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The State of Denial: Trump, the Gop, and the Quiet Slide from Democracy

Fascism has often arrived not through bloody, noisy streets, but on tiptoes in the corridors of power. Whether it succeeds will depend on citizens who may not be paying attention.

Trump-Mussolini (by Antonio Giambanco for VNY)

What, exactly, Donald Trump will be able to get away with in other areas is yet to be seen, and much will depend on the further adventures of the Mueller investigation.  Will Trump survive his (or his team’s) alleged collaboration with Moscow? Will he get away with many apparent attempts to obstruct justice, such as demanding personal loyalty from an FBI Director, and then firing him?  Did his demand that Hillary Clinton be jailed actually hurt her more than him?  Did he get away with his shocking failure to condemn white supremacists, largely by changing the subject?  It appears now that, except in circles already militantly hostile to him, Trump has paid no price for calling a cruel and hostile dictator to congratulate him on winning a phony election.  He largely gets away with it. If we are to depend, as a safeguard against any move in the direction of fascism, on the thoughts and behavior of our citizens, the future of those safeguards begins to look bleak.

According to myth and some testimony, two of Germany’s most important scholars, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss, appeared on stage together in a debate staged probably in 1932.  They closed the debate in two different ways. Heidegger (some say for the first time publicly) with a “Heil Hitler”. Strauss, on the other hand, is said to have left the stage and out the back entrance to a car waiting to take him to the airport.  He went to England, then to the U.S., part of an illustrious group of German academics, especially from the universities in Gottingen and Heidelberg, who enriched American social sciences for decades to come.

In a 1962 collection of essays edited by Herbert Storing on The scientific study of politics, Strauss called out his heavy artillery to blast the response of the main body of German social scientists to the rise and rule of Hitler.  Strauss’ vitriol in this essay was so extreme that he may have offended more of his colleagues than he persuaded. But his point was a serious one: a generation of German social scientists had, for the most part, failed Germany at its time of great need.  Strauss’ diagnosis of the cause of this failure was simple: the methodology they were using, the new Weberian orthodoxy, “value free” and in slavish imitation of the physical sciences with its emphasis on quantification, had rendered them incapable of any serious comment on Nazism on the basis of their science (however they might speak out as simple citizens).  They could not invoke the authority of their scientific study of politics to comment on the current politics, because that science had given them nothing meaningful that was normative; they could not speak of the political better or worse any more than a physicist could render a value judgement on a molecule.

Hitler with Mussolini at Piazza Venezia, in Rome

Hitler with Mussolini at Piazza Venezia, in Rome

American social scientists today are in a different position as they face the rise of Donald Trump and an aggressive radical Right.  After the backlash against the Weberian orthodoxy, political scientists have been productively at work, creating a foundation of data and analysis from which to enter the current debates.  If they are holding back, it is for a different reason: denial and disbelief. It simply seems rash and polemical to talk seriously about a Trumpian path to fascism.*

An effort to work within narrowly-defined borders and to try to avoid over-heated adjectives and adverbs does not produce many thrills…until one comes to some of the conclusions, where alarm may be the appropriate response.  This time the political scientists are ready. They have identified, with differences among them in approach and the language used, a number of signposts to indicate (or deny) what might be a slide from liberal democracy toward fascism.  It adds up to a warning, a warning that, up to now, the American people, including the country’s academic community, have not taken seriously.

This stream of thought and data will be a rivulet to the side of the great flood of shock and polemics that President Trump’s actions and policies trigger every day.  We even put to one side the question of why democracies fail and slide in the direction of fascism.  The question here is how that happens, and whether it’s happening here, now.  And, even more narrowly, what light have social scientists been able to shed on these questions?

This examination arose when colleagues expressed amazement at pre-election polls in Italy that showed (in mid-winter) that the strongest in a field of party leaders (not all of them candidates) was that ghost of what were, to some, happier times, Silvio Berlusconi.  Another lightweight plutocrat to match the strange phenomenon living in the White House?

