Maybe it’s only through hindsight that we can see when a society’s slide into authoritarianism becomes inevitable. Historians say democracies die from within. One can imagine ordinary citizens mistaking the increasing drama for politics as usual. And it’s easy to see how those benefitting from the concentration of power would tell themselves they can always stop the authoritarian leader from “going too far.” Until they can’t. At some point their own investment becomes too great, their culpability too obvious, and their own vulnerability to the authoritarian too certain to risk opposing him.
There comes a time when an unchecked quest for ever expanding power gains enough momentum to overwhelm institutional inertia. There comes a tipping point when a democracy’s ideals of shared power are crushed by ruthless ambition, when compromise is rejected as unnecessary, when might makes right, and accommodation is seen and abused as weakness. There comes a time in the slide into authoritarianism when the burden of citizenship shifts from the frustrations of self-governance in a pluralistic society to self-protection and survival in a lawless one. If we have not reached that tipping point already, I believe we are close to it.
When Bea Larsen and I started the bi-partisan non-profit Beyond Civility: Communication for Effective Governance in 2011, we thought the polarization and gridlock in Congress was a temporary condition, a pendulum swing that could be corrected with more and better dialogue. We assumed most Americans shared fundamental commitments to democracy and good governance that could bridge social and ideological divides. But the pendulum has not swung back, it has swung farther than most of us ever imagined, far beyond obstreperous partisanship.
It appears now that enough Americans are sufficiently unconcerned about our president’s increasingly undemocratic behavior that Republicans feel politically safe refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of well documented impeachment charges against him. Or, perhaps more accurately, they feel safer ignoring the charges than taking them seriously. One might think optimistically of this as a unique situation that will self-correct, but for three factors.
First, Mr. Trump claims unlimited Constitutional powers, and means it. He demonstrates contempt for all challenges and challengers. Whether you view his disordered narcissistic personality as benign or malignant, there is no denying he is compelled to see himself and be seen by others as the “winner” in all scenarios. He will not and cannot stop trying to defeat and dominate people, institutions, and processes that would resist or constrain him. He is the living antithesis of democracy! The absence of empathy and conscience clears the way for his use of all means at his disposal as President to dominate, including calculated retribution, divisive theatrics, and strategic lying. To compensate for the narcissistic injury of impeachment, he certainly will seek retribution and more dominance. If Democrats were unable and Republicans unwilling to hold him accountable through this carefully orchestrated impeachment process, it’s hard to imagine how they will be able to do so as Mr. Trump doubles down on his claim to unlimited power.
(It appears that Republicans are trying to avoid angering their temperamental President by not saying no to him. This is a useless approach for two reasons: 1) Democrats will keep saying no and arousing his anger; and 2) We know from personal experience and history that appeasing a bully or a potential dictator only encourages him.)
Second, social and political tribalism has spiraled beyond reason, undermining democratic processes, especially by preventing access to truth. Mr. Trump lies, and requires the top government officials to lie, typically to maintain his image as “winner.” Conservative media affirms his stories without critique. Mainstream journalism, meanwhile, is hobbled by the predicament of not wanting to appear partisan by calling the lies lies. The resulting unavailability of generally acknowledged facts and truth is preventing cross-partisan dialogue and discouraging healthy national discourse; it is leaving the political landscape open and vulnerable to authoritarian rule by fiat.
Third, there is a good chance the 2020 elections, Republican Senators’ proffered alternative to the impeachment trial, will fail spectacularly and plunge us even more deeply into Constitutional crisis. Between Republicans’ manipulations to suppress democratic votes and President Trump’s insistence that widespread voter fraud invalidates results unfavorable to himself, public trust in election outcomes is being undermined. Predictions that Mr. Trump will refuse to accept a close election loss are not unfounded. He might well believe his personal importance to the nation would justify a call to his base to reject the election outcome. Unimaginable? That was the lead argument in his impeachment defense endorsed by the Senate’s vote to acquit.
Never without hope, I now pray the country will be awakened by the shock of the Senate’s choice to bury rather than try the impeachment, and by what I’m sure will be an obscene escalation in demands by this President for retribution against anyone and everyone who opposes him. Maybe that will remind us that a self-governing liberty-for-all democracy is a fragile construct. It only survives by a national commitment to an orderly process of power sharing. With the Senate’s abdication of its responsibility to check the Executive Branch, it is falling to us as citizens to protect our Constitutional democracy. Hopefully, that can still be accomplished at the ballot box.