I set out to research the story of Graham’s relationship with Trump because I wanted to understand how authoritarianism arose in the United States. I wanted to see how the poison worked: the corruption, the rationalizations, the vulnerabilities in the system. I wanted to learn how democracies could detect such threats and counteract them.
Here are some of the lessons I learned.
Emerging authoritarianism doesn’t look like an ideology. It appears in the form of a demagogue. It’s easy to support him while laughing off the idea that you’re embracing authoritarianism.
Celebration of fear is a warning sign. When a demagogue brags about intimidating his enemies, and when voters and politicians flock to him for that reason, look out. Maybe he knows who the real villains are. Or maybe he’s the sort of person who attacks anyone in his way.
Authoritarian voters are the underlying threat. In every country, there are people who want a leader to break institutions and rule with an iron fist. These voters form a constituency that can lure politicians to embrace such a leader. At a minimum, they can deter politicians from opposing that leader. And if he loses power, the next authoritarian can exploit the same constituency.
Political parties are footholds for authoritarians. An aspiring strongman doesn’t have to gain power all at once. He can start by capturing a party and becoming its flagship candidate. This gives everyone in the party a reason to help him.
Politicians are blinded by their arrogance. They think they can manipulate an emerging authoritarian by collaborating with him. They underestimate the extent to which what they see as an alliance—but is really subservience—will corrupt and constrain them.
Politicians are misled by personal contact with the authoritarian. He may seem charming or manageable, but that’s because he’s among friends and flatterers. These situations don’t reflect how he’ll treat people who get in his way.
Cowardice is enough to empower an authoritarian. He doesn’t need a phalanx of wicked accomplices. He just needs weak-willed politicians and aides who will go along with whatever he does. Every country has plenty of those.
Authoritarianism is a trait. Politicians can always find reasons why this or that corrupt act by an authoritarian isn’t prosecutable or impeachable. These excuses gloss over the underlying problem: his personality. If he gets away with one abuse of power, he’ll move on to the next.
Democracy becomes a rationale to serve the authoritarian. Once he wins a nomination or an election, politicians can exalt him as the people’s choice. They can use this mandate to dismiss criticism of his conduct and to reject any attempt to remove him from office.
Power becomes a rationale to serve the authoritarian. Once he’s in office, politicians can tell themselves that by defending him, they’re earning his trust, gaining influence over him, and steering him away from his worst impulses.
Rationalization becomes a skill and a habit. The first time you excuse an authoritarian act, it feels like a one-time concession. But each time you bend, you become more flexible. The authoritarian keeps pushing, and you keep adjusting.
Ad hoc legal defenses become authoritarianism. Each time the leader abuses his power, apologists claim he has the authority to do so. Over time, as he commits more abuses, these piecemeal assertions of authority add up to a defense of anything the leader chooses to do.
Normalization and polarization are enough to create a mass authoritarian movement. People get used to a strong-willed leader, and their partisan reflexes kick in. If the leader is in your party, you may feel an urge to attack anyone who goes after him. You become part of his political army.
Exposure of the authoritarian’s crimes galvanizes his base. His supporters turn against the media, the legislature, law enforcement, and any other institution that investigates him. They view his accumulating scandals as more evidence that the true villains are out to get him.
Demonization of the opposition paves the way to tyranny. It lowers the moral threshold for supporting the leader. You must defend him, no matter what he does, because his enemies are worse.
A party detached from its principles becomes a cult. Once the party begins to shed prior beliefs in deference to a leader, it loses independent standards by which to judge him. The party becomes the man, and dissent from him becomes heresy.
Democracy’s culture of compromise is a weakness. Over time, an authoritarian’s will to gain and wield power grinds down politicians who are content to negotiate among competing interests. As he relentlessly imposes his will, they find reasons and ways to accommodate him.
Civil servants are easily smeared and purged. Some of them might investigate, expose, or refuse the leader’s corrupt orders, since they weren’t appointed by him or elected on his ticket. But that independence makes them easy to attack as “Deep State” conspirators who are subverting the people’s will.
It’s easy to provoke and exploit violence without endorsing it. You just say the election was stolen, and the president’s followers take it from there. Then, after their rampage, you warn that any punishment of him might drive them to violence again.
It’s easy to rationalize ethnic or religious persecution. Demagogues tend to use any division in society—ethnic, sexual, religious—as a wedge against their enemies. A skilled politician can excuse this behavior on the grounds that bigotry is only the method, not the motive.
[A printable PDF of this article is available here.]
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