I had already published on this parallel, and finding the connections largely frivolous, except for showing the amazing tolerance of citizens for the super-rich who vaunt their wealth.  But the persons brought to mind by these comparisons were, instead, Juan Linz and Benito Mussolini.

Linz, the late Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale, was a Spaniard born in Germany who saw first-hand the overthrow of Spanish democracy and Austria’s being swallowed by the Anschluss.  He devoted his later decades to comparative studies of parliamentary democracy and presidential democracy, and to the transitions between democracy and fascism (as defined above).  He described his work as a search for mid-level generalizations about these complex historical realities.  That is about the right level for our examination of how democracies fail and are transformed into fascist states.

And the first thing Linz would tell us is to start with Mussolini, not Berlusconi.

What is important about the 1922 March on Rome is that it didn’t happen.  There was plenty of marching and political demonstrating around Rome in October of that year, but Mussolini, at the invitation of the king, following strict constitutional procedure, took an overnight sleeping car into Rome.  He went from the railroad station to a hotel room, where he changed into a neatly-pressed black suit, put a bowler had on his head, and went politely to the royal palace, where he was given the charge by the king to try to form a government.  The day before this orderly event, the Italian Communist party published a manifesto affirming that the Fascist solution to the Italian troubles was really a democratic solution.

The event was not only perfectly constitutional, but was simply a mid-point in an incremental process that didn’t begin there nor end there, another close parallel to the situation today in the United States.  (Mussolini, besides editing the Socialist daily, had also founded his own newspaper, called Il popolo d’Italia.  He said and wrote repeatedly: “I am your voice.”, exactly Trump’s line just before and after his election.)

Juan Linz focused heavily on Italy because, he wrote, “Mussolini’s combination of illegal action and legal take-over became the new model for the overthrow of democracies.”  (He also noted [in the 1970s] that in our time those who have accomplished the breakdown of democracies have usually been Rightists.)

So there are two principal paths by which democracies have been replaced by authoritarian regimes:

—violent overthrow

—the insipid undermining of democracy in steps that seem small and inconsequential at the time.  In this Trump era, it is clear where our interest must lie.

Since these “steps that seem small and inconsequential at the time” may not make headlines as steps leading to fascism, several scholars have provided a list of warning signals.  Just below, I have revised all these with an eye to the current situation in the US.

Timothy Snyder’s brief On Tyranny (2017) reminds us that Aristotle thought that inequality brought instability, as of course does Thomas Piketty (2017), and that Plato worried about demagogues exploiting free speech.  Snyder starts there because our founders had these and other teachings in mind when they tried to devise a system that would block any movement in the direction of an authoritarian government.  As we review the signposts of movement toward fascism, we will also keep an eye on the factors that are supposed to slow or stop such movement.

The following, then, is a revised summary of the factors advanced by Linz, Sartori, Kirchheimer, Scheler, and Meinecke, and more recently Snyder, Levitsky and Ziblott, and Mounk.  Consistent through much of the work of these scholars, either explicitly or implicitly, is the distinction between two brands of political opposition: that which remains loyal to the concept, institutions, and practices of liberal democracy, and that which is willing, in order to achieve its ends, to undermine that democracy.  This distinction allows to ask the key question for us: whether Trump and his followers, and/or some other sectors of the Republican party, are on their way to becoming a disloyal (thus defined) opposition when out of power or an effective regime-changer when they are in power.

These are the tests of loyalty devised by these scholars that seem to have particular relevance for our situation these days.  To be defined as a loyal opposition, the political figures and political groups must show:

—a readiness to surrender power unconditionally to other participants; a rejection of any idea of retaining power beyond the constitutional mandate.  Beginning right with this first test, we will look (below) both at actions by President Trump and at evidence of the readiness, both of Republican leaders and of the Trump “public”, to take such action.

—a clear and uncompromising rejection of the use of violence in internal politics, and an unambiguous rejection of the rhetoric of violence to mobilize support.

