The GOP’s ‘Off the Rails’ March Toward Authoritarianism Has Historians Worried

One political scientist, the co-author of a book called “How Democracies Die,” put it bluntly: “I think we are headed for a crisis.”
June 2, 2021, 4:10pm
Trump supporters stand on the U.S. Capitol Police armored vehicle as others take over the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, as the Congress works to certify the electoral college votes. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Trump supporters stand on the U.S. Capitol Police armored vehicle as others take over the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, as the Congress works to certify the electoral college votes. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Last week, Senate Republicans successfully blocked legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the failed putsch on January 6, which resulted in five people dead and over 400 people arrested for their part in the attack on the United States Capitol.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of seven Senate Republicans to support the measure, expressed her disgust at her colleagues’ vote.  “Are we going to acknowledge that as a country that is based on these principles of democracy that we hold so dear and one of those is that we have free and fair elections and we respect the results of those elections and allow for a peaceful transition of power?” she asked. “I kind of want that to endure beyond just one election cycle."

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Her concern is echoed by an increasing number of scholars who study American history and the rise of authoritarianism around the globe. While republics are often fragile, they see the United States in a unique position as a mature democracy at the point of fracturing. As Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” a study of the collapse of democracies across the world, put it bluntly, “I think we are headed for a crisis.” And, many scholars say, that fracturing is without historical precedent. 

“A mainstream democratic party, one of the major parties in a country, going fully off the rails . . . it’s hard to find analogues,” said Levitsky’s co-author, Daniel Ziblatt, also at Harvard. But Ziblatt and others were united in where to place the blame: “The radicalization and increasing authoritarianism of the Republican Party.” 

While Ziblatt’s book argued that American democracy is not inherently exceptional and the norms that hold it together were rendered vulnerable by the rise of former President Donald Trump, much of its assumptions seem almost naive after January 6. 

“The underlying assumption when we wrote [the book] was that an important, even a dominant faction of the Republican Party was committed to the democratic rules of the game, and that is no longer the case,” said Levitsky.

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“The GOP over the past four years and far more quickly and far more thoroughly than I expected has become a party that is capable of stealing an election, willing and potentially able to steal an election and I would not have taken this seriously when we wrote the book.”

In particular, the real warning sign for Levitsky was that so much of the energy pushing the Republican Party in an authoritarian direction came from the bottom up and was not driven by elites. “This is a grassroots movement, really pronounced at the level of the activist base and the state level,” he said. 

Ziblatt noted that once a party radicalizes, it’s very hard for the process to reverse itself. The violent events of January 6 actually presented the GOP with an exit ramp, a chance to condemn the violence and take steps toward becoming a more traditional center-right party. Instead, Levitsky argues, “they missed it.”

“Lots of GOP leaders said the right thing for 24-48 hours, took a step back, sniffed the wind, looked at the polls and continued the march towards authoritarianism,” he said.

He contrasted this grassroots support for Trump and continued belief in “the Big Lie” among the Republican base with the eroding popularity for Slobodan Milosevic after his failed attempt to overturn the 2000 Serbian election. “The GOP is a vibrant ideological activist-driven party. This is an authoritarian movement from below.” In contrast, while Milosevic’s Socialist Party had “few ideologically committed activists left in 2000, [Republicans] are committed and waking up on Saturday morning and doing volunteer work.”

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This ideological commitment, combined with growing disdain for democratic norms, was unusual, in his view. “I don’t know of an established party in an established democracy behaving this way. What happens in other places [is] the parties turn to the military,” citing 1970s Chile as an analogy. 

“The Christian Democrats were a thoroughly democratic party that was scared of [then-President Salvador] Allende and backed the coup,” said Levitsky. “The party itself didn’t devolve into an authoritarian party, and rather than becoming authoritarian themselves, center-right parties relied on the military to do the work.”

The best example of a political party shifting toward authoritarianism in recent decades is in Hungary, where strongman Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party has become dominant as the Central European country has become the leading example of what’s become known as  “illiberal democracy.”  As Valerie Bunce, a political scientist at Cornell, noted, it’s “probably the best comparison” to Donald Trump’s Republican Party. However, she added that under Orban, the party is not “a cult of personality.” Instead, Orban “delivers the goods” that the party’s rural voters want. 

Further, the Hungarian leader has been undertaking a sustained effort to rebuild and reshape institutions in the country to ensure his party’s dominance, including changing the electoral rules to guarantee Fidesz a parliamentary super-majority even if they won only a plurality victory.  

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There are some similarities to Hungary with Republican efforts to change voting rules in some states to some of these steps—particularly as states like Georgia, Iowa, and Texas use Trump’s false claims of voter fraud to pass legislation that Democrats claim would lead to voter suppression. According to the left-wing Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states have passed at least one bill in 2021 that would restrict voter access.

Then again, noted Joshua Tucker, an NYU professor and co-director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, “Political parties always try to change electoral rules to their advantage.” 

 Instead, Tucker dwelled on a definition of democracy from political scientist Adam Przeworski that had two key factors: the first was where there was uncertainty over who was going to win elections and the second where parties lose elections, they cede power and other parties come to power.   

Tucker argues the rise of “the big lie” creates a situation in which the process of ceding power becomes that much more difficult for the right. “We know from decades of studies of comparative politics that key to democracy is belief that if the other guys lose, they will step down,” he said.  

In his view, the growing Republican mythos around the 2020 election could lead to a downward spiral. “If you get to the point where the left doesn't think the right will cede power, you would expect that would make the left do things more likely to avoid ceding power,” Tucker said.

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While the erosion of foreign democracies offer some comparisons,  scholars of American history are searching back to the Civil War to find parallels. For them, the best comparison to January 6 was the attack on Fort Sumter, which marked the start of the war in 1861.

Sean Wilentz, an award-winning historian at Princeton University and author of “Rise of American Democracy,” told VICE News that the assault on the Capitol, like the attack on Fort Sumter, was “a calculated assault on democratic process. A democratic election was held, with a very clear winner, and some people were not willing to accept that decision. And in that case they formed a nation of their own.” 

The difference in Wilentz’s eyes was that, in this case, “rather than secede, [Trump loyalists] promote a big lie much more than like what happens in European authoritarian politics and deny the legitimacy of the current administration.” He added, “It’s seceding without seceding.”

It’s not just the events of January 6 but also the aftermath of it that stand out. H.W. Brands, an acclaimed historian at the University of Texas, noted Trump’s continued dominance over the Republican Party itself has no precedent in American history. 

“There has never been an instance of a president who ran for re-election, lost and still had such command over his party as Trump,” he told VICE News.

The closest comparison he could find was Andrew Jackson, “who basically controlled the Democratic Party until his death in 1845.” However, Jackson not only created the Democratic Party but also won overwhelming victories in both of his successful presidential elections and got a plurality of the popular and electoral vote in a third. In contrast, Trump lost the popular vote twice and saw the GOP lose control of both chambers of Congress while he was in the Oval Office. As Tucker wryly pointed out, it’s as if Democrats spent all of 1981 seeking Jimmy Carter’s blessing.

The overwhelming concern among scholars isn’t so much the continued personal influence of Trump but the impact of his continued false claims about election fraud and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They worry what the 2024 election could look like as the Republican Party has further radicalized and the embrace of “big lie” has become a foundational belief of many on the right.  

“The 2020 election was kind of a dress rehearsal in a way,” said Ziblatt as Republicans discovered that they can violate democratic norms without seeming to suffer any political consequences. “It’s hard to unlearn things.”