WASHINGTON — As the Senate readies for yet another Donald Trump impeachment trial and prepares to judge the former president’s conduct, senators also may be voting on a much bigger question: American democracy versus American authoritarianism.
Because, while Trump is charged specifically with inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, his and his allies’ and supporters’ own words show that the assault was the culmination of a monthslong attempt to overturn the election he lost and included a discussion of invoking martial law.
Despite this, Republican senators appear prepared to let Trump go unpunished, thereby allowing him to run for federal office, including the presidency, again — a choice that authoritarianism researchers worry will send exactly the wrong message.
“People have an amazing capacity to incorporate the ‘unimaginable’ and just move on,” said Karen Stenner, author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic,” a 2005 work that warned that Western liberal democracies were at risk from would-be autocrats in an era of rapid demographic changes. “I find it so frightening,”
“At a certain point, we have to quit asking why cowards are acting cowardly,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican consultant who worked on several presidential campaigns, including that of George W. Bush in 2004, which was the last time a GOP presidential candidate won the popular vote. “These are historically weak people who don’t really care about the country.”
Trump was already impeached a year ago for trying to extort the newly elected president of Ukraine into publicly smearing the Democratic challenger Trump feared most — Joe Biden — using $391 million in congressionally approved military aid as leverage. Republican senators then, with the exception of Utah’s Mitt Romney, said Trump behaved inappropriately but chose to leave him in office.
This time, Trump’s actions went even closer to the heart of American democracy when he tried to remain in power despite having been beaten resoundingly, losing five states and one Nebraska congressional district he had won in 2016. Those actions ultimately resulted in the violent mob attack that killed one police officer and left four Trump supporters dead, with two other officers taking their own lives in the coming days.
Most Republican senators, though, have already made clear in an earlier vote that they do not want to deal with the issue at all and would just as soon the whole thing go away. In a move to dismiss the impeachment as “unconstitutional” because Trump is no longer in office, 45 of the Republicans — including leader Mitch McConnell — voted in favor of dismissal while only five voted with all 50 Democrats to proceed with the trial.
“It is extremely concerning that the GOP is essentially giving a vote of legitimation to Trump’s attempts to steal the election and the Jan. 6 coup attempt,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian and fascism expert at New York University.
Seventeen GOP senators would have to side with the 50 Democrats to reach the threshold required to convict Trump — a figure that Republicans say almost certainly will not be reached. Across the Capitol, 197 out of 211 Republican House members already voted against impeaching Trump just a week after the insurrection.
Indeed, the very night of the attack — with bloodstains still visible and shards of glass everywhere — a full 139 House Republicans and eight senators still voted to challenge Biden as the election’s rightful winner, a continuation of the “big lie” Trump had been pushing since election night that even his attorney general had debunked as false.
In essence, Ben-Ghiat said, Republicans have become the party of authoritarianism. “We must accept that the GOP is a far-right party that has abandoned the democratic process,” she said.
The Founders feared authoritarianism; Trump embraced it.
Authoritarianism in America did not start with Donald Trump. Fear of authoritarians, in fact, was central in the thinking of the framers of the Constitution, who purposefully designed an inefficient, slow-changing central government to limit the damage if one someday came to power.
Among Americans themselves, the desire for strong nationalist leadership to keep out immigrants and focus on native-born citizens has ebbed and flowed over the decades. In the mid-1800s, it gave rise to the Know-Nothing party – so called because its early adherents’ response to questions was to deny any knowledge about the group.
In the 1930s, nationalists who appeared at times to sympathize with German Nazis adopted the slogan “America First” ― which Trump later took for himself — to advocate against U.S. intervention in World War II.
In the 1950s, a fear of Soviet communism was used by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others to enforce conformity and intimidate political opponents, while a decade later, Richard Nixon centered his successful run for the presidency around a “law and order” theme on behalf of a “silent majority,” promising a crackdown on anti-war and pro-civil rights dissent.
Trump adopted both of those phrases during his time in office and claimed to be speaking for most Americans, even as polls showed that he never once in four years reached even 50% approval.
Yet even Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment and removal for his involvement in and cover-up of an attempt to wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters in advance of his 1972 reelection, was never as brazen as Trump in his overt attempts to use the powers of the presidency for his personal advantage.