—rejection of rhetoric suggesting the destruction of opponents, or that is used to arouse popular passions or political vigilantism.  I would add a sub-category of this point: not calling for the main political opponents to be jailed.

—a commitment to participate in the political process, elections, etc., without setting up conditions.  Another sub-category seems apt here too: willingness to accept the outcome of an election. Although, in the countries studied by the social scientists on whose work we are drawing, this applies mainly to incumbents who might not be willing to step down, Trump’s declarations before and after the last election signal that this point should not be confined to incumbents.  And it should not include only the action of refusing to accept election results, but should also include Trump’s keeping his followers in suspense as to whether he would accept the outcome of the election.

—a rejection of secret contacts with the disloyal opposition or out-of-country forces, and rejection of their support when offered.

—a commitment in principle to reduce the political role of supposedly-politically-neutral powers  (courts, administrative agencies, etc.).

—I would add a final item, which has now surfaced in our time, well after Linz and the earlier generation wrote: not favoring his country’s authoritarian adversaries over its democratic allies and, in return, not accepting support, material or verbal, from those adversaries.

A prominent factor stressed by several scholars is the shifting of difficult issues to supposedly non-political officials and bodies, especially to the judiciary and government agencies, sometimes just to gain time.  So, says Linz, “the democratic political process loses substance.” He warned, writing decades ago, that this consideration should also include offering cabinet posts and high places in the administration to leading military officers or retired officers.

I would add another parallel between the factors identified with regime change in the literature of the last fifty years and the developing patterns of the Trump administration.  This involves a factor quite new to American presidential politics. Many of the regimes analyzed in this literature were multi-national regimes, countries containing large groups of citizens who were identified as different and separate, “nations” in themselves.  These regimes are shown to be especially prone to democratic breakdown and a subsequent turn to authoritarianism. As President Trump smashes the American melting pot, singles out immigrant groups and others that don’t look like him, makes them seem less-than-American, he moves us toward the situations described in the literature for multi-national regimes.  In the literature, groups thus singled out tend to produce crises, and a crisis is always bad for democracy, as regimes struggle to solve the crisis without compromising democratic processes and freedoms.

trump-protest new york

January 29, 2017: a protest downtown Manhattan against Donald Trump’s first immigration executive order (Photo VNY)

A final, important signpost should relate to the factors of truth and the media, but it will be hard to find the right words until we have weighed the thoughts of Victor Klemperer (later in this article).  One has the feeling that each morning’s newspaper brings new candidates for Klemperer’s list.

Although we have been looking at individual steps, they add up, to a large extent, to support for, or the undermining of, the perception of the legitimacy of the democratic regime, a perception which, in the cases studies, usually proved crucial to its survival.

Democratic legitimacy appears clearly to require adherence to the understood rules of the game.

When we return to the Italian parallels, it’s clear that Berlusconi really does not meet most of the disloyalty-to-democracy criteria, although Mussolini certainly did: he not only tolerated political violence, but his squadristi were mostly responsible for the street fighting in northern Italy in the 1920s.  Mussolini’s candidacy was presented as a way to stop the violence, which, as the trigger of the violence, he certainly had the power to do.

These clear, almost mechanical, signposts are judged, especially by scholars who have written more recently, as being signals of the move toward fascism  There are others that are almost questions of style,, upon which other scholars have focused.

—A Freudian psychoanalyst, Roger Money-Kyrle, saw Hitler and Goebbels speak at a rally in 1937.  His description may send shivers of recognition down the spines of Americans who have lived through the last couple of years:

Self-pity and hatred were not enough. It was also necessary to drive out fear … So the speakers turned from vituperation to self-praise.  Each listener felt a part of the omnipotence within himself. He was transported into a new psychosis. The induced melancholia passed into paranoia, and the paranoia into megalomania.

—Max Scheler, a strong philosophic force in early 20th century German, writing back in the 1920s, adds that another sign of a slide toward breakdown of democracy is when new rulers, just assuming power, waste energy in ressentiment politics against persons and institutions identified with their predecessors, “petty attacks on their dignity and sentiments.”

