America's dawning authoritarianism

What does it feel like when a liberal democratic country turns the corner into authoritarianism?

President Trump.
(Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

What does it feel like when a liberal democratic country turns the corner into authoritarianism?

America is changing. It isn't always obvious and flagrant — like Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announcing that some opposition parties will not be allowed to take part in the country's 2018 elections, or the Polish government changing the way the courts oversee the nation's laws in order to advance the agenda of those currently in power. And neither are these changes necessarily all things that have happened only since President Trump's election last year. Even if the authoritarian drift accelerated with Trump's rise, it didn't begin with him. He is its expression. We need to do everything we can to ensure he doesn't end up being its culmination.

Doing that requires keeping our eyes open for and taking note of longer-term trends and signs of authoritarian drift that are sometimes difficult to detect.

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The easiest and most obvious examples are those in which government officials say and do things that clearly transgress longstanding liberal-democratic norms that constrain government power. Think of the president's penchant for attacking the news media, including statements at rallies that seem designed to incite violence against reporters. Just this past weekend Trump made a point of singling out Dave Weigel of The Washington Post for verbal abuse and calling for him to be fired — all because Weigel tweeted a misleading photograph, which he promptly deleted, seeming to show a Trump rally in Florida with low attendance.

That's the kind of behavior that more common to dictators than American presidents.

Beyond Trump himself (and the stream of blatant lies that flow from his White House), there's the Justice Department's efforts to prosecute a group of protesters arrested on the day of Trump’s inauguration last January. As HuffPost reports, the six defendants face "felony charges that could potentially land them in federal prison for decades." That could stifle acts of protests in the nation's capital for years to come — and as Vox's Matthew Yglesias notes, it could even be treated by some municipalities as "a dry run … for an authoritarian crackdown on any form of protest."

Then there are the examples of creeping authoritarianism that are welcomed or at least passively accepted by citizens.

Consider the Pentagon's recent announcement that the U.S. military will be staying in Syria "as long as we need to." That statement provoked no significant notice, let alone controversy — and this despite the fact that Congress never authorized the deployment of U.S. forces to Syria in the first place. On the contrary, back in 2013 a hawkish Congress eager to outflank President Obama on the right failed to muster the votes to authorize air strikes, let alone ground forces. (The Obama administration eventually claimed the authority to bomb ISIS in Syrian territory using the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.) Yet as Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out, the Pentagon has now not only declared that the American military is deployed in Syria but also that it will remain there with no end in sight.

If that's not an example of extra-democratic policymaking, I don't know what would be. And yet there hasn't been a peep of protest in Washington or in the country at large.

Also distressing is the flagrantly authoritarian diatribe that Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro unleashed over the weekend, calling for a "cleansing" of the FBI and Department of Justice that leads not only to firings but to some employees being "taken out in handcuffs." This is a vile statement that's aimed straight at the investigation of the Trump campaign by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team. It's also a chilling threat that, if acted upon, would amount to a frontal assault on the rule of law, with key members of federal law enforcement purged, presumably to be replaced by partisan hacks who would turn a blind eye to administration malfeasance.

Yet the outrage was largely limited to liberal circles. Of course there's no way to know how viewers reacted to Pirro's provocation, but one presumes Fox wouldn't have broadcast it if they thought it would spark widespread hostility from the network's core audience of hard-line Republicans. They may even have assumed that this audience would be receptive to just such a blatantly authoritarian appeal.

Perhaps most upsetting at all is the acquittal of an Arizona police officer in the shooting death of a man named Daniel Shaver. In body camera footage released after the acquittal, Shaver can be seen weeping and begging for his life as several officers bark a series of highly confusing orders at him while brandishing weapons that seem more suited to soldiers in a war zone than to police officers deployed on the streets of American cities and towns.

And yet a jury acquitted the officer, showing just how much ordinary Americans defer without question to the authority of police officers, despite the fact that they shoot an astonishingly large number of Americans every year. While blacks are shot "more often and at higher rates than people of any other race," people of every race are victimized when cops are armed like soldiers but fail to display the level of discipline and professionalism that the armed forces expect and demand of men and women in combat.

Until the American people begin expecting and demanding more of its police officers, the fatalities will continue, and the U.S. will move further in the direction of a country overseen by an incompetent and trigger-happy occupying force.

What does it feel like when a liberal democratic country turns the corner into authoritarianism? Probably quite a bit like life in America today.

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