Brian Klaas, author of The Despot's Apprentice and The Despot's Accomplice, is an associate professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy. He wrote an OpEd for the Washington Post yesterday, Republican Authoritarianism Is Here To Stay, in which he blandly asserted that based on his extensive and very serious research, "the party of Reagan and Romney is long dead. The party of Trump is here to stay." He went on to point out that what's happened in our country since the advent of Trump "is, in many ways, a classic of the autocratic genre. A populist leader rose to power, attacked the press, politicized rule of law, threatened to jail his opponents, demonized minorities, praised dictators abroad, spread conspiracy theories and lies, and then sought to seize power despite losing an election. When such despotic figures emerge in democracies, their political party has two options: push back against the would-be despot while reasserting democratic principles, or remake the party in his image. Republicans have quite clearly chosen the latter path."
"The would-be despot?" The GOP is filled will would-be despots and despot cheerleaders, from Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Traitor Greene, Lauren Boebert... Knowing this crew, there is no way that the GOP is going back. Millions of people voted for them. Those people, with the weak, drug-addled minds and all their grievances and miserable unfulfilling lives, are as much the problem-- or more-- than the politicians.
Klass noted that "There are a few ways political parties that drift toward authoritarianism can be brought back from the brink. Sadly, none of them can save the modern GOP. Authoritarian parties can be reformed when they suffer a crushing electoral defeat. If Republicans were wiped out at the polls in 2022, there would be a decent chance the GOP would move back to a more normal center-right party. That outcome is unlikely, however, precisely because the party’s anti-democratic tactics are insulating Republican politicians from voter backlash. Already, Republican lawmakers have drawn gerrymandered maps that rig future elections in their favor. In Wisconsin, for example-- a state Joe Biden narrowly won-- the new maps will likely give Republicans 75 percent of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives. Even if Democrats get more votes, Republicans would win more seats."
Republicans could conceivably abandon such practices if their leaders were being pressed by their own supporters to be more democratic. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite: GOP voters want more authoritarianism. The Republican political base doesn’t just believe Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. These voters are now using those lies as a litmus test-- to separate the true believers from alleged “RINOs” who believe in democracy more than they believe in Donald Trump. Candidates are responding by stating that they believe Trump’s lies as a point of pride in their campaign messaging. This trend is creating a ratcheting effect, motivating Republican candidates to establish increasingly extreme authoritarian credentials to stand out.
The Republican Party could also be driven away from authoritarianism by a charismatic rival to Trump who believes in democracy. If a Mitt Romney-style figure were currently electrifying the Republican base, it would be a lot easier to imagine a more democratic future for the GOP.
Instead, Romney is a Republican pariah who is viewed more positively by Democrats than Republicans. He narrowly avoided being attacked by a violent mob of pro-Trump Republicans on Jan. 6, which is as good a metaphor as you can get for the fate that awaits Republican leaders who try to stem their party’s authoritarian tide. And when a Republican tries to investigate the Jan. 6 rioters to hold them accountable, he or she becomes a pariah, too. (Just ask Rep. Liz Cheney.) Meanwhile, the rising stars in the party are extremist zealots who are sympathetic to the insurrectionists such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Meaningful media backlash isn’t realistic, either. Although plenty of journalists and pundits have finally started to describe Republican authoritarianism without mincing words, Trump’s efforts to discredit mainstream media outlets have paid partisan dividends. Many Trump supporters only tune into partisan media outlets that amplify what they already believe. Here, too, the trend is also heading in the wrong direction. Fox News, the center of that right-wing media universe, is facing pressure from the more extreme talking heads at outlets such as One America News and Newsmax.
What’s left, then, is some distant hope that a profound national crisis could jolt Republicans away from their embrace of authoritarian politics. Just as the tragedy of Sept. 11 brought Democrats and Republicans together, perhaps a major national shock could cause Republicans to rally back toward democracy. But we’ve already had two major crises-- Jan. 6 and a once-in-a-century pandemic-- and they’ve made the GOP more extreme, not less. If a violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol aimed at overturning an election and more than 770,000 dead Americans in the pandemic aren’t enough of a jolt, what would it take?
The conclusion is depressing, but we must face reality: The battle for the Republican Party is over. The Trumpian authoritarians have won-- and they’re not going to be defeated by pro-democracy Republicans anytime soon.
This morning, one prominent member of House leadership told me that "I am very concerned about the slow march toward authoritarianism in this country. Trump is a specific kind of threat-- but I’m almost more concerned about who comes next. Trump is dangerous, but he’s also incredibly stupid. We may not be so lucky with the next wannabe dictator. The fall of the Rome shows us that it isn’t the first or even second or third demagogue that destroys the republic-- but once norms are broken and laws flaunted it’s only a matter of time before someone takes full advantage and pushes us over the edge."