Keeping Our Heads

Donald Trump's statement last night that he might not accept the presidential results (which he clarified today by saying "unless I win"); with his claims that the election is/will be rigged; and with violent statements made by him and his followers have occasioned (since Trump is a man of the Right) comparisons with Hitler and Fascism.

This aspect of the question of Trump and democracy has been well addressed by Larry Diamond in an article (It Could Happen Here) that appeared in Atlantic Magazine yesterday. He remarks that the American political scene has not seen someone like Trump since the days of Joe McCarthy. He says, quoting from a book (The Politics of Unreason) by the late American political sociologists Seymour Lipset and Earl Raab, that Trump represents something called "procedural extremism" which he defines as

...the antithesis of pluralism: intolerance of difference and dissent, and unwillingness to be bound by “the limits of the normative procedures which define the democratic political process.” This kind of extremism treats “cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate” and seeks to close down “the market place of ideas.”

The author remarks that procedural extremism has existed throughout American history in the form of various people or organizations that he lists, like the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, Father Thomas Coughlin, etc., but that this is the first time that a person like this has actually secured the presidential nomination of a major political party.  (I'll note here that Diamond focuses on right wing examples; he could easily have also listed left wing ones).

Procedural extremists on the Left and Right use a certain bag of tricks to bracket out their opponents as not deserving a political voice, and Trump seems to have used them all.  Fear of immigrants, fear of globalization, fear of outsiders, fear of special interests are all reasons to him to encourage his supporters to elect him as a strongman.  He wraps these fears in claims that the political process itself is anti-democratic, or rather, that it denies his own followers a proper voice, which they must redress outside of the corrupted system.  Diamond then asks whether American democracy itself is in danger.

After going through a list of reasons why we should be quite afraid, Diamond cites another book by the late political scientist Juan Linz (The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes) that stresses two factors in the breakdown of democracy.  He devotes a single paragraph to these two factors, whereas they should have formed the core of his article, because they seem to tell us exactly where we are now with Trump and what can be done about it.

Hitler and Lenin represent cases where political parties used democracy to grab political power and eliminate politics.  This seems to be the danger that non-supporters of Trump fear from Trump.  This use of democracy is one of Linz's factors

One (factor) is the growth of “disloyal opposition”—politicians, parties, and movements that deny the legitimacy of the democratic system (and its outcomes), that are willing to use force and fraud to achieve their aims, and that are willing to curtail the constitutional rights of their political adversaries, often by depicting them as “instruments of outside secret and conspiratorial groups.”

However

But at least as great a danger, Linz warned, was “semiloyal behavior” by parties and politicians willing “to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy.” 

Diamond himself states

It is now not only fair but necessary to ask whether those in Donald Trump’s party who fail to denounce his democratic disloyalty are not themselves doing great damage to American democracy.

He's correct.  But the significant thing here isn't just that he's correct, but that Trump has not yet achieved the first factor.

Hitler and Lenin led very disciplined political parties.  Trump does not.  His followers could be molded into one, perhaps (but probably not under Trump), but Trump is still a member of the Republican Party.  The fact that most Republicans still seem to support him does not mean that he has captured the party.  He certainly has not captured it from its leaders, and their alienation from him means that he won't.  He may (but I doubt it) try to create a third party to the right of the Republicans, but this would only split that party and make them more ineffectual.

The bigger worry is the second factor.  There may in fact be violence after he loses the election.  But this violence will not be organized.  It will be sporadic outbursts from isolated criminals.  He may even contest the election.  But again, he would have to contest various states individually and without Republican Party support (even with his own money) he won't get very far.  These contests are very expensive and he would have a five week window in which to mount them.

What we will need to watch for is semi-loyal behavior - from all parties.  From the Republicans we will need to watch for any attempt to mainstream their own hard anti-democratic right.  And from the Democrats, we will have to watch the Hillary Clinton administration like a hawk.  The corruption in our government was more starkly revealed (and overshadowed) in this election.  Trump will go back to the business of hawking what's left of his name.  But what we now know much better than we did, and what would have been a bigger issue in the election if the Republicans hadn't run a candidate like Trump, is what we now need to focus on.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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