How Democracies Die

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

October 19, 2018

(This is adapted from the talk that Matt gave on October 18 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine.)

Let me cut to the chase here: I’m worried to death about the health of our democracy. I’m fearful that our highly vaunted system of checks and balances might not be up to the task right now. Our democracy is hanging by a thread, and it might not hold.

We have several huge underlying problems that threaten our democracy, and we have Donald Trump, and I’ll try to address all of these.

But I’d like to do so in the context of a book I’ve een reading by two Harvard professors (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt) that came out this year entitled “How Democracies Die.” They, too, are wondering whether our system of checks and balances will hold, and they have serious doubts.

They note that democracies die not only by sudden military coups. A lot of times, they say, “The assault on democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible. After all, elections continue to be held. Opposition politicians still sit in Congress. Independent newspapers still circulate. The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

Part of that piecemeal erosion, they argue, can be seen in the violation of unwritten democratic norms of behavior. They cite two such norms—“mutual toleration” by competing parties and candidates, and “forbearance” or restraint in the exercise of their powers. They call these the “soft guardrails of American democracy,” and they argue, and I agree, that these guardrails have been discarded.

It began with Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and his refusal to compromise on the budget, which forced a painful government shutdown. And then, of course, there was Gingrich’s headlong rush to impeach Bill Clinton on ludicrous grounds. This ushered in the era of “extreme polarization” that we’re in right now, and extreme polarization, as the authors note, is itself a threat to democracy.

Another glaring example of discarding the guardrails was Mitch McConnell’s vow, when Obama was elected, to make sure Obama was a failure.

And in 2016, McConnell’s decision not to let President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, even get a hearing or a vote on his nomination to the Supreme Court was a clear example of the lack of forbearance and restraint by the Republicans. It’s all about power. It’s all about winning, as Trump acknowledged after the Kavanaugh confirmation.

But before I get to Trump, I need to mention a few other huge underlying problems that threaten our democracy and that predate Trump’s descending of the escalator and announcing his candidacy.

One underlying problem is the problem of money in politics. As Jimmy Carter acknowledged a couple of years ago, we don’t really have a democracy anymore. His direct words: “We have an oligarchy of unlimited political bribery.” You and I and everyone in this room do not have the same power to choose who gets elected and what laws are passed and what policies are pursued as the giant contributors, like the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson or Richard Uihlein -- or George Soros and Tom Steyer, for that matter.

So, you might say, there are billionaires on the left and right so it balances out. It usually doesn’t balance out, for one thing, because the big donors on the right tend to spend more than the big donors on the left. But even if it did, our democracy isn’t supposed to be a tug of war between a couple of billionaires on the right and a couple of billionaires on the left. We’re not supposed to be reduced to mere spectators in our democracy; we’re all supposed to have an equal tug on the rope.

Another problem is the crisis of journalism and the media in America. Newspapers are dying out. There are fewer and fewer reporters to keep those in power accountable. Radio and cable TV, after the Fairness Doctrine died in the 1980s, have become shouting matches, or campfire rituals for whichever camp you’re in. There are fewer and fewer places for real debate and civil political discussion. We’re in separate camps; we might as well be in different universes.

Yet another underlying problem is our grossly unequal economy. When the economy predominantly rewards the rich, they get even more say over who gets elected and what laws are passed and what policies are pursued. We become less and less of a democracy and more and more an oligarchy or plutocracy. Ultimately, capitalism devours democracy, and it’s munching away at it right now.

A final underlying problem is the culture of racism that rips apart the fundamental concept that we are all created equal and that we all have equal rights and an equal say. The election of President Obama gave a lot of people the false hope that we were moving beyond this deeply rooted problem, but it has come back with a vengeance with the brazen white supremacist movement.

Then there’s Trump.

The authors of How Democracies Die say there are four key indicators of authoritarian behavior, and Trump meets them all.

1. “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) the democratic rules of the game.” Examples: His bogus claims of millions of illegal immigrant voters. His assailing of judges. His attack on Mueller.

