The 2020 election is the first presidential contest since perhaps 1864 in which the principal question is democracy itself. The reelection of Donald Trump, unlikely but terrifyingly possible, would hasten America’s evolution into an oligarchy along the lines of Hungary, Turkey, and Russia, whose illiberal leaders Trump admires and who are, in some cases, working to help him secure a second term.
School civics lessons have boiled democratic values down to inoffensive mush that we associate with clichés expressing supposedly universal values (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”). But democracy is a radical concept, especially in a society as unequal as ours. The tension between an economic system in which power is concentrated in a few hands and a political system in which power is distributed equally places special stress on the political forces aligned with the rich. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, Daniel Ziblatt traces the origins of democratic government in Western Europe, arguing that choices made by the right have an outsize role in the success or failure of a fledgling democracy. States where the aristocratic elite accepted majority rule had peaceful and stable transitions (the para-digmatic case is Great Britain). States whose aristocratic elite resisted democratic intrusions emerged fitfully or violently (the paradigmatic case being Germany).
The Republican Party appears to be a special and troubling case, in which the historical pattern has been thrown into reverse. In its original form, the GOP was a radical anti-slavery party, but it abandoned its progressive impulses and has evolved into a wildly reactionary and increasingly authoritarian formation.
On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote an essay arguing that even if Trump disappeared, which looked more likely than not at the time, the party’s turn away from democracy would continue. I contended that Trump’s authoritarianism was acceptable, even desirable, to the party’s elite, who view as a form of tyranny a system that allows the majority to redistribute wealth from the minority via the ballot box. The 20th-century conservative intellectual Russell Kirk once wrote that “taxation of the prosperous for the benefit of the less wealthy, through the votes of the benefiting crowd … becomes first cousin to theft.”
One passage that stands out from the story four years later is a line uttered by Ed Conard, an investor, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, a Fox Business channel commentator, and the author of The Upside of Inequality — which is to say, an anthropologically perfect specimen of the modern plutocrat. At a gathering of wealthy Republicans, he pondered the challenge posed to the party by Trump’s rise, asking his audience, “So the question is: How do we build a coalition with displaced workers like we did with the religious right after Roe v. Wade and which we used to lower the marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent … and that leaves us in control, us being advocates of free enterprise, in control of the coalition?” He decided to shock his audience with some bracing candor for what this would entail: “The answer, I believe, is tough, and perhaps even odious, compromises.”
Odious compromises have certainly been abundant in the past four years. While Trump’s deal-making skills have been poor, he did strike one important bargain that he never talks about: He ceded control of domestic policy to congressional Republicans in return for carte blanche to engage in a spate of Nixonian crimes. He has fired or neutered inspectors general, made congressional oversight a dead letter, installed loyalists to run crucial agencies, and mostly erased the once rigidly enforced distinction between official government functions and political propaganda. (Everything from Trump using the White House as a convention stage to signing his name to stimulus checks and food aid, any of which would have once set off a massive scandal, is now shrugged at.)
Trump has found government levers to pressure firms to amplify his propaganda or muzzle his critics — CNN (by investigating its parent-company merger) and the Washington Post (by threatening to raise postal rates and denying a lucrative military cloud-computing contract to Amazon) — and threatened to investigate or break up the tech firms, which have infuriated him by having too many liberals.
Most of his targets have resisted his threats on the rational premise that they could wait out his expected single term. Should he win reelection, that resistance would probably disintegrate. Indeed, most of Trump’s inability to fundamentally corrupt American government is predicated on his political buffoonery outweighing his heavy-handedness. Should democracy survive relatively unscathed, it will be because Trump lost, not because the system “worked.”
With a handful of exceptions, the primary complaint Republican elected officials have with Trump’s authoritarianism is that he lacks a subtle touch. The party’s strategic focus increasingly relies upon an interrelated network of anti-majoritarian steps to allow it to compete for power without compromising with the electorate: suppression of the vote; gerrymandering at the state and federal level; a Senate that underrepresents minorities and urban dwellers; and, looming just over the horizon, a Supreme Court poised to strike down swaths of progressive reforms that Republicans can’t stop in Congress. It’s revealing that Mitch McConnell has spent the waning days before the election trying to stop an economic-stimulus bill, which the public favors by a 50-point margin, to focus instead on locking in another Supreme Court seat. Why cater to public opinion when you can position yourself to thwart it for decades to come?
It’s important to understand the calculations of figures like McConnell and Paul Ryan not as personal cowardice but the expression of a different moral hierarchy. The conservative movement believes that liberty — defined primarily as small government without punitive taxes on the rich — matters more than democracy, that democracy threatens liberty by allowing the many to rob the few. Senator Mike Lee, a leading conservative who briefly expressed disgust with Trump in 2016, this month tweeted out a view that has become almost banal on the right. “We’re not a democracy,” he wrote. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” One could argue the Republican Party had spent a half-century building an intellectual smoke screen to disguise its anti-democracy agenda and then one of its senators just tweeted it out. Whatever his flaws, Trump stands athwart “rank democracy” and has safeguarded the liberty of the rich to keep their wealth.
The most lasting imprint Trump may have left upon his party is to disabuse its elites of any illusions that “small government” has any authentic purchase with the voters. Trump’s primary domestic accomplishment, his Reaganesque tax cut, is so unpopular he has to periodically promise he will come out with a second round of cuts for the middle class. The tea party turns out not to have any principled objection to deficits, spending, or even the notion that the government will take care of everybody’s health care — something Trump constantly promises to deliver, even though he hasn’t.
Before Trump, some Republicans may have clung to the hope that some version of smaller government and lower taxes might appeal to the majority of the country. Almost none of them can believe that anymore. Yet rather than submit to “rank democracy,” they will find another path, perhaps one like the path Trump has laid out before them.
November 3 is an off-ramp from the road to oligarchy. But whether Trump wins or loses, the Republican evolution into authoritarianism will go on. Even if his presidency ends in complete ruin and repudiation, Trump has given his party something it never had before: the performance of a despot — bullying his rivals, criminalizing anybody who challenges him, violating the law with impunity. They have a taste for it now. They will crave more.
*This article appears in the October 26, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!