For the past decade, I’ve studied the rise of authoritarianism and the breakdown of democracy around the world. Traveling from Madagascar to Thailand and Belarus to Zambia, I’ve tried to understand how despotic politicians and authoritarian political parties systematically destroy democracy. And based on that research, I have some bad news: The party of Reagan and Romney is long dead. The party of T____ is here to stay.
What has happened in the United States over the past five years is, in many ways, a classic of the autocratic genre. A populist leader rose to power, attacked the press, politicized rule of law, threatened to jail his opponents, demonized minorities, praised dictators abroad, spread conspiracy theories and lies, and then sought to seize power despite losing an election.
When such despotic figures emerge in democracies, their political party has two options: push back against the would-be despot while reasserting democratic principles, or remake the party in his image. Republicans have quite clearly chosen the latter path.
The big question now is: Can this be reversed? Can Republicans go back to being a broadly pro-democracy party that operates within democratic constraints and accepts election defeats without inventing false claims?
There are a few ways political parties that drift toward authoritarianism can be brought back from the brink. Sadly, none of them can save the modern GOP.
Authoritarian parties can be reformed when they suffer a crushing electoral defeat. If Republicans were wiped out at the polls in 2022, there would be a decent chance the GOP would move back to a more normal center-right party. That outcome is unlikely, however, precisely because the party’s anti-democratic tactics are insulating Republican politicians from voter backlash. Already, Republican lawmakers have drawn gerrymandered maps that rig future elections in their favor. In Wisconsin, for example — a state Joe Biden narrowly won — the new maps will likely give Republicans 75 percent of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives. Even if Democrats get more votes, Republicans would win more seats.
Republicans could conceivably abandon such practices if their leaders were being pressed by their own supporters to be more democratic. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite: GOP voters want more authoritarianism. The Republican political base doesn’t just believe T____’s lies about the 2020 election. These voters are now using those lies as a litmus test — to separate the true believers from alleged “RINOs” who believe in democracy more than they believe in D____ T____. Candidates are responding by stating that they believe T____’s lies as a point of pride in their campaign messaging. This trend is creating a ratcheting effect, motivating Republican candidates to establish increasingly extreme authoritarian credentials to stand out.
The Republican Party could also be driven away from authoritarianism by a charismatic rival to T____ who believes in democracy. If a Mitt Romney-style figure were currently electrifying the Republican base, it would be a lot easier to imagine a more democratic future for the GOP.
Instead, Romney is a Republican pariah who is viewed more positively by Democrats than Republicans. He narrowly avoided being attacked by a violent mob of pro-T____ Republicans on Jan. 6, which is as good a metaphor as you can get for the fate that awaits Republican leaders who try to stem their party’s authoritarian tide. And when a Republican tries to investigate the Jan. 6 rioters to hold them accountable, he or she becomes a pariah, too. (Just ask Rep. Liz Cheney.) Meanwhile, the rising stars in the party are extremist zealots who are sympathetic to the insurrectionists such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Meaningful media backlash isn’t realistic, either. Although plenty of journalists and pundits have finally started to describe Republican authoritarianism without mincing words, T____’s efforts to discredit mainstream media outlets have paid partisan dividends. Many T____ supporters only tune into partisan media outlets that amplify what they already believe. Here, too, the trend is also heading in the wrong direction. Fox News, the center of that right-wing media universe, is facing pressure from the more extreme talking heads at outlets such as One America News and Newsmax.
What’s left, then, is some distant hope that a profound national crisis could jolt Republicans away from their embrace of authoritarian politics. Just as the tragedy of September 11 brought Democrats and Republicans together, perhaps a major national shock could cause Republicans to rally back toward democracy. But we’ve already had two major crises — January 6 and a once-in-a-century pandemic — and they’ve made the GOP more extreme, not less. If a violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol aimed at overturning an election and more than 770,000 dead Americans in the pandemic aren’t enough of a jolt, what would it take?
The conclusion is depressing, but we must face reality: The battle for the Republican Party is over. The T____ian authoritarians have won — and they’re not going to be defeated by pro-democracy Republicans anytime soon.
With no looming crisis or common enemy on the horizon, there are probably only two ways to cripple today’s Republican Party.
(1) Every Democrat in Congress recognizes the problem and decides to pass the Freedom To Vote Act, a bill that would protect voting rights and increase the number of voters.
(2) The “low information” voters who can’t decide between the two parties show up at the polls and help vote authoritarian Republicans out of office.
Convincing a couple politicians who call themselves Democrats to do their job sounds easier than getting millions of the ignorant or dim-witted to change their ways. You can send Senator Sinema a message even if you don’t live in Arizona. Likewise, you can send Senator Manchin a message even if you don’t live in West Virginia.