Opinion | To save democracy, vote for Joe Biden
This time, democracy itself is on the ballot.
Five years ago, I and other scholars who study the rise of authoritarianism around the world started issuing warnings about Donald Trump’s autocratic impulses. We were called alarmists.
Yet alarming things were happening. Trump launched his campaign like a demagogue, trying to tap into our darker prejudices by demonizing Mexicans as rapists. A few months later, he called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, a despicable statement at odds with America’s founding principle of religious liberty.
As the campaign continued, he seemed to be following tactics used by despots before — tactics previously seen in places such as Belarus, Thailand and Venezuela. Lie constantly so that nobody is quite sure what is true or false. Call the press “fake news.” If all else fails, publicly threaten to toss your opponent in jail, as any self-respecting autocrat would do.
But as Trump took office, many politicians and pundits alike pretended those obvious red flags didn’t exist. Trump’s dictatorial rhetoric was probably just a campaign tactic. He would soon pivot. It couldn’t really happen here.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that it has started to happen here.
If you had gone into a coma in early 2015 and woken up today, the United States’ lurch toward authoritarianism would be shocking. But to all of us who have lived it, Trump’s wannabe strongman rule has become routine.
These days, we barely notice when the president attacks the free press. He even praised a congressman because he had physically assaulted a journalist, a disturbing episode that is now largely forgotten.
Trump has also undermined the notion that government is of the people, by the people and for the people. The White House increasingly looks like a nepotistic cabal. The president has appointed two unqualified family members to top positions within the government. And while he promised to “drain the swamp,” he instead let it flood straight into the White House. Trump sold access to the highest bidders at Mar-a-Lago and tried to strike deals with foreign despots during his presidential campaign. It’s a perpetual-motion sleaze machine: Today’s scandals make yesterday’s scandals disappear.
Following the path of Hungary, Turkey and Poland, Trump has chipped away at the rule of law by politicizing it. His attorney general, William P. Barr, functions like a partisan attack dog. Trump recently abused his powers to keep one of his pals out of prison after he had been convicted of seven felonies. Rule of law in the United States is becoming rule by law, in which the legal system is used not for justice, but as a political shield or a political weapon.
Trump’s anti-democratic behavior has now become so frequent that it barely registers. Three weeks ago, Trump called to ban Joe Biden from contesting the election. It was a blip in the news. The fact that it no longer shocks us should be a wake-up call.
A second Trump term would be much more authoritarian. Democracies don’t die overnight, but they can collapse over time. The institutional bulwarks of our republic aren’t sturdy enough to withstand two terms of a man who relishes tearing them down. And history has taught us that when democracies fall, it’s extremely hard to resurrect them. Standing up for American democracy is far easier now than it will be by 2024.
Many voters on the ideological right don’t agree with Biden. Fair enough. But anyone who believes that he’s an existential threat to American democracy is living in fantasyland. He’s not just a moderate within his party; he’s also someone who has demonstrated a firm belief throughout his career in the intrinsic value of democracy and the rule of law.
While the covid-19 pandemic and the devastated economy are rightly on voters’ minds, it would be a grave mistake to discount the authoritarian threat that Trump presents when casting your ballot. In a democracy, bad policies can always be changed. Tax laws can be undone. Regulations can be restored. But damage to the system itself can be extremely hard to reverse.
American democracy is broken. It can still be repaired. But to start that difficult process, we must not give another four years to the man who has proved that he will willingly blow up any democratic norm or institution he can find if it means helping himself. To save democracy, vote for Biden.