2. “Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.” Examples: “Low Energy Jeb,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary” and “Pocahontas.”

3. “Toleration or encouragement of violence.” During the campaign, you remember there was a heckler at one of Trump’s rallies and Trump said, “Knock the hell out of them. I promise you: I will pay the legal fees.” See also his outrageous comments on Charlottesville. (Note: When I got home last night, I found out that Trump had just praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting that reporter last May. Trump said: “Any guy who can do a body slam... he's my guy.”)

4. “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.” See “Fake news” and “the media is the enemy of the people.” Trump has also suggested that libel laws should be tightened so that he can’t be criticized so much by the media. And he’s threatened to go after Amazon and Jeff Bezos, who just happens to own the Washington Post. And here’s what Trump had to say about the protests at the Kavanaugh hearing: “ We shouldn't have to put up with this kind of stuff,” and, “It’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters.” Or take his remark that NFL players shouldn’t be in this country if they’re going to kneel during the national anthem. He has no clue about the First Amendment!

Then there’s his assault on the civil liberties of immigrants: Not just the Muslim ban, and not just the hideous policy of tearing children from their parents, but also the executive order saying that ICE agents could send back anyone not only who’s been convicted of a crime but also those who are “chargeable” with a crime. “Chargeable?” Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? In the context of Kavanaugh and even the Saudi Royal Family, Trump claims to believe in the “innocent until proven guilty” precept. But not when it comes to immigrants.

So those are the danger signs, according to these scholars.

Let me add my own concerns about Trump: He’s not an out and out fascist, but he’s the closest thing that we’ve ever had to a fascist in the Oval Office. He’s not Adolph Hitler. He hasn’t written an equivalent to Mein Kampf; and his political views, at least until recently, have been all over the map.

But he has many ofthe inclinations of the fascist.

He loves strongmen, and not just Putin but Dutarte and others, including Kim Jong-un and the Saudi royal family, it appears.

He fantasizes about being president for life. When President Xi of China essentially became president for life, Trump said: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”

Trump is a bully, and fascists revel in bullying, and their supporters admire them for it. Orwell called such admirers “bully worshippers.”

He also echoes the language of the fascists.

During the campaign and still afterwards, he’s talked about “America First,” which was the slogan of the Nazi sympathizers here in the US before Pearl Harbor. He can’t plead ignorance about this because the Anti-Defamation League sent him a letter during his presidential campaign and noted the ugly historical echo and urged him to stop using the phrase. But he hasn’t stopped. He put it in his Inaugural Address, and he keeps using it.

His constant invocation of “fake news” has ugly echoes, too. The Nazis used the term “Lugenpresse,” which means “lying press” in German. In fact, some Trump supporters have picked it up in its original German. (See this Time magazine article.)

And Goebbels used “the enemy of the people” to refer to Jews, and dictators throughout history have invoked this phrase against one group or another.

There are a few other crucial trademarks of the fascist that Trump embodies.

1. Incessant Lying

Trump has broken all the records for Presidential lying. He can’t tell the truth even when he says hello and goodbye. As of August 1, he had uttered 4,229 lies or misrepresentations, according to the Washington Post’s tally. His flagrant lying is a telltale sign. Here is the first sentence from another new and disturbing book called The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani, who was the book editor at the New York Times forever and a day:

“Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth.”

Or take Orwell again: “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities' but that it attacks the concept of objective truth.”

2. Another trademark is racism or scapegoating.

That Trump is a racist and that he makes racist appeals is, at this point, incontrovertible. After all, he wouldn’t rent his apartments to black people. He led the vicious campaign against the Central Park Five and continued to vilify them after they were exonerated. And, of course, he led the Birther Movement against President Obama. And he launched his campaign with racist appeals against Muslims and Mexicans. And finally, after Charlottesville, it became totally undeniable.

