a second term? And what are the odds that after years of Mr. Trump, the Republican Party will return to what used to pass as normal? After all the Republican lurch in this direction predated Mr. Trump.

In other words, is there any reason to believe that the Republican creep into authoritarianism—turbocharged by the discovery that they can do pretty much anything they goddam want as long as Donald Trump is in the White House—is going to stop, let alone reverse itself?


As if to drive the neo-authoritarian point home, Trump is about to get his wish of a Red Square-style May Day—er, I mean Fourth of July—parade, complete with generals standing beside him and fighter plane flyovers and M-1 Abrams tanks rolling down the Mall and marching troops passing in review. (Also: a VIP section, because as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes, “nothing says Fourth of July like preferential treatment for rich toadies.”)

Donny has been after this sort of garish, wildly un-American royalist spectacle ever since he saw the Bastille Day parade in Paris in 2017, and it’s now coming to pass, despite the best efforts of many (even in the Pentagon) to explain why it’s an absolutely terrible idea in every possible way from top to bottom. I’d love to see the press ignore it altogether, but of course, they can’t turn away from a trainwreck.

It hardly bears noting the absurdity of spending millions of taxpayer dollars so an ignorant, draft-dodging egomaniac and borderline traitor can indulge his Napoleonic fantasies and hold a publicly funded campaign rally. Subverting the entire point of a day meant to celebrate our liberation from monarchy does not require any further elucidation here. This at a time when our government is keeping children in squalid conditions in cages, and DOJ lawyers are pleading before federal judges that we can’t afford to provide them soap.

Is America great again yet? Wake me when it is.

Maybe Trump got both parade and concentration camp advice from his boyfriend Kim Jong Un on his recent trip to North Korea, the latest in a series of shameful diplomatic blunders and unforced Christmas gifts to the DPRK that were once jawdropping, but have now become so routine that I can barely muster the strength to bitch. (See Only Nixon Could Go to China…But Nixon Was, Like, Smart – March 16, 2018, and Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama) – June 13, 2018.)

And that fatigue is precisely what we have to fear.

Slowly (I turned), step by step, inch by inch, the modern Republican Party—led by its cretinous dotard-king—is dragging us into a sanguine acceptance of what was once unthinkable in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Pick your metaphor of choice: the Overton window is moving even as we speak; we are the frog in boiling water; it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Any way you want to frame it, the bottom line is that Donald Trump thinks Kim, Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte are all swell guys, and the Grand Old Party is just fine with that.

Yes, tanks on the Mall tomorrow are ridiculous. But it’s the tanks on the Mall in November 2020 that I’m more worried about.


Illustration: US map altered to reflect voting power of the individual states, as of 2016






2 thoughts on “Authoritarianism Adjacent

  1. Pingback: The Fiasco to Come

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