Global Pairings

Route to Authoritarian Power in Democracies: From the 1930s to the 2020s

The history of white nationalism, grievance and authoritarianism in Europe makes the agenda of the current Republican Party in the US far easier to understand.

Takeaways


  • Democratic constitutions and traditions cannot in themselves ensure the survival of democracy.
  • The Republicans’ agenda, to continue to entrench minority rule, strengthens the hand of those forces internationally who question the relevance and reliability of democracy.
  • In Europe, the multi-party parliamentary system allows radical right parties to gain political representation. In contrast, The US with its two-party system does not support that direct route to political representation and power.
  • What if one of the major two political powers in the U.S. becomes a dedicated vehicle for authoritarian and right-wing interests?
  • The once-proud Republican Party even failed to condemn the attempted destruction of the U.S. Congress, thus selling out all the principles that were essential to the formation of the American Republic.
  • The U.S.’s 2020s are not Europe’s 1930s. And yet, they increasingly are.

Democratic constitutions and traditions cannot in themselves ensure the survival of democracy.

Recent and past European history shows that, once elected, populist politicians with authoritarian leanings can work to paralyze the executive branch of government.

They also aim to compromise future free elections, suppress the free press, stifle dissent and introduce the threat of violence to public discourse.

Aiming for single party rule in Hungary and Poland

In Hungary, President Viktor Orban’s strictures on the free press, forced closure of the Central European University, subservience to Communist China, criminalization of aid to asylum-seekers, and erosion of judicial independence all have one goal.

Orban wants to ensure that his authoritarian rule cannot be challenged effectively, even if the electoral processes remain theoretically functional.

Similarly, in Poland, the nationalistic ruling coalition, United Right, subjects its opponents to furious attacks by the state-owned broadcaster, now a propaganda arm of the ruling party.

A new and controversial disciplinary procedure for judges will effectively end the independence of the judiciary.

What about the United States?

What is what is happening in some of Europe’s new democracies is bad enough.

But that the Republican Party at the state and federal level throughout the United States should apply the same strategy is shocking.

The Republicans’ agenda — to continue to entrench minority rule and minority party control of the election process, by any means required — now strengthens the hand of those forces internationally who openly question the relevance and reliability of democracy.

Hollowing out democracy at gun point

The constant repetition of the idea that public carry of assault rifles as the highest expression of personal freedom and democracy introduces the threat of violence into all public discourse.

Taking advantage of “open carry” laws, armed groups in a variety of U.S. states bring assault rifles into state legislatures and to demonstrations.

As a result, the threat of violence in state capitols has not always been subtle. The slogans of the pro-Trump demonstrators include “we have the guns”.

Not surprisingly, most Republican senators and representatives not only refused to certify the results of the presidential election but recently refused to support any investigation of the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol,

Why worry?

This is a slippery slope. Consider that the German elections of 1932 gave the Nazi party 33% of the vote and hence a minority of seats in the Reichstag. Nevertheless, these were the last free elections in pre-war Germany.

Hitler gained enough political traction to be appointed as chancellor. No sooner than this had happened, the Nazi party conducted, with the resources of rich hard-right industrialists and its violent “brown-shirt” supporters an unrestrained campaign of terror, repression and propaganda. Opposition parties were destroyed.

Before long, the March 1933 “Enabling Act” gave Hitler dictatorial powers and ended the constitutional government of the Weimar Republic. Germany became a one-party state.

Lessons for the U.S.

History both explains and previews what we are seeing at both a national and a state level. It points to the dangers for a political culture when one party is determined to erase any constitutional constraints that impede its ability to control future elections.

Managing toward that outcome means to install political sympathizers to judgeships, continue tax policies for mega-donors that assure the current extremes of income distribution, suppress the ability of urban populations and minorities to vote, and end the non-partisan administration of elections.

All of which is what is underway in today’s United States.

European history and today

Based on many of the past battles that occurred in Europe, the ultimate irony is that adherence to democratic principles and rules has often proven a losing strategy against opponents who believed in neither.

That is why the surprisingly successful efforts of the U.S. Republican Party to restrict the right to vote in any manner imaginable to discourage and disqualify voters not favoring Republican candidates are so dangerous.

One big difference

Since the far-right represents a minority in the United States, its political program is now almost exclusively dedicated to the denial of the political norms which have ensured the functioning of American democracy for over 200 years and to control of the voting process.

With Fox News, a major broadcast network, acting as its propaganda arm, and with the weaponization of social media to target voter fears and spread propaganda, Republicans in 2016 ended up electing a President who was not only dedicated to power as an end to itself, but never made any secret of his lust for dominance and demand for personal obedience.

Since when does losing matter?

When Republicans failed to re-elect Donald Trump and lost control of the U.S. Congress, they turned immediately to other efforts to maintain the upper hand. It consists of a determined program:

1. to destroy the credibility of the U.S. election system as a means of objectively determining political winners and losers, and

2. to use the state-level control of the election process to suppress opposition voters and to compromise the non-partisan administration of future elections.

The anti-democratic scheme already largely accomplished in many states, via gerrymandered re-districting, will soon complete at the state level with the legalization of voter suppression and partisan control of ballot counts and election results.

False comforts

It has long been argued that the U.S. political system can be less concerned about being hollowed out by the hard right.

This argument is founded on the traditional difference between European authoritarian parties and American ones. In Europe the multi-party parliamentary system allows radical right parties to gain political representation in parliament — and hence the appearance of political legitimacy.

In contrast, in the United States, the two-party system does not support that direct route to political representation and power.

Third-party politicians have had little success since George Wallace’s 45 electoral votes almost threw the 1968 U.S. presidential election into the House of Representatives.

But what if?

However, the last five years have given us dramatic proof of the open flank of that argument: What if one of the major two political powers in the U.S. becomes a dedicated vehicle for authoritarian and right-wing interests?

If that effort has been well-prepared – and it is (see the decades-long effort to undermine the U.S. judicial system through the selection of judges) – and if it is massively funded by the unlimited large political donations now legal in this country, the conclusion is inescapable.

The U.S. political system thus offers an effective alternative means for proto-fascists to seize the reins of government.

Republicans aren’t shy at all

In exchange for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, which happens to be their only actual policy plank, Republicans have accepted authoritarian control of their party and blind obedience to its leader.

In the end, the once-proud Republican Party even failed to condemn insurrection and the attempted destruction of the U.S. Congress by its seditious leader, essentially accepting violence and intimidation as a political strategy.

It has thus sold out all the principles that were essential to the formation of the American Republic.

House-cleaning, Republican style

Dissenters are purged from the shell of the Republican party. Those who remain are intimidated into acquiescence to authoritarian goals and into blind loyalty to a charismatic if deranged leader.

Virtually all inside the Republican “tent” are now content to ignore long-established democratic norms.

Conclusion

The U.S.’s 2020s are not Europe’s 1930s. And yet, they increasingly are.

European history has shown the ability of right-wing nationalist groups to gain political power by legitimate electoral means, then to use it to that power to subvert those democratic institutions to attain unchallenged authority.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol and occupation of various state capitols shows how easily the violent right can be mobilized using social media and broadcast propaganda outlets.

The politicization and weaponization of anti-vaccine rhetoric, in defiance of a lethal COVID-19 pandemic, also shows the power of this propaganda. The latter also happens to be the bridge to the hard-right movements in Europe.

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About Edward Bernton

Edward Bernton is a physician who has worked for more than 25 years in the field of clinical pharmacology and early-phase drug development. He is a retired U.S. Army officer.

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