(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Americans who think the coming election is their last chance to save the republic from authoritarianism — Americans, until recently, like me — are almost certainly wrong. Authoritarianism is already here, and what Americans will decide in November is whether it will grow more deeply entrenched.
According to a new report, the U.S. is undergoing “substantial autocratization” — so much so that only one in five similarly damaged democracies has been able to reverse such decline. President Donald Trump’s administration is consuming democratic capacity at about the same pace that wildfire has been destroying the West. The White House has been a source of lies since Trump’s presidency began. Since his impeachment and acquittal by Senate Republicans, his transgressions have grown more aggressive, while being more aggressively supported by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security — together the equivalent of a mighty Security Ministry — both of which are controlled by men who share Trump’s disregard for rule of law.
Under the direction of Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, the state has assumed the form of unidentified men in unmarked vehicles, a hallmark of anti-democratic regimes. Whistle-blowers and protest resignations have become recurring features of both departments. These admirable acts of conscience seek to bring attention to systemic abuses — the corruption of intelligence for political purposes at Homeland Security, and the corruption of law, including favors for friends and vengeance for opponents, at Justice.
But declarations of conscience are not a substitute for rule of law; they are merely proof of its absence. And people of good faith are no match for large bureaucracies severed from ethical norms and lawful rigor.
Fear of fascism was once a luxury political good in the U.S., a fringe obsession rendered trivial by the enduring realities of a stable democracy. The authoritarian drive of the American president — and of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, with the complicity of most of the Republican Party — has altered that.
In a sign of just how self-aware the assault on democracy is, allies of the president now equate opposition to Trump with the “color revolutions” that swept the post-Soviet sphere. In this understanding of the political moment, Trump is cast in the role of a corrupt, Russian-backed dictator. The forces countering him are the masses who take to the streets clamoring for democracy, accountability and rule of law.
The mass action of a popular election, in the midst of a pandemic that Trump allows to rage, is where these opposing forces will meet in November. It’s entirely unclear how that will play out. In recent weeks, Barr has been a source of falsehoods about voting security, which seem designed to serve as a basis for Trump doing exactly what he has threatened to do: Dispute the results of an election that he is on track to lose. Trump has implied that he will deploy force, and encourage armed supporters to do the same, to cling to power.
As political analyst Ronald Brownstein points out, Trump conceives himself president of Americans in red states, waging war against those in blue states. (To Trump, blue state lives trade at a discount.) It’s an unapologetically fascist vision, but it’s not Trump’s alone. Walter Shaub, a former government ethics watchdog who was driven from office under Trump, notes that the operative question for the MAGA base is not: Are you better off than you were four years ago? It is: Are your enemies worse off?
A color revolution did, in fact, sweep the U.S. this year. Black Lives Matter protests may well be the largest popular protest movement in American history. Researchers have concluded that somewhere between 15 million and 26 million people participated in demonstrations in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd by police officers. Additional protests in hundreds of cities and small towns accompanied a subsequent wave of damning evidence of police brutality.
After weeks of attacks on BLM by Trump and Barr, public support for the movement has declined, with most of the decline, predictably, taking place among Republicans. Yet in a survey this month by Pew Research Center, 55% of American adults still say they strongly or somewhat support the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s about the same share that consistently voices disapproval of Trump’s presidency.
Barr has made it clear that he shares Trump’s view that this American majority should be neutered. BLM is “not interested in Black lives, they’re interested in props,” Barr said in remarks last week. “A small number of Blacks were killed by police during conflict with police — usually less than a dozen a year — who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”
In a previous interview with the virulent right-wing propagandist Mark Levin, Barr suggested what this “broader political agenda” entailed. He described Black Lives Matter as “a revolutionary group that is interested in some form of socialism, communism. They’re essentially Bolsheviks.”
Exaggeration of left-wing violence and the manufacture of nefarious leftist threats is a feature of countries that succumbed to right-wing authoritarianism. “Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists,” Trump said in June. “Violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa and others.” Barr’s own obsession with the confection of left-wing agitation and right-wing myth-making known as “Antifa” is another indicator that his political views are increasingly untethered to democratic reality. “I’ve talked to every police chief in every city where there’s been major violence, and they all have identified Antifa as the ramrod for the violence,” Barr told CNN.
That Trump and Barr harp on Antifa while ignoring the more violent and pervasive terrorism committed by right-wing vigilantes is another discomfiting sign. Elizabeth Neumann, a Trump appointee who served as an assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention in the Department of Homeland Security before leaving the department in April, said that the Trump administration labeled Antifa as domestic terrorists “for political purposes.”
The ultimate purpose remains opaque. But Barr clearly views the democratic playing field as unfair and conservatives as victims, their righteous claims to power vandalized by secularism’s “unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” In a speech at the University of Notre Dame last year, he used variations of the word “secular” 21 times to describe the enemy. Those who don’t share Barr’s drive to preserve and extend the most corrupt administration in American history are guilty of pushing the country on a “socialist path” toward certain doom, he says.
The U.S. is no more immune to fascism than the Oval Office is to demagoguery. Generations of Black Americans lived with a jackboot on the neck. Nazis in full regalia took over Madison Square Garden for a German Bund event before the U.S. entered World War II. In later years, to a certain segment of the American left, fascism was always and everywhere incipient. Ronald Reagan? Crypto-fascist. George W. Bush? Crypto. Dick Cheney? Not even crypto.
The threat perception this time is not a political luxury, an ideological trifle afforded by a functioning democratic system. The threat is now firmly lodged inside the fortress of American power.
Authoritarians are fully in command of the White House. The Department of Justice is led by another. The rot has spread through the ranks of executive departments large and small. Not even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can escape. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is running an investigation using known Russian disinformation with the express purpose of damaging the president’s political opponent.
If public opinion polls are correct, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, a democratic election is poised to counter this authoritarian thrust. How the authoritarians will respond, beyond the sabotage of voting access already under way, is unknown. But the notion that this election will fend off an authoritarian regime is incorrect. That regime is already in place.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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