The signposts signalled by these scholars are fairly specific, but the path to the undermining of democracy includes more than these clear indications of disloyalty to a democratic regime.  Between the black of fascism and the white of democracy, there is grey. Linz, after a series of working conferences with Giovanni Sartori and others, using the loyalty-to-democracy standard defined above, said: “it is our contention that the conditions leading to semi-loyalty, or even suspicion of semi-loyalty, by leading participants in the political game, account in large part for the breakdown process.”

But there are, of course, two sides to the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.  What we’re discussing is not a freefall. There are roadblocks, safety rails, checks and balances… systems and structures that a tyrant must destroy, leap over, or go around.  The most effective gatekeeper against tyranny is a parliamentary system. But if we are to concern ourselves with the barbarians at our gate today (or perhaps already within the castle), we must confine ourselves to the break-down of presidential, first-past-the-post systems.

A new book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, a couple of Harvard political scientists, How Democracies Die, uses a heavy dose of recent history to show that the most important bulwark against extreme or non-democratic candidates is gatekeeping by the leadership of the democratic parties, keeping these candidates off the ballot (done pretty effectively in the US until recently) and, in extremis, joining rival parties to prevent election victory by non-democratic elements (something we haven’t done, and the current deep divide between our two big parties would make it difficult to pull off).

The fact, so widely ignored after our 1972 election, is that the smoke-filled rooms had performed a crucial gatekeeper function against bizarre and dangerous candidates.  Party control of candidate selection, condemned by McGovern and much of the Left as undemocratic, was largely abandoned in the widespread move to primary elections.

Levitsky and Ziblatt make a strong case for the idea that parties should be the principal gatekeepers against dangerous candidates.  When they fail, individual party leaders should feel this responsibility.  For this we have an excellent recent example in last year’s French national election.  Francois Fillon urged conservatives to vote for Emmanuel Macron to prevent Marine Le Pen from winning.  It worked.

While the parties are the key players, much of the resistance to fascism must come from, be based on, custom.  These are the unwritten rules, understood by the players.  They demand, for starters patience, restraint, self-control.  This often takes the form of not using all of one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt.  Levitsky and Ziblatt sum up this body of norms as “mutual toleration and forbearance.”

In the U.S., this would mean that all 3 branches of government must underuse their powers in the spirit of  mutual toleration. That was easier once.  Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasize the extent to which many of the norms which protected our imperfect democracy from 1860 until the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were based on the harmony among whites, with racial issues off the table.

The contrasting attitude is seen in the open ignoring by today’s Republican senators of the customary practice of “blue slipping” court nominees, in which senators from the home state of the nominee are shown the courtesy of being asked to consent to the choice.  It is not a rule, and had been violated in rare exceptional cases in the past, but was a customary underuse of the power to confirm over the heads of the home-state senators.

All the pressures in our current contest for and against the slide into fascism are likely to be in the direct of the slide.  The proto-fascists’ strongest argument will be their claim to be able to solve problems. Both the old regime, the one that could not solve them, and the new, wanting to move quickly to prove that they can solve them, will be driven to compromise democratic processes in order to succeed.

This is not a one-sided concern: many of us fretted that Obama was making too much use of executive orders when he found the Republican Congress hopelessly hostile.  But what is alarming today is not just the unapologetic mangling of the norms that had become customary for the functioning of our democracy, but the extent to which, as the country languishes in denial about the danger of fascism, the rule breakers are getting away with it.  So the Republicans refused to act on the Garland nomination to the Supreme Court. When it was effectively killed, the President nominated Gorsuch. My guess is that, in the past, this would have been an explosive act, as would its political context, McConnell’s declaration that the congressional Republicans would not be a loyal opposition to President Obama, but would seek to destroy his presidency.  Instead, the reaction was relatively quiet and was out of the news on the following day.

Donald Trump (Illustrazione di Antonio Giambanco/VNY).

