The Legacy of American Exceptionalism and Contemporary Patterns of Authoritarianism

For generations, American citizens have abided by the narrative of American exceptionalism, this the idea that the patterns and norms of global politics don’t apply in the US. In the present, this narrative has been eroded, as the US encounters a rather ordinary threat: that of authoritarianism. Both foreign and domestic journalists and leaders point to signs and patterns occurring within the United States which indicate a growing authoritarianism. As Kim Hjeelmgaard writes in a recent article, “Democracy is fragile, not preordained and… a country’s descent into the type of illiberal politics that has emerged in recent years in parts of Europe, in Brazil, in India and elsewhere, has been nothing if not gradual. It creeps up on you.” In order to properly counter this threat, US citizens ought to disband the idea of exceptionalism and draw from the lessons of other countries which have dealt with authoritarianism.

Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran teaches such lessons in her book “How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.” Temelkuran echoes the sentiments of Hjeelmgaard, arguing that “little by little there’s a tiny change in regulations in, say, the justice system. Then, later, appointments to high courts and ministries here and there. It may seem insignificant. You may not even hear about it.” Such a description resonates strongly with the nature of the recent evolution of the judicial branch under the Trump Presidency. The Trump Administration has made sweeping changes to the judicial department, according to the Pew Research Center.  The New York Times reports that President Trump “has appointed judges to the federal appeals courts at a record-setting pace.” Beyond this, he has also appointed three supreme court justices: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. In total, President Trump has appointed “almost a quarter of all active federal judges in the United States” and “more federal appeals court judges to date than any recent president at the same point in their presidency.”

The speed of judicial appointments is less concerning than the agenda pushed by the majority of the appointees. The judicial agenda of the Trump Administration outlines goals to “cut back the civil rights of racial minorities and LGBT people, expand the power of police and prosecutors, restrict the ability of women to obtain abortions and favour big corporations over consumers.” This agenda reverberates beyond the judicial branch of government, as well. In 2020, for the first time in its history, the Republican National Committee declared that it had no platform other than to “reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his administration,” giving unilateral power to the President to create, establish and execute his own agenda. If a political party’s entire agenda is invested in the priorities of one man, it can hardly consider itself democratic. 

Temelkuran worries that many Americans may be blind to signs of authoritarianism in the US, such as the extreme agenda of the Trump Administration.  She says that many Americans “tend to believe authoritarianism and other forms of threats to democratic freedoms ‘can’t happen here’ because of the strength of U.S. democratic institutions.” However, the threats of US institutions are threatened by the very administration intended to protect them. A culture of corruption has run rampant in the US government, enabled by the Trump Administration. Take, for example, the recent indictments of six men who have worked closely with President Trump: Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and Roger Stone. In July, President Trump commuted the sentence of Mr. Stone after he had been convicted of seven felonies. In the White House there exists a “culture of rule-breaking, encouraged by the boss.” 

The path to authoritarianism is typically marked by instances of political violence. Several notable instances of political violence have occurred in the US in the past year, including violent confrontations between protestors and federal police in Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who studies the forces that drive political instability, states that these instances are indicators that “worse likely lies ahead.” Turchin fears that Americans have too much trust in the strength of US institutions and fail to see that “the social system that we live in is extremely fragile.” 

As Anee Applebaum points out in a recent piece in The Atlantic, the road to authoritarianism is also paved by obscene displays of power. Applebaum, a senior fellow of the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, draws comparisons between power displays used by Mussolini and those used by President Trump. Mussolini often appeared on balconies in front of the most central and historical buildings in his country— the Duomo in Milan and the Colosseum in Rome—often orchestrating displays of  pageantry, military force, and power to excite his supporters.

Applebaum says “the appeal of such things hasn’t disappeared or died out” and cites the pageantry displayed by President Trump following his release from hospital for treatment of COVID-19 on October 9th. Emerging from the balcony of the White House, he was surrounded by flags, a parade ongoing below. In doing so, he sought to dispel fears of the virus in a large, public display, saying “Don’t let it dominate you; don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it.” This entire spectacle bears uncanny similarities to past spectacles orchestrated by authoritarian rulers to appease their fan base and grow their power.

Gaudy public displays of power have become a pattern for this presidential administration. Most notable was when President Trump ordered the use of tear gas on peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors to allow for a photo-op inside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. in June. Outside the church, President Trump held up a bible that said “God is love” whilst his administration continued to authorize the use of violence against protestors in Washington D.C. and beyond. The hypocrisy of authorizing violence while posing for love was not lost on many. In fact, The Right Rev Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington was “outraged” that the president used the church and bible as a “backdrop” for his political message. 

The upcoming election will be the single most comprehensive test of the strength of US democratic institutions to date. The President’s willingness to accept the results will be a litmus test of his commitment to democratic norms. So far, the indicators are not encouraging. President Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to accepting the results of a free and fair election. Not only do his words illustrate his deep disrespect for the central tenets of US democracy, they also raise serious concerns over what might occur if the incumbent refuses to accept defeat. 

Kyle Murphy, former National Security Council (NSC) director of West Africa and acting Senior Director for Africa during the 2017 presidential transition, is familiar with this scenario, having worked in Gambia in 2016 when Former President Yahya Jammeh “unilaterally invalidated the election result, and asked the supreme court to rule on the election.”  In response to this, the citizenry sought strength in numbers and in civil society organizations. They publicly condemned the President’s attempts to overturn the results. In addition, the international community showed solidarity on the side of the Gambian citizens and “Neighbouring countries, regional and international organizations, and others outside the country joined Gambians in categorically rejecting the move and pressured the president to step aside.” As a result, the former president was sent into exile and the rightfully elected leader took office a month later.

In his recent piece “We the People: Lessons from Africa for Defeating Authoritarianism in the 2020 US Election,” Murphy calls upon the American people to learn from the experiences of Gambia and other African states. These states have hard-won experience in many of the scenarios which might arise in the United States during the upcoming election. Murphy encourages American voters to “not be deterred by the president’s disinformation, calls for exclusion and voter intimidation, and threats to ignore the results.” Instead, Americans should consolidate their strength via the strength of civil society organizations and the solidarity of the international community. 

Each year, the Economist Intelligence Unit reports a Democracy index based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. In 2019, the United States was marked for the first time ever as a flawed democracy rather than a full democracy. This seems to make clear that American exceptionalism makes little sense—authoritarianism in America is as plausible as it is in states the world over. In light of this, Americans should become familiar with the tried and true strategies used to counter the threats of authoritarianism. After all, authoritarian governance in the US is more real now than it has been ever before.

Edited by Sarah St-Pierre.

Photo credits:President George W. Bush Departs for Camp David” by the U.S. National Archives, published on September 21st, 2001. Licensed in the public domain. No changes were made.

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