A tip-toeing into authoritarianism


To those who track anti-democratic movements there is a chilling familiarity to this rich evocation of a president descending into an abyss of fantasy, fury and possible illegality. “The picture that the hearings depict is of a coup leader,” said the Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky. “This is a guy who was unwilling to accept defeat and was prepared to use virtually any means to try to stay illegally in power.”

Levitsky is co-author of the influential book How Democracies Die which traces the collapse of once-proud democratic nations – in some cases through wrenching upheavals, but more often in modern times through a tip-toeing into authoritarianism. Levitsky is also an authority on Latin America, a region from which he draws a compelling parallel.

Levitsky told the Guardian that the Trump who emerges from the hearings was a coup leader, “but not a very sophisticated one. Not a very experienced one. A petty autocrat. A type of leader more familiar to someone like me, a student of Latin American politics.”

There was nothing very sophisticated or experienced about Hitler, either. He was a punk, but that didn’t stop him.

The media bubble is not the only barrier standing between the January 6 committee and a major repair of the country’s damaged democratic infrastructure. While the hearings focused heavily on the figure of Trump, Levitsky argues that an arguably even greater threat is now posed by the Republican party which enabled him.

“In a two-party system, if one political party is not committed to democratic rules of the game, democracy is not likely to survive for very long,” Levitsky said. “The party has revealed itself, from top to bottom, to be a majority anti-democratic party.”

Levitsky cites an analysis by the Republican Accountability Project, a group of anti-Trump conservatives, of the public statements made by all 261 Republicans in the US House and Senate in the wake of the 2020 election. It found that 224 of them – a staggering 86% of all Republicans in Congress – cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s win in what amounted to a mass “attack on a cornerstone of our democracy”.

Levitsky warns that the hearings have illuminated two great dangers for America, both relating to Republicans. The first is that the party’s strategists have acquired, through Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, a roadmap to the vulnerabilities of the electoral system.

“They discovered that there is a plethora of opportunities for subverting an election, from blocking certification to sending alternate slates of electors to Congress. Armed with that knowledge, they may well do it much better next time.”

The second lesson for Levitsky relates to accountability, or the lack of it. The Republicans who played with fire, openly backing the anti-democratic movement, found that they were largely immune to the consequences.

“They learned that if you try to overturn the election you will not be punished by Republican voters, activists or donors. For the most part, you’ll be rewarded for it. And to me, that is terrifying.”


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