What, exactly, Trump will be able to get away with in other areas is yet to be seen, and much will depend on the further adventures of the Mueller investigation.  Will Trump survive his (or his team’s) alleged collaboration with Moscow? Will he get away with many apparent attempts to obstruct justice, such as demanding personal loyalty from an FBI Director, and then firing him?  Did his demand that Hillary Clinton be jailed actually hurt her more than him?  Did he get away with his shocking failure to condemn white supremacists, largely by changing the subject?  It appears now that, except in circles already militantly hostile to him, Trump has paid no price for calling a cruel and hostile dictator to congratulate him on winning a phony election.  He largely gets away with it. If we are to depend, as a safeguard against any move in the direction of fascism, on the thoughts and behavior of our citizens, the future of those safeguards begins to look bleak.

The ruin of many of these safeguards can be found, historically here and in other countries, in the rise of intense partisan animosity.  The political opponent becomes not just the adversary in a game with understood rules, but the enemy, someone to destroy if you can, partly because you believe that he feels the same about you.

Linz described the danger of societies that grow deeply divided, especially when partisans are so socially segregated that they rarely interact.  They begin to perceive a mutual existential threat. Linz did not live to see the strong push toward exactly this condition created by social media.  And I would add here that one of our safeguards has been the mass media’s ability to limit the distribution of extreme ideas.  Editors were key operators of these safeguards.

In studies of post-war countries where democracy gave way to totalitarianism, the literature seems always to indicate a point at which politics seemed to many of the players a fight to the death.  The parties stopped worrying about the possibility of having to cooperate with others at some time in the future.

In Chris Matthews’ new biography of Robert Kennedy, examining cases of Kennedy’s coalition-building across party lines, Matthews observes: “We’ve gotten so used to treating our politics as a zero-sum game that we’ve lost the faith that joint action by the people is capable of bringing joint success.”

But I believe that there is a context for this increasing gulf that Matthews misses.   It’s the continuing, and increasing, divergence between liberalism and democracy. When, in the thinking of the “populists”, the will of the people doesn’t need to be mediated, so any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption, the discourse is harmed.  There is some evidence, found mostly in the 2016 election, that American liberals had lost touch with that which should be their natural constituency, and became distrustful of what the engine of democracy produces.

There are other striking parallels between Trump’s America and other collapsing democracies.

Trump’s attack on the media is a thread that runs through the demise of many democracies.  Levitsky and Ziblatt found that Trump’s initial acts, right after his inauguration — attacks on opponents, calling the media the “enemy of the people”, questioning judges’ legitimacy, threatening to cut funding to major cities — have exact parallels to the early days of the regimes of Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chavez, and Erdogan in Turkey.  Of course, both Stalin and Mao labeled the media “the enemy of the people.”

Trump’s efforts to derail investigations are precise duplicates of what happened in several Latin American states, some of them with substantial democratic traditions, on their way to dictatorship.

A chief safeguard of democracy lies close to the potential dictator.  Crucial to the maintenance of democracy, according to the regimes studied by Levitsky and Ziblatt, was the behavior of the potential dictator’s own party, reining him in from the most extreme breaches of the democratic norms of his country.  In the US we have a solid history of this barrier against fasc ism. Democrats helped kill FDR’s court-packing move. And Republicans refused to rally behind Nixon when he was in trouble.

Can we expect comparable zeal to protect democratic institutions and practices from today’s Republican and their supporters?  A June 2017 survey (cited in Levitsky and Ziblatt) asked: “If Donald Trump were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country could make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote, would you support postponing the election?”  52% of Republicans said yes. Undermining faith in the electoral process is a prominent element of slides from democracy to dictatorship.

In Mounck’s research there is a similarly disturbing datum: Over two thirds of older Americans believe that it is extremely important to live in a democracy.  Among millenials, less than one third do.

