A House Divided: The Fall of American Democracy
On January 6, 2021, there were Nazis in the Capitol.
Was this shocking to me? No, not really. Maybe for a grand total of five minutes. I turned on the news to play in the background as I continued with my math homework.
As a generation, we are desensitized to this frightening level of almost comical absurdity and continually elect to retreat back to the stiff pages of our 30-year old calculus textbooks.
Looking back, though, one can piece together how we got here in the first place. This specific brand of authoritarian populism, Trumpism, is not an overnight phenomenon.
The rise in Trumpism, which has drastically changed the political landscape in the U.S., is caused by efforts for Republican unification, disillusionment and disenfranchisement among voters, and xenophobia. Trump’s messaging, which included aspects of all of these, attracted strong support for him due to a rise in authoritarian populism.
Of special importance to note is the specific nationalistic messaging that Trump used when addressing his supporters in the mob. In Susan Page’s article “With the Capitol’s breach, President Trump’s virtual coup on Twitter became all too real,” Trump is quoted as calling the Capitol insurrectionists “great patriots” who fight for a “sacred election” that was “unceremoniously” stolen from them. He gives the message to the protestors that they are serving their country and should be prideful because of this. However, the crowd itself was filled with Confederate and Nazi symbolism. By calling the protestors “patriots,” he is praising them for their racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic views. This is not patriotism, it is nationalism (and more specifically, since it favors Trump only, it is “Trumpism”). Jess Coleman writes that Trump’s rhetoric has been so effective in spreading his message in part due to the advent of social media in her article “This is What Authoritarianism Looks Like in the US.” The all-elusive “algorithm” that governs social media makes echo-chambers that reinforce, spread, and radicalize these hateful ideas. Therefore, not only is our society more connected, we are also more politically divided. The rise in radical, far-right ideals during the years leading up to the Trump era served as the perfect fodder for him to take power. Voters desired someone far removed from the political establishment. Trump pandered to these far-right ideals by using xenophobic rhetoric and legislation, like the border wall and the Muslim ban. His ascension to power was brought along by the desire to scapegoat minorities for internal problems and a severe disillusionment with the American political establishment. With this rise in Trumpism, its namesake has succeeded in confusing American society into making nationalism, far-right ideals, and fascism the norm.
This phenomenon of authoritarian populism has not gone unnoticed. Matthew C. MacWilliams’s article, “Who Decides When the Party Doesn’t? Authoritarian Voters and the Rise of Donald Trump” from the American Political Science Association journal found with empirical evidence that Trump voters were notably more authoritarian compared to others (even among Republicans). MacWilliams attributes this rise in Trumpism in part to Trump’s “us vs. them” rhetoric in the aftermath of global terror attacks in the leadup to the 2016 election, specifically in Paris and Orlando. The fear that was caused by this rhetoric attracted authoritarian populists; Trump voters desired a strong leader that would crackdown on terrorists, and Trump made himself out to be a savior.
Some may argue that the same rise in authoritarian populism (more specifically, fascism) is seen on the left as well. In his article, “The Real ‘Authoritarian’ Isn’t Trump. It’s The Left,” Mitch Hall of the Federalist states that Biden wanted to increase authoritarianism and establish fascism by mandating a country-wide lockdown and mask wearing. Hall is right in that these actions increase the power of the federal government, which can at first glance seem authoritarian, but this differs strongly from right-wing authoritarian populism.
Donald Trump’s form of authoritarianism aims to benefit the Trump dynasty alone. Even his messaging is selfish to its core: he fear-mongers to try to stay in power. Yes, Biden’s plan does involve an expansion of federal power; however, it is an expansion done for the benefit of the general population, and not one specific group of people at the expense of others. Authoritarianism is the consolidation of governing power to decrease political autonomy of individual citizens. Biden’s plan does no such thing. Trump preached for liberty through his anti-mask rhetoric in order to brew support for himself without regard for the health of his voter constituency. This demonstrates that the left is the opposite of fascism, which by definition, favors the survival of the nation and its government over individuals. If anything, it shows that Trump is much closer to fascism than the left is.