3. Then there is ultra-nationalism. Trump makes no bones about being an ultra-nationalist. That’s what all the “America First” talk is about. Or look at “Make America Great Again.” At bottom, that’s an appeal to people’s sense of bereaved and betrayed patriotism, and that kind of appeal has been crucial to fascists and authoritarians, like Hitler and Mussolini and Pinochet and Franco. The University of Wisconsin’s great historian of fascism, George Mosse, has stressed the central role of ultra-nationalism in fascism.

Racism and ultra-nationalism are the sperm and the egg of Fascism, and Trump’s doing some in-vitro fertilization right there in the Oval Office.

4. Finally, fascism is a mass-based movement, and Trump has a mass base. His popularity can’t seem to drop much below 40 percent ever, no matter what he does. And he has this zealous, over-heated base at his rallies. When Jim Acosta said, after a recent rally, “It felt like we weren’t in America anymore,” that’s something to take very seriously. And when you see the white supremacists and neo-Nazis parading around in Trump paraphernalia, it’s hard not to conjure up images of the Brown Shirts, especially when they chant, “Jews won’t replace us,” and when Trump says some of those people were “good people.”

America is not a Fascist state yet. If it was, I’d be arrested or beaten up as soon as I walked out the door, and you might be, too. But we could get there, fast.

You might remember at the beginning of my talk, I quoted the authors of How Democracies Die saying that authoritarianism could creep in slowly, piecemeal, in baby steps.

But they also warn us that democracies can die “in one fell swoop.” And that’s what keeps me up at night.

Here are three ways it might die in one fell swoop, and I’m going to tell you about them so you too can be kept up at night.

The first is what’s called Norm Ornstein’s “nightmare scenario ”: Trump fires Mueller and pardons everyone (and I think he’ll do that); then there are huge protests in the streets; Trump’s zealots and the neo-Nazis attack some of those protestors; violence escalates; Trump declares martial law.

The second is if the United States is attacked again, even at one-tenth the size of 9/11. As the authors of How Democracies Die note, “Major security crises—wars or large-scale terrorist attacks—are political gamechangers,” and they represent “moments of danger for democracy. Leaders who can ‘do whatever they like’ can inflict great harm upon democratic institutions.” Madeleine Albright also mentions this dire possibility in her book, “Fascism: A Warning.” Everything we know about Trump’s pathological personality suggests that if we’re attacked again, all bets are off for our democracy.

Now you might think that my mention of the possibility of “martial law” is hyperbole or some crazy talk by a loony leftwinger.

It’s not. Listen, General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said that if we’re ever attacked again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, we might have to suspend the Constitution. And Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security Council, General Wayne Downing, said essentially the same thing: If attacked again, “The United States may have to declare martial law.” So when the generals talk in public about martial law, you can bet that their subordinates have drawn up plans for it. That’s how the military works.

You remember Ted Koppel, don’t you? He was the anchor of the news show “Nightline” for more than a decade. Well, Ted Koppel warned about this, too, in a graduation speech he gave at Berkeley in 2004. Here’s what he said: “More than likely, the use of a chemical or biological weapon in a terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland would lead to the imposition of martial law.”

I promise you, there are plans right now for martial law on the shelves of the Pentagon or Homeland Security or the FBI, and all Trump would have to do is pull them down off the shelf.

Here’s the last dire scenario, which is less likely than the first two but not outside the realm of the possible, given Trump’s personality, and it’s simply this: Trump is impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, but he refuses to leave. During Nixon’s impeachment hearings, some people were worried that Nixon would call out the tanks to keep himself in power. And it’s conceivable that Trump would, too. As Stalin said when he was told that the Pope wanted him to stop persecuting Catholics, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Trump is commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world. How many divisions does the House of Representatives have? How many divisions does the Senate have? How many divisions does the Supreme Court have?

As I said, I think this one is less likely, and the military chain of command might refuse to go along with Trump.

But if any of these three scenarios came to pass and Trump declared martial law tomorrow afternoon, you can bet your last dollar that tomorrow night Sean Hannity would be praising him for doing so on Fox News.

It can happen here. That’s the stark fact of the matter, and it’s more likely to happen here than I ever thought possible.

