Quoting Adam Serwer in The Atlantic:
The process by which a democracy becomes an authoritarian regime is what social scientists call [“authoritarian-ization”]. The process does not need to be sudden and dramatic. Often, democratic mechanisms are eroded over a period of months or years, slowly degrading the ability of the public to choose its leaders or hold them to account.
Legislators in functioning democracies need not agree on substantive policy matters…, but no matter the party or ideology they support, they must hold the right of the people to choose their own leaders sacred. The entire Senate Republican Conference retains only one legislator willing to act on that principle….
Modern authoritarian institutions diligently seek to preserve the appearance of democratic accountability. Perhaps for this reason, [Attorney General] Barr has insisted publicly that he is protecting the independence of the Justice Department. “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” he told reporters last week…. This is a lawyerly dodge masquerading as bluster—Barr does not need to be bullied into shielding T—- and his friends or pursuing his enemies. Indeed, Barr’s task is to do so while maintaining a veneer of legitimacy over the process, which is impossible to do when T—- makes such demands publicly….
Although in nearly every other context, Barr has been an advocate for the harshest possible punishments, [but] members of the ruling clique are entitled to criticize law enforcement without sanction, and entitled to leniency when they commit crimes on the boss’s behalf. Everyone else is entitled to kneel….
With the exception of [Senator Romney], who voted against acquittal on the first of the two charges, the [Republican Party] now makes no distinction between fealty to T—- and loyalty to the country. The Founders devised the impeachment clause as a remedy for a chief executive who abuses his power to stay in office. But as there were no parties at the time of the founding, they did not foresee that such a chief executive would be shielded by toadies who envision their civic obligations as beginning and ending with devotion to the leader.
Much has been made of T—-’s unfitness for office. But if T—- were the only one who were unfit, his authoritarian impulses would have been easier to contain. Instead, the Republican Party is slowly transforming into a regime party, one whose primary duty is to maintain its control of the government at all costs. The benefits here are mutual: By keeping T—- in power, the party retains power. Individuals who want to rise in the Republican Party and its associated organizations today must be unwavering in their devotion to the leader—that is the only way to have a career in the [party], let alone reap the associated political and financial benefits…
But keeping T—- in office is not the ultimate goal, despite party members’ obsequious public performances….. Rather, the purpose is to preserve the authoritarian structure T—- and Barr are building, so that it can be inherited by the next Republican president. To be more specific, the T—- administration is not fighting a “deep state”; it is seeking to build one that will outlast him….
Let us pause for a moment to take stock of this vision of government. It is a state in which the legislature can neither oversee the executive branch nor pass laws that constrain it. A state in which legal requests for government records on those associated with the political opposition are satisfied immediately, and such requests related to the sitting executive are denied wholesale. It is a system in which the executive can be neither investigated for criminal activity nor removed by the legislature for breaking the law. It is a government in which only the regime party may make enforceable demands, and where the opposition party may compete in elections, but only against the efforts of federal law enforcement to marginalize them for their opposition to the president. It is a vision of government in which members of the civil service may break the law on the leader’s behalf, but commit an unforgivable crime should they reveal such malfeasance to the public.
Were it in any other nation, how would you describe a government that functions this way?
… People may think of authoritarian nations in Cold War terms, as states with bombastic leaders who grant themselves extravagant titles and weigh their chests down with meaningless medals. These are nations without legislatures, without courts, with populations cowed by armies of secret police.
This is not how many authoritarian nations work today. Most have elections, legislatures, courts; they possess all the trappings of democracy. In fact, most deny they are authoritarian at all. “Few contemporary dictatorships admit that they are just that,” writes the scholar Milan Svolik in The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. “If we were to trust dictators’ declarations about their regimes, most of them would be democracies.”
But the democratic institutions that authoritarian nations retain are largely vestigial or have little power to check the executive, either because they are under regime control, or because they are cowed or co-opted into submission.
