Making Sense of Democratic Rollback

One of the ironies of American political life that has become evident during the six months that Donald Trump has been in office is that veteran observers of American politics are often the ones who are least able to provide helpful analysis of the Trump administration. A career spent speculating about the next election, who will be the next nominee for President, whether a particularly egregious action by the White House rises an impeachable offense or what the political impact of passing a piece of legislation will be makes one uniquely unqualified to understand the current political environment.

Tragically, although perhaps not irrevocably, the key to accurately analyzing the state of our politics today is to begin with the acceptance that this is no longer a democracy and that the questions, speculation and assumptions that have been central to our analysis and political punditry for decades are less helpful now. That assertion may seem alarmist, but it explains our current politics much better than simply saying a Republican won the election and what we are seeing is to be expected when the White House switches from one party to the other, or that our political institutions continue to work.

Since coming into office in January the Trump administration has inaugurated a period of democratic rollback, the pace of which has been dizzying at times. The attacks on the judiciary through Tweets and other forms of bullying, the efforts by Republican controlled state legislatures to roll back both voting rights and rights to free assembly, the multi-faceted efforts to undermine and delegitimize our free press and Congress’s abdication of its role as a check on executive power are all part of this pattern. Significantly, much of this has taken the form not of explicit violation of the law, but of undermining and violating the norms, conventions and mores that make our democracy work.

Some on the left have gone too far with this notion, claiming that Trump will lead our country to fascism. Fascism is not a threat to our country now, if for no other reason that the abject lack of competence and organizational skill in the White House. However, there is a great deal of political space between fascism and democracy. In the 21st century many undemocratic countries, such as Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Venezuela and Russia exist in that space. These countries share a political system that might be called informal semi-authoritarianism. That, not fascism, is the most likely outcome if the Trump administration continues to steamroll our political processes.

These regimes share some fundamental characteristics that should begin to look familiar to keen observers of American politics. The first is that democratic seeming institutions function not to facilitate contestation or aggregate citizen’s preferences, but to keep the government in power. Thus, those media outlets and individuals that probe, question and criticize are either silenced or simply pushed aside. In these regimes, elections are not stolen in sloppy Election Day operations, but are manipulated in advance through tampering with voter lists, weaponizing information, constraining the electorate and other forms of political chicanery. For anybody who was paying attention in 2016 or who understands the views on voting rights of the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, this should seem pretty familiar. The efforts by Trump to continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2016 vote for Hillary Clinton by pointing to imaginary election fraud by Democrats is also part of this pattern and will make it more difficult to conduct free and fair elections in 2018 and 2020.

Although the Trump administration has pursued very right wing policies, particularly on domestic policies, most informal semi-authoritarian regimes rarely place a strong emphasis on ideology. Rather they are motivated by two goals. The first enrich the ruling family or families as much as possible. In this respect, the Trump/Kushner clan is behaving much like the Aliyev family in Azerbaijan, the Nazerbayev family in Kazakhstan and other similar ruling families in semi-authoritarian countries. The second, and related goal, is simply to remain in power. The primary reason for this is that losing power means legal hassles, potential imprisonment or the need to flee. This is the case here now as well. It is hard to imagine Donald Trump leaving office and having a quiet retirement, or any of the people around him moving on to high powered lucrative positions in the private sector. Rather the lawsuits and criminal prosecutions will pile up. For these reasons, this government will do anything it can to remain in power.

The purpose of diagnosing the political problem is not simply to depress or frighten, but to help get to an appropriate strategy for fixing our political system. Once we understand that the primary political project is not simply a Democratic victory, but restoring democracy, a very different strategy emerges, one that draws on successful movements over the last decades in countries like Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. The strategy that is needed to restore democracy, that worked in those places and can work here, will require an omnibus democratic coalition that includes a range of ideological and partisan positions. It cannot be only a project of the left, although the left is obviously the most visible and active part of the resistance, and will remain so. Additionally, while elections are an important part of the strategy, this is not a problem that can be solved only at the voting booth. Continued demonstrations, marches, an active civil society and a legal strategy are all necessary as well.