Here’s one indicator: A Washington Post poll last year of Republican voters found that 50 percent of them would be OK if there’s no presidential election in 2020!

So why am I not going to draw a hot bath tonight and pull out a razor blade?

Because I’ve studied fascism. I studied it at college. I studied it at The Progressive. And I studied it again when Trump became the Republican nominee. And what I learned from my studies is that even if the fascist, or the fascist in the making, takes power, a country doesn’t descend into full-blown fascism unless civil society collapses.

And the good news is that civil society is not collapsing. Civil society is standing up to Trump!

The courts are standing up to him.

The states are standing up to him, with many of them suing him.

The media is standing up to him, with the exception of Fox and rightwing talk radio.

The late night TV comics are standing up to him, and their mockery is a balm to our spirits.

Even some Republican intellectuals and pundits are standing up to Trump, like George Will, and David Frum, and David Brooks, and Jennifer Rubin, and Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s campaign. Even Morning Joe, who is not exactly an intellectual heavyweight, is standing up to Trump. And I’ll applaud anyone who calls Trump out, no matter how opportunistically. And that even includes Charlie Sykes.

But most important of all, the people have been standing up to Trump since day one.

Or at least day two, with the tremendous Women’s March in Washington. My wife was there, with more than a million others. And I was at the march in Madison, on library mall and State Street, 75,000 strong. And the costumes, the home-made signs, and the spontaneous chants were exhilarating. I remember some young women chanting: “We don’t want his tiny hands anywhere near our underpants.” It’s that kind of attitude that’s going to get us through.

And then there were the great immigrant rights rallies, first at the airports when Trump announced his Muslim ban. Within minutes, people flocked to O’Hare and flocked to LaGuardia and other airports around the country to demonstrate their support for immigrants and asylum seekers.

And here in Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera has put on one amazing rally after another in defense of immigrants.

Then there are the protests in defense of our environment, demanding action to address the climate change crisis. There was the march of the scientists a couple of Earth Days ago; there was the tremendous protest against the Dakota Pipeline, led by Native Americans; and there have been many other protests since.

And the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn much-needed attention to the problem of police violence, and the “Me, Too” movement has done the same for sexual assault.

People, by the millions, aren’t taking any of this stuff lying down!

And that’s not only a good thing; it’s a promising thing. And we’re going to need more of it before we’re done.

Here in Wisconsin, there are also positive signs.

There is a tremendous effort under way by several great groups to get as many people as possible registered to vote and enthusiastic about voting. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the ACLU of Wisconsin, VoteRiders, and Common Cause are all getting out there. And so is Wisconsin Voices, an umbrella organization of more than 50 progressive nonprofits that I sit on the board of.

There is also a mass movement in Wisconsin to tackle the problem of money in politics that I mentioned. Led by an amazing group called Wisconsin United to Amend, 132 communities in Wisconsin have passed resolutions or referendums saying that they are in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech! Wisconsin is second only to Massachusetts in the number of communities that have climbed on board.

And there’s another mass movement in Wisconsin: this one to ban gerrymandering and to demand fair political maps. Already, 41 of the 72 county boards have passed resolutions that they are in favor of fair, nonpartisan, independent redistricting, and these county boards have sent their resolutions on to the state legislators to urge them to change the law and give us fair maps.

Finally, we’ve got a very impressive progressive nonprofit sector in Wisconsin, and we’re all working together. We’ve torn down our silos, and we’ve shelved our egos (for the most part), and we’re all rowing in the same direction. We meet regularly, we strategize together, we write op-eds together, we share each other’s posts, we go to each other’s events; we understand that none of us can get it done alone. We’re a model, I think, for progressive nonprofits in other states.

And I take heart in the inspirational words of Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States, and in his last dozen years, he wrote a column for The Progressive magazine. Here’s a nugget of his wisdom that I’d like to share with you in closing:

“To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. … To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

So let’s defy all that is bad around us, and affirm all that is good, and celebrate a marvelous victory.