The American people are running out of time to stop America’s slide toward becoming a one-party, authoritarian state under President Trump, experts warned.
President Donald Trump’s attacks on virtually every democratic institution in the US while openly embracing many of the world’s most repressive leaders have raised concern among top experts on authoritarianism, fascism, and democracy.
But many have often argued that the robust political system in the US, with its checks and balances and constitutional norms, has so far prevented Trump from becoming a full-blown authoritarian and doing whatever he wants.
Following Trump’s acquittal in the Senate earlier this month, an unrestrained president has engaged in a White House purge of impeachment witnesses. He ousted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran, out of the National Security Council. Gordon Sondland, a Republican donor who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, was fired as the US’s ambassador to the European Union.
Days later, Attorney General William Barr intervened in the trial of a close associate of the president, Roger Stone, calling for a lesser sentence for the longtime GOP strategist than the one recommended by prosecutors who’d been working on the case.
On Twitter, Trump celebrated the widely-condemned intervention, which led to the resignation of all four prosecutors working on Stone’s case.
“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump said.
These alarming actions have caused experts to sound the alarm.
“The system is enabling Trump,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor who wrote “How Fascism Works,” told Business Insider.
“There need to be mass protests,” he said. “The Republican Party is betraying democracy, and these are historical times. Someone has got to push back.
“The deeply worrying moment is when you start to become a one-party state,” Stanley added. “The Republican Party has shown that it has no interest in multi-party democracy … They are much more concerned with power, with consolidating power.”
Stanley said recent actions by Republican lawmakers and the president were “straight from the literature on authoritarianism.”
Stanley said there should have been mass protests in the streets after the Republicans voted against calling key witnesses in the Senate Impeachment trial, warning that the absence of significant public outcry served as “a further sign to the party in power that they can go ahead and do what they want.” Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to convict Trump of abuse of power in his Senate impeachment trial. Romney was also one of just two GOP senators to vote in favor of an ultimately failed motion to call witnesses.
“From the moment he entered the Republican primary in 2015 to his impeachment five years later, Donald Trump has ignored advice to moderate and change and, in his view (which is largely correct), won. He has tested the boundaries of people and institutions several times and found them to be bendable and weak,” said Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who’s an expert on populism, extremism, and democracy.
“There is absolutely no reason for him to stop pushing,” he added. “It goes against both his personality and his experience.”
Mudde said the only question is whether there is still a breaking point for the Republican Party.
“Note that Trump has not changed the institutions, so the powers are still there,” he said. “This is all about the courage and willingness of Republicans to stand up for the rule of law and to the president.”
Stanley described Barr as a “dangerous, authoritarian enabler,” adding that Trump and those in his administration were not the only issues when it comes to an anti-democratic slide in the US.
“It’s almost all of the Republican Party,” Stanley said. “Mitch McConnell already showed that he has no loyalty to the rule of law when he denied Obama the right to appoint Supreme Court justices … It’s a much deeper problem.”
He added: “We need conservatives and Republicans to stand up for the rule of law, and if we don’t have that, it’s over.”
“For Trump and Barr, though, this is likely ‘good riddance to bad eggs,'” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University who’s an expert on authoritarianism.
If Americans are truly concerned with Trump’s “abuse of power,” Ben-Ghiat said, the best strategy is for voters to mobilize and use “their electoral power to vote out these authoritarians while they still can.”
But with a president who was just impeached on allegations that he solicited foreign election interference, and with Republican lawmakers who appear fully willing to enable his behavior, Stanley said he was not particularly optimistic about Election Day in November.
“I don’t know what would happen in the absence of mass protests,” Stanley said. “I’m not at all sanguine about the fairness of the upcoming elections.” He added: “As they’ve shown, they’ll do whatever they can to hold on to power.”