Hall’s argument brings up an important point, however: there has been a rise in populism on both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, it can be seen in Trumpism. Trump uses negative reinforcement and xenophobia to attract voters and supporters out of fear. It was blatantly clear through his rhetoric surrounding the migrant caravan and border wall. He infamously said that Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals. By spreading this type of rhetoric, Trump sows seeds of fear into American voters: if he isn’t elected, then this is the “type of immigrant” that will come to the US. He also claimed to save America by being the one to “drain the swamp” and purge the country of corrupt politicians in Washington. This specifically indicates the rejection of the political mainstream on the right.
The rise in populism on the left is also built on a rejection of the mainstream. The rise of the Progressives in Congress shows a lean towards populism within the Democratic voter base. However, unlike right-wing populists, Progressives and left-wing populists do not rely on fear of the “other” to promote their agenda. Instead, Progressives lobby for expansion of social rights, social safety nets, and economic equality. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 helped to popularize Progressivism among voters, which later led to the election of notable congressional progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. These individuals have been strong proponents of climate change legislation (most notably the Green New Deal), Medicare for All, and grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.
This negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement to bring on populism is due to a rise in neoliberalism. Santiago Zabala’s Al Jazeera article, “The difference between right and left-wing populism,” explains that the emphasis on compromise, censored discourse, and moderacy has led to a rise in neoliberalism (the retention of free-market capitalism and expansion of social human rights) that is mostly supported by the bipartisan establishment. Above all, this neoliberalism is rejected by far-right voters because of the idea that immigrants can come over to the US and “steal jobs” from working Americans. The emphasis on the free market and government austerity when it comes to expanding social safety nets led to Progressives rejecting neoliberalism. Because both establishments share similar economic ideals, disillusioned voters were prompted to seek out more radical ideas that previously existed outside of the American Overton window. This led to the rise in authoritarian populism and Trumpism.
Many Republicans did not let this increase in Trumpism go unnoticed. While Trump did have a large amount of Republican critics, when push came to shove, they all fell in line with him. After 8 years of Obama, the Republican party craved a candidate that could mobilize Republican voters; they slowly began to see that in Trump. During the 2016 election, one of the forerunners against Trump was Sen. Ted Cruz. However, come 2021, he voted to overturn the 2020 election results on the baseless claims that Trump pulled from QAnon conspiracy theorists. He was not alone; 147 of the 535 members of Congress (over 25%) voted to overturn the election results in order to keep Trump in office (Yourish). Election tampering is a clear sign of an authoritarian, as stated by Yascha Mounk and Kristy Parker in their Atlantic article, “Authoritarian Populists Have Six Classic Moves. Trump’s Response to COVID-19 Uses Five of Them.” Even Mitt Romney, who has been praised for his outspoken anti-Trump stance, has caved to his authoritarian ways. Romney, despite fiercely criticizing Trump and even voting to impeach him, voted to approve Amy Coney Barret as the next Justice of the Supreme Court despite Trump’s term coming to the end (Everett). This established a Republican supermajority in the courts, and meant that for a time, the Republican party controlled the majorities of all three branches of the federal government. This consolidation of power is in the authoritarian playbook; despite disliking Trump, Republicans still aligned with his ideals to expand the power of the Republican party in the hopes of strengthening it and ensuring that Republicans stay in power.
Depending on one’s proximity to the political sphere, none of this might seem shocking. The computer will be turned off, the calculus textbook will be cracked open, and the vast jungle of American politics will fade away. It is imperative, however, to acknowledge the severity and urgency of the situation. We have reached a point where fascists are parading through a building that is symbolic of the democratic process. This is not normal. Rather than devolving to fascism, we must work to address the issues that allowed it to grow: we must combat xenophobia, expand social safety nets, and elect politicians who serve with the interests of their constituents at the forefront.