During the last two years, several scholars published analyses of demographic trends which seemed to translate into reasons for optimism for the Democratic party.  (The sectors from which Democratic support could be expected are all areas of population increase, giving rise to some of the descriptions of the 2016 as a last hurrah for an aging Right.)  But the most recent data raise questions about these grounds for optimism. Most important, they all carry the same lesson: don’t count on the kids. In 1995, 34 per cent of young Americans (18-24) felt that a political system with a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections was either good or very good.  By 2011, 44 percent of young Americans felt that way. (I should add that in 1995, one in 16 Americans believed that army rule is a good system of government. Now one in six do.)

This is a widespread phenomenon in the West.  Cinque Stelle gets three times the percentage of those under 40 than of those over 40.  Marine Le Pen, in the 2017 election, was supported by one in five older voters, but one in two of the young.  (The definitions young and old vary with the country, but the overall pattern is the same.)

It is crucial to note that among white voters below the age of 30, Trump actually beat Clinton, 48-43.

Mounk and others believe that many young people in the West who seem disenchanted with democracy have little conception of what it means to live in a different system.  They are largely ignorant of the horrors of, say, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

Snyder, writing about effective resistance to the slide toward dictatorship, stresses a point the others neglect: the role of truth.  It’s worth, because strikingly apt for this moment in America, going back to the great literary scholar Victor Klemperer (writing about Nazi propaganda).  In The Language of the Third Reich (1947), Klemperer observes that truth dies in four modes:

—Open hostility to verifiable reality.  Lies and intentions are presented as facts.  Even the easy availability of the truth does not deflect Trump from tall tales.  The lies come at a fast pace. One serious effort to track his 2016 campaign statements found that 78 percent of what he claimed as facts were false.

—Repetition as a kind of incantation.  Klemperer said the Fascist style involved “endless repetition”.  After a while, fiction starts seeming like fact. The repetition of  “Crooked Hillary” may have been more effective than the presentation of any evidence.

—Magic, the open embrace of contradiction.  Thus, in the same paragraph, a candidate promises tax cuts, elimination of the national debt, and a massive increase in the military budget.  Reason is blatantly cast aside. A student told Klemperer to abandon logic and just “focus on the Fuhrer’s greatness”.

—And exactly that faith is Klemperer’s fourth mode.  The aspiring dictator will ask his followers to believe that only he can solve their problems.  When the war was lost, a soldier who had suffered amputation said to Klemperer that Hitler “has never lied yet.  I believe in Hitler.”

I have neglected in all this the role of outside interference, because, with the possible exceptions of Greece and Chile, it was not a major factor in any of the regime-changes studied by the recent literature.

Another safeguard in which political scientists once believed, voiced often in the debate over Frank Fukuyama’s book, was a nation’s wealth.  Rich democracies don’t slide into regime-change. But already, at the time Fukuyama wrote, belief in that safeguard had been undermined. When Argentine democracy collapsed in 1975, its per capita GDP was a substantial $14,000 in today’s currency.

donald trump

January 29, 2017: protest in New York against Trump (Foto VNY)

And it must be admitted that the U.S. has characteristics that should make it uniquely invulnerable to the fascist slide, especially our 230 years of democratic traditions, and even the oceans: the nation developed in relative isolation from the rest of the world.  But technology has eroded the isolation and it is the very traditions themselves that are under attack today. Both globalization and increasing inequality of wealth have destroyed much of our uniqueness.  The global setting in which the Trump election took place should challenge our sense of unique invulnerability. Those who think “it can’t happen here” should perhaps examine the current meaning of “here”.

There may be another safeguard against the rise of fascism in the US, but the only academic writer I found who took it seriously is the economist Tyler Cowan at George Washington University.  Writing in Politico, he says American fascism cannot happen in our time because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It would simply be too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of such a behemoth.  No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is that they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.  I hope Cowan is right, but I see the current White House, and Republicans in Congress, chipping away at every area that Cowan pronounced invulnerable.

The article “Trump vs the Deep State”  by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker of May 21, 2018, suggests that “chipping away” may be too mild a term for the massive assault now being waged by the Trump team on professional civil servants throughout the government.