Similarly, the typical image of an authoritarian nation involves violently suppressing dissent and assassinating or imprisoning political opponents and journalists. But violent suppression has tremendous risks and costs, and so authoritarians have developed more subtle methods of repression.
“Rather than using brute force to maintain control, today’s authoritarian regimes use strategies that are subtler and more ambiguous in nature to silence, deter, and demobilize opponents,” the scholar Erica Frantz writes. “Doing so serves a number of purposes. It attracts less attention, enables them to plausibly deny a role in what occurred, makes it difficult for opponents to launch a decisive response, and helps the regime feign compliance with democratic norms of behavior”…
The frequent worries that it can happen here are arrogant in one respect: It already has happened here. American democracy has always been most vulnerable to an ideology that reserves democratic rights to one specific demographic group, raising that faction as the only one that possesses a fundamentally heritable claim to self-government. Those who are not members of this faction are rendered, by definition, an existential threat.
In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877, the Republican Party abandoned black voters in the South to authoritarian rule for nearly a century. But the Southern Democrats who destroyed the Reconstruction governments and imposed one-party despotism imagined themselves to be not effacing democracy, but rescuing it from the tyranny of the unworthy and ignorant. “Genuine democracy,” declared the terrorist turned South Carolina governor and senator Ben Tillman, was “the rule of the people—of all the white people, rich and poor alike.”
Similarly, many members of the Republican elite have transitioned seamlessly from attempting to restrain Trump’s authoritarian impulses to enabling them, all the while telling themselves they are acting in the best interests of democracy. This delusion is necessary, a version of the apocalyptic fantasy that conservative pundits have fed their audiences. In this self-justifying myth, only T—- stands between conservative Americans and a left-wing armageddon in which effete white liberals and the black and brown masses they control shut the right out of power forever….
To save “democracy” then, they must, at any cost, preserve a system in which only those who are worthy—that is, those who vote Republican—may select leaders and make policy. If that means disenfranchising nonwhite voters, so be it. If it means imposing a nationwide racial gerrymander to enhance the power of white voters at the expense of everyone else, then that is what must be done. And if it means allowing the president to use his authority to prevent the opposition from competing in free and fair elections, then that is but a small price to pay….
The insistence [by T—- defenders] that “the Democrats have never accepted that Donald Trump won the 2016 election, and they will never forgive him, either” has it exactly backwards. Democrats impeached T—- to preserve a democratic system in which they have a chance of winning, in which the president cannot blithely frame his rivals for invented crimes. Republicans acquitted him because they fear that a system not rigged in their favor is one in which they will never win again.
On Thursday, February 6, millions of Americans went about their lives as they would have any other day….Yet the nation they live in may have been fundamentally changed the day before.
Democratic backsliding can be arrested. But that is an arduous task, and a T—- defeat in November is a necessary but not sufficient step. Many Americans have doubtless failed to recognize what has occurred, or how quickly the nation is hurtling toward a state of unfreedom that may prove impossible to reverse. How long the T—- administration lasts should be up to the American people to decide. But this president would never risk allowing them to freely make such a choice. The Republican Party has shown that nothing would cause it to restrain the president, and so he has no reason to restrain himself.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the American imagination of catastrophe has been limited to sudden, shocking events, the kind that shatter a sunny day in a storm of blood. That has left Americans unprepared for a different kind of catastrophe, the kind that spreads slowly and does not abruptly announce itself. For that reason, for most Americans, that Thursday morning felt like any other. But it was not—the Senate acquittal marked the beginning of a fundamental transition of the United States from a democracy, however flawed, toward [authoritarianism]. It was, in short, the end of the T—- administration, and the first day of the would-be T—- Regime.
Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats have decided to shut up about T—-‘s abuses and talk about healthcare and jobs. It’s an excellent time to contact Speaker Nancy Pelosi and your congressional representative to remind them there is a more urgent issue to deal with.