Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images
the national interest

The Authoritarian Threat Is Not Overhyped

Ross Douthat’s unpersuasive case for complacency

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A week after the 2020 election, when President Trump had just begun plotting to delegitimize and overturn the election results in order to retain power, an anonymous senior Republican official characterized the party’s thinking to the Washington Post. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” the official said. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20.”

That complacent view has characterized the party’s mainstream throughout Trump’s term. While privately contemptuous of Trump’s capabilities, they dismissed him as a hapless clown annoyingly weighing down their party’s prospects, rather than recognizing him an authoritarian threat. That view is expressed again today by Ross Douthat, who renews the case against alarmism that he has been pressing, in the face of accumulating evidence to the contrary, throughout the Trump era.

Douthat addresses his argument to over-pessimistic “progressives” who believe the Republican Party is seeding a future crisis the next time Democrats win a close presidential election. (He does not mention that more than 100 professors who study democracy signed an urgent warning that “our entire democracy is now at risk.”)

While progressives (and democracy scholars) express concern that the Republican Congress overwhelmingly rejected an inquiry into the insurrection, Douthat sees a silver lining: Yes, 175 Republicans did vote against a January 6 commission, but “35 House Republicans defied him and voted for the Jan. 6 inquiry.”

Douthat hopefully sees this defiance as a sign nearly three-dozen House Republicans would oppose a future coup attempt. Well, perhaps. On the other hand, the offense at issue was the easiest kind to condemn (a violent insurrection, rather than the legal anti-democratic maneuvers most Republicans are comfortable with), and the stakes of their opposition were purely symbolic. What does that indicate as to how they’d behave in a crisis to determine actual control of the presidency? It’s much easier to balm your conscience when the stakes are symbolic than when you have to actually give the opposing party real power.

Gazing out at the wave of vote suppression laws, Douthat sees nothing more sinister than a messaging ploy to placate the angry base: “Republican-backed bills that purport to fight voter fraud are obviously partially sops to conservative paranoia — but as such, they’re designed to head off cries of fraud, claims of ballots shipped in from China or conjured up in Italy.”

The notion that enacting vote restrictions will somehow prevent Republicans from crying fraud assumes that these cries have some connection to reality. If most Republicans believe Trump actually won the election despite absolutely zero evidence of voter fraud, what possible measures could allay their suspicions? The amount of evidence can’t get below zero. The cause of Republican paranoia is not real weaknesses in the system, but an evidence-free belief that Democratic voting, especially by minorities, is inherently illegitimate and fraudulent.

In any case, the Republican vote suppression measures are not an attempt to head off a crisis but to provoke one. The elements all work together to ramp up the likelihood of a cataclysmic failure in the event of a Democratic win. First, they impose a lengthy list of restrictions on voting, including everything from cracking down on giving rides to the polls to allowing “signature matching” to disqualify ballots. Then they unleash “poll observers,” whose nefarious role spreading false claims of imagined fraud into conservative media will be broadly enhanced.

Having empowered their wildest partisans to police a lengthy, Byzantine menu of voting restrictions, they lower the evidentiary bar for judges to challenge the results when the inevitable fraud allegations arise. And finally, they are in several states either replacing party officials who resisted the coup, or taking authority over elections out of the hands of offices held by Democrats and placing it into offices held by Republicans.

These changes are not designed to make Republicans rest easier on the BarcaLounger after the next election. They’re designed to ensure that, in a similar set of circumstances, Republicans can win without having to resort to the hopeless task of a guerilla insurrection.

The largest conceptual error in Douthat’s column, which has led him to underestimate the danger throughout, is to identify the authoritarian threat solely with Trump’s personality. He sees the Republican Party the way a fretting parent might view their wayward adolescent: as a good kid who has gotten into trouble after falling in with a bad crowd. If Republicans could just peel themselves away from that nasty Trump, they’d be back on the straight and narrow.

This explains his belief that Trump will be easier to defy four years hence because he “will be four years older, unlikely to run a fourth time, and therefore somewhat less intimidating in defeat.” It likewise accounts for his belief that anti-democratic measures are merely designed to satisfy Trump’s voters, rather than following the party’s innate belief system that exists entirely separate from Trump.

Suppose Trump had dropped dead in January. Would Republicans not be passing vote suppression laws? They very likely would. And the reason is that, while Trump is an extreme manifestation, his authoritarian impulses are not purely idiosyncratic. Skepticism of democracy as a value has deep roots in conservative thought. While conservative parties in other countries accommodate themselves to democratic control over the economy generations ago, the American right has never relinquished its belief that allowing majorities to redistribute income at the ballot box is a fundamental violation of liberty.

The unstated premise of the case for complacency is that we just need to get through one more election before matters to normal. Trump may be oddly energetic for a sedentary man of his age, but he can’t live forever. The alarmist rejoinder is that, when Trump disappears from the scene, the authoritarian threat will not.

The Authoritarian Threat Is Not Overhyped