There is, I believe, a dark cloud hanging over the immediate future of efforts to halt the anti-democratic forces in America.  Take, for example, the increasing hope for an impressive Democratic victory in the Fall election, an event that would surely be taken as a referendum on Trump and a sign of his political weakening.  What does history, and our own knowledge of the man, teach us about how he would react?

One haunting answer to that question is found in the fact that probably nothing would advance authoritarianism in this country more rapidly than a security crisis.  Wars, terrorist attacks and other security crises always boost a president’s approval rating and give him more freedom to do whatever he wants. Such crises have long been attractive to tyrants.

[The discussion above treats real-world considerations with an obvious relation to today’s US.  As an aside, I should mention that Linz and his colleagues discussed and analyzed the difference between a presidential democracy and a parliamentary democracy.  At the time they wrote, in the 1970s, the presidential system of the US was widely considered to be a model of stability, so much so that many new democracies, especially in Latin America, adopted presidentialism rather that parliamentarism.  Linz accounted for that apparent stability by the fragmentation, not just into the branches of government, but also into powers held by state and local governments. But Linz warned, way back then, that a presidential system is a zero-sum game, which might leave losers feeling impotent and enraged, a rage that was certainly evident in 2016.  Further, he worried that we might get a president who took on a sense of power, who saw himself as having a mandate that went beyond his real support. He notes, and this seems crucial, that a president may feel that he has a direct, popular mandate, when he may not have even a bare plurality, if that. As he is blocked, by Congress or the courts or the states or the Constitution, he and his followers will feel frustrated, a common cause of instability in democracies.  A parliamentary system would force the head of government to work with other parties to achieve the ability to govern by coalition.

Some of the scholars and commentators writing today were looking for ways to continue the comparative study of these phenomena.  Some see a parallel test that deserves watching: developments in Russia, also a large nation. But whether there was anything in Russia that could be characterized, even loosely, as a functioning liberal democracy is so doubtful that there seems to be no real starting point for measuring change.   On a smaller scale, something close to the Trump playbook is being used by anti-democrats in Poland and Hungary right now, and perhaps in Turkey, three countries, of course, that also have a considerable earlier history of some form of authoritarianism.

But to return to our beginning; Italy is different.  There, procedural niceties are followed and individual rights are respected, except in the workings of the criminal justice system, where radically independent magistrates maintain their own untrammelled tyranny.  But Italian citizens had, over the last few years, concluded that they have little influence on public policy. Cinque Stelle, especially, is trying, with some success, to make political capital from this condition.

Pietro Nenni, the grand old man of the Socialist party, the most important Socialist leader between the war and Craxi,  reminisced years after Mussolini, saying, “Everyone in Italy agreed in not taking Fascism seriously.”

The real message from the comparative studies, both the recent ones and those of 50 years ago, is that many of the most important steps in the direction of non-democratic authoritarian government were not perceived as such at the time.  Even Hitler and Mussolini came to power legally. Those who did see them as merely passing, freakish phenoma, believed that they could be managed and controlled. And we now have, especially with the turn of several Latin American countries to a presidentialism that proved to be fragile,  many recent examples of the insidious slide toward fascism. In several of the Latin American cases, the victorious dictators were notably non-ideological, as demonstrated in Odd Arne Westad’s new book The Cold War.  While being part of a backlash against actions of previous leftish governments, the new dictators were clearly more motivated by a lust for power and ego-gratification than for the advancement any substantive program.  Sound familiar? The failures of the supposed safeguards of liberal democracy in so many recent cases make it hard for a US citizen in 2018 not to feel an eerie foreboding.


* The word “fascism” is used here purely as shorthand.  Fascism was an historical movement at an historical moment. It involved a corporatistic relation to big industry, an evocation of the past, and a precise style of political action. But one doesn’t wish to slog through more careful locutions, such as authoritarianism, non- or anti-democratic, every step of our way.  So, recognizing its inaccuracy, the article will simply label the modern alternative to liberal democracy as “fascism”, with a small “f” unless we do mean the Italian political movement of the 20th century.

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