A Canadian observer, Thomas Homer-Dixon, says his country faces a major threat from its troubled neighbor:
By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.
We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine. In 2014, the suggestion that D____ T____ would become president would also have struck nearly everyone as absurd. But today we live in a world where the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace.
Leading American academics are now actively addressing the prospect of a fatal weakening of U.S. democracy.
This past November, more than 150 professors of politics, government, political economy and international relations appealed to Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would protect the integrity of US elections but is now stalled in the Senate. This is a moment of “great peril and risk,” they wrote. “Time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching.”
I’m a scholar of violent conflict. For more than 40 years, I’ve studied and published on the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence and genocide, and for nearly two decades I led a centre on peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto.
Today, as I watch the unfolding crisis in the United States, I see a political and social landscape flashing with warning signals.
I’m not surprised by what’s happening there – not at all. During my graduate work in the United States in the 1980s, I sometimes listened to Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio talk show host and later television personality. I remarked to friends at the time that, with each broadcast, it was if Mr. Limbaugh were wedging the sharp end of a chisel into a faint crack in the moral authority of U.S. political institutions, and then slamming the other end of that chisel with a hammer.
In the decades since, week after week, year after year, Mr. Limbaugh and his fellow travelers have hammered away – their blows’ power lately amplified through social media and outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax. The cracks have steadily widened, ramified, connected and propagated deeply into America’s once-esteemed institutions, profoundly compromising their structural integrity. The country is becoming increasingly ungovernable . . .
According to Harvard’s renowned sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol, in the early 2000s fringe elements of the Republican party used disciplined tactics and enormous streams of money (from billionaires like the Koch brothers) to turn extreme laissez-faire ideology into orthodox Republican dogma. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama’s election as president increased anxieties about immigration and cultural change among older . . . members of the white middle-class, who then coalesced into the populist Tea Party movement. . . . The GOP became, Dr. Skocpol writes, a radicalized “marriage of convenience between anti-government free-market plutocrats and racially anxious ethno-nationalist activists and voters.”
Now, adopting Mr. Limbaugh’s tried-and-true methods, demagogues on the right are pushing the radicalization process further than ever before. By weaponizing people’s fear and anger, Mr. T____ and a host of acolytes and wannabees . . . transformed [the Republican Party] into a near-fascist personality cult that’s a perfect instrument for wrecking democracy.
And it’s not inaccurate to use the F word. As conservative commentator David Frum argues, T____ism increasingly resembles European fascism in its contempt for the rule of law and glorification of violence. Evidence is as close as the latest right-wing Twitter meme: widely circulated holiday photos show Republican politicians and their family members, including young children, sitting in front of their Christmas trees, all smiling gleefully while cradling pistols, shotguns and assault rifles. . . .
In the weeks before the November, 2016, U.S. election, I talked to several experts to gauge the danger of a T____ presidency. I recently consulted them again. While in 2016 they were alarmed, this last month most were utterly dismayed. All told me the U.S. political situation has deteriorated sharply since last year’s attack on Capitol Hill.
After four years of Mr. T____’s bedlam, the U.S. under Mr. Biden has been comparatively calm. Politics in the U.S. seems to have stabilized.
But absolutely nothing has stabilized in America. The country’s problems are systemic and deeply entrenched – and events could soon spiral out of control.
The experts I consulted described a range of possible outcomes if Mr. T____ returns to power, none benign. They cited particular countries and political regimes to illustrate where he might take the U.S.: Viktor Orban’s Hungary, with its coercive legal apparatus of “illiberal democracy”; Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, with its chronic social distemper and administrative dysfunction; or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its harsh one-man hyper-nationalist autocracy. . . .
But there’s another political regime, a historical one, that may portend an even more dire future for the U.S.: the Weimar Republic. The situation in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was of course sui generis; in particular, the country had experienced staggering traumas – defeat in war, internal revolution and hyperinflation – while the country’s commitment to liberal democracy was weakly rooted in its culture. But as I read a history of the doomed republic this past summer, I tallied no fewer than five unnerving parallels with the current U.S. situation.
First, in both cases, a charismatic leader was able to unify right-wing extremists around a political program to seize the state. Second, a bald falsehood about how enemies inside the polity had betrayed the country – for the Nazis, the “stab in the back,” and for T____ists, the Big Lie – was a vital psychological tool for radicalizing and mobilizing followers. Third, conventional conservatives believed they could control and channel the charismatic leader and rising extremism but were ultimately routed by the forces they helped unleash. Fourth, ideological opponents of this rising extremism squabbled among themselves; they didn’t take the threat seriously enough, even though it was growing in plain sight; and they focused on marginal issues that were too often red meat for the extremists. (Today, think toppling statues.)
To my mind, though, the fifth parallel is the most disconcerting: the propagation of a “hardline security doctrine” . . . Jonathan Leader Maynard argues that extremist right-wing ideologies generally don’t arise from explicit efforts to forge an authoritarian society, but from the radicalization of a society’s existing understandings of how it can stay safe and secure in the face of alleged threats.
Hardline conceptions of security are “radicalized versions of familiar claims about threat, self-defence, punishment, war, and duty,” he writes. They are the foundation on which regimes organize campaigns of violent persecution and terror. People he calls “hardliners” believe the world contains many “dangerous enemies that frequently operate in and through purported ‘civilian’ groups.” Hardliners increasingly dominate T____ist circles now. . . . Fear of “true believers” shifts the behaviour of the movement’s moderates toward extremism. Sure enough, experts I recently consulted all spoke about how fear of crossing Mr. T____’s base – including fear for their families’ physical safety – was forcing otherwise sensible Republicans to fall into line. . . .
Beyond a certain threshold, other new research shows, political extremism feeds on itself, pushing polarization toward an irreversible tipping point. This suggests a sixth potential parallel with Weimar: democratic collapse followed by the consolidation of dictatorship. Mr. T____ may be just a warm-up act – someone ideal to bring about the first stage, but not the second. Returning to office, he’ll be the wrecking ball that demolishes democracy, but the process will produce a political and social shambles. . . . Then the stage will be set for a more managerially competent ruler, after Mr. T____, to bring order to the chaos he’s created.
A terrible storm is coming from the south, and Canada is woefully unprepared. Over the past year we’ve turned our attention inward, distracted by the challenges of COVID-19, reconciliation, and the accelerating effects of climate change. But now we must focus on the urgent problem of what to do about the likely unravelling of democracy in the United States.
We need to start by fully recognizing the magnitude of the danger. If Mr. T____ is re-elected, even under the more-optimistic scenarios the economic and political risks to our country will be innumerable. Driven by aggressive, reactive nationalism, Mr. ____ “could isolate Canada continentally,” as one of my interlocutors put it euphemistically.
Under the less-optimistic scenarios, the risks to our country in their cumulative effect could easily be existential, far greater than any in our federation’s history. What happens, for instance, if high-profile political refugees fleeing persecution arrive in our country, and the U.S. regime demands them back. Do we comply?
. . . Canada is not powerless in the face of these forces, at least not yet. . . . The Prime Minister should immediately convene a standing, non-partisan Parliamentary committee with representatives from the five sitting parties, all with full security clearances. . . . It should receive regular intelligence analyses and briefings by Canadian experts on political and social developments in the United States and their implications for democratic failure there. And it should be charged with providing the federal government with continuing, specific guidance as to how to prepare for and respond to that failure, should it occur. . . .