What Trump did, said Stenner, a political psychologist who has taught at Duke and Princeton, was bring openly anti-democratic tactics into the mainstream of a major party, which is now reluctant to disavow either the tactics or the man.
“A large proportion of the U.S. population is predisposed to authoritarianism, and a large proportion of your elites is willing to manipulate and play to that for their own purposes,” she said, adding that her research has found that about one-third of Americans fall into that category. “The problem long precedes Trump and will outlast him, particularly since it’s clear that the GOP has no viable electoral strategy other than continuing to service this widespread yearning for oneness and sameness.”
Trump ran the most openly authoritarian campaign in modern times during his successful 2016 bid, rife with dark themes demonizing immigrants, frequently alluding to violence and constantly describing himself as “strong” and his opponents as weak.
Upon winning, he brought those sensibilities to the White House, starting with an inaugural address dark in tone and paternalistic in its promises that described a dystopia that only he could fix.
“The crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said. “There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”
He began implementing his vision almost immediately, starting with an executive order imposing a “Muslim ban” in the first days of his administration. Two years later, he declared a national emergency to raid the military’s construction budget and build a southern border wall after the Republican-led Congress refused to appropriate money for it.
That Trump believed that the government was also available for his personal political gain became apparent in late 2019, when a whistleblower revealed that he had tried to coerce Ukraine into helping his reelection effort and had used the national security infrastructure to do so. Nine months later, as he geared up his reelection campaign, Trump ordered National Guard and federal police agencies to violently clear a public square, using beatings and tear gas, so that he could stage a photo-op in front of a church.
The QAnon Coup
It was in the election’s aftermath, though, that Trump’s attempts to hang onto power ran roughshod past the bounds of both the law and the Constitution.
While his campaign legal team pushed for recounts and challenged voting procedures in states he had narrowly lost to Biden, Trump began listening more and more to other lawyers and advisers who pushed even more drastic action — including several aligning themselves with the “QAnon” cult.
Its believers — who hold that the United States government is filled with Satan-worshippers who drink an elixir made from the blood of murdered children and that Trump is God’s messiah sent to bring these evil-doers to justice — have, since the start of QAnon’s spread in late 2017, believed that Trump would one day declare martial law and execute his enemies.
When asked about the cult, Trump refused on multiple occasions to denounce it and instead praised it for supporting him. “I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” he said last year.
Among the cult’s adherents are Michael Flynn, Trump’s initial national security adviser, and Lin Wood, a Georgia lawyer who had been working with attorney Sidney Powell to overturn election results in states that Trump lost. Flynn publicly advocated for martial law and the seizing of voting machines. Wood had predicted the arrest and execution of Vice President Mike Pence. Powell herself frequently alluded to the “the storm,” which QAnon followers believe is the day Trump will wreak his vengeance. She repeated several of the cult’s conspiracy theories at her and lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s infamous Nov. 19 news conference.
Both Flynn and Powell were in the Oval Office with Trump on multiple occasions, advocating that he use his powers to invalidate the results of the Electoral College vote that in December had formally given Biden a 306-232 victory, and either ordering new elections in states Biden won or simply declaring himself the winner.
The eventual expression of that plan was the Jan. 6 insurrection, which was designed to intimidate Pence and Congress into setting aside the results from enough states Biden had won to throw the election to the House, where Trump would win because of the one-state-one-vote rules. Giuliani himself admitted as much in a voicemail he inadvertently left on the wrong cell phone.
For authoritarianism experts, it is that readiness to cast aside fundamental standards of democracy and the rule of law to retain power, the willingness to use the threat of violence as a coercion tactic, that makes a Senate conviction so important.
“It is of deep concern, because part of how this dynamic works is by an interaction between the worldview of the base and the willingness of leaders to stoke and fuel some of the more troubling inclinations of that base,” said Jonathan Weiler, a University of North Carolina political scientist and co-author of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,” a 2009 book that, like Stenner’s, predicted the rise of someone like Trump.
“At a time when we need responsible leadership more than ever, the political incentives within the party increasingly militate against that,” Weiler said.
Added Stenner: “This is not over, by any means.”
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