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outside-the-box:-republicans-must-take-a-stand:-trump-or-democracy
outside-the-box:-republicans-must-take-a-stand:-trump-or-democracy

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Outside the Box: Republicans must take a stand: Trump or democracy

In an ordinary election year, most people cast their presidential vote based on party loyalty—Republicans generally vote for the Republican nominee, and Democrats generally vote for the Democratic nominee. But 2020 is no ordinary election year, as some Republicans and conservatives recognize

John Kasich, a former Republican presidential contender and former governor of Ohio, is expected to endorse Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, at next month’s Democratic convention. Other Republicans have made a similar decision.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s driving this unusual dynamic: Donald Trump is a failed president, and his failure is having an impact on Americans’ daily lives that has little to do with ordinary partisan differences. With life turned upside-down by the coronavirus, and Trump showing he has no answers as the pandemic continues to spiral out of control in the U.S., it’s no surprise that some longtime Republican voters are supporting the Democratic candidate for president.


We see evidence of Trump’s authoritarian ambitions in the use of federal law enforcement forces to make what appear to be illegal arrests of Americans on the streets of Portland, Ore., without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. 

As voters think about this year’s anything-but-ordinary election, the pandemic will undoubtedly be at the top of their minds unless something dramatically changes between now and Nov. 3. 

No limits to his power

Two scholars have described Trump’s failed response as an example of “executive underreach”–the failure to do enough to competently respond to the national problem posed by the pandemic. Paradoxically, though, while Trump’s failure when it comes to the pandemic is a problem of underreach, in other areas, his radical overreach makes clear that he is a thoroughgoing authoritarian—someone who does not believe in constitutional democracy and believes no one else can legitimately set limits on his power.

We see evidence of Trump’s authoritarian ambitions in the use of federal law enforcement forces to make what appear to be illegal arrests of Americans on the streets of Portland, Ore., without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. 

“Authoritarian” is a loaded and often misunderstood word. It may make people think of Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini. But these dictators were totalitarians, a particularly reprehensible subset of authoritarian leaders. Most authoritarians are not Stalins or Hitlers.  

The term “authoritarian” more narrowly describes a leader who rejects constitutional democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, independent courts, and free and fair elections.

It’s not always easy to identify a would-be authoritarian. When such leaders emerge, they typically do not announce themselves as authoritarians.

Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Hugo Chávez, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others did not publicly declare themselves to be despots when they sought and consolidated power. They maintained some of the trappings of democracy—elections, democratic titles such as “president,” legislative bodies—even as they hollowed out these institutions and dismantled democracy’s core.

It can happen here

The fact that authoritarians do not come with a label on them can make it harder to immediately recognize the threat they pose. In the United States, it can be especially hard to recognize an authoritarian threat. When Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” his 1930s novel that imagined a dictator gaining power in the U.S., the title itself pointed to the complacent assumption that democracy in the United States can be taken for granted.

Of course, that is not the case. There is no guarantee when it comes to American democracy. Donald Trump’s presidency is not the first authoritarian threat to the system—would-be authoritarians have come from the left (Huey Long) and right (Joseph McCarthy), but Trump has advanced the furthest in his ambitions.

Like many other authoritarians, Trump did not announce himself as such, which means we have to look more closely to see whether is in fact a threat to constitutional democracy. The warning signs have been there since the 2016 campaign and continued after his election.

This summer we have seen the clearest evidence of Trump’s authoritarian ambitions—and it’s getting hard at this point to say that the threat is subtle. What we’ve seen at Lafayette Square, in Portland and in other cities where federal law enforcement officials (sometimes unidentified) have used violence against peaceful protesters is a classic authoritarian tactic

Some conservatives and Republicans have noted the parallels: former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said that Trump’s use of force “should scare the hell out of every American.”

Campaign of intimidation

Trump is quite obviously doing this as part of his campaign strategy, and possibly as a preview of voter intimidation tactics we can expect as Election Day approaches. He may be getting some of what he hoped for as there are reports of violent clashes between law enforcement and protesters. 

But it may not be flip the script for him. Trump tried similar tactics (though not as dangerous or as confrontational) in 2018, and Democrats still handily won the midterms. Images of heavily armed shock troops pushing back unarmed moms in Portland may not be the thing to move suburban women into Trump’s column. 

As the nation lays civil rights hero John Lewis to rest—a man who marched with others who bravely followed the principles of nonviolence even as he and others were viciously beaten—Trump is making clear which side of history he stands on. Protesters will of course be well served to follow Lewis’s example—though the risk is clearly higher than most of us could bear.

 At the moment, the outcome is unclear. We don’t know precisely how far Trump will go, or whether his dangerous tactics will succeed. 

What we can say, without a doubt, is that our democracy hangs in the balance. Whether he succeeds comes down to all of us. Republicans and conservatives who are appalled by the notion of the president of the United States turning federal law enforcement officials into something that looks a lot like his personal Praetorian guard of paramilitaries have the opportunity to say that enough is enough, and to stand up for our constitutional democracy over the odious alternative Trump is offering. 

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He has written two books on presidential power, and recently wrote a book chapter describing the problem of constitutional failure in the United States. 

Further reading

Trump is losing big to Biden in voter polls. Here’s how this will likely play out on Election Day

Why Trump’s moves to limit immigration hurts U.S. companies and American jobs

Authoritarians’ failures could derail the global economy

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