Botsford, a contributing editor, for The Fulcrum, has spent most of his career providing strategic advice to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies doing business in Latin America.
Living and working in Latin America most of the time since the 1970s has meant living through dozens of governmental switches — among democratic, communist and fascist systems.
Witnessing the forces that ebbed and flowed with the political winds, democratic institutions created in the early 19th century were repeatedly assaulted.
And in recent weeks, I've become afraid the United States has chosen to follow that region's sorry lead. It's a fear that will not go away any time soon — even though Donald Trump is at last safely far from the White House and, in Joe Biden, the Oval Office is once again occupied by someone totally committed to upholding democratic norms and the rule of law.
Not even an American president can single handedly, let alone quickly, reverse the toxic national creep toward autocracy we have suffered the past four years.
That's why witnessing the insurrection in the Capitol on live TV this month, and the memories that have haunted us all since, brought me back immediately to my life south of the border. The similarities are striking.
In Latin America, bloody insurrections are the currency of ruthless political ambition.
The call to come to Washington to hear the executive's command for a march on the legislature was reminiscent of other regimes' call for rallies in their capitals — from Brazil in 1979 to Peru in 1992, Mexico in 1995 to Argentina in 2016.
The people heeded those calls out of coercion and in fervor.
Many get coerced through the threatened loss of government benefits, always tempered with free food, merchandise and even transportation. And because casting a ballot is a legal (if generally pointless) obligation across the region, local organizers not only delivered people to the rallies but then made sure they deliver their votes.
Fervor is readily achieved at these rallies, and no more easily than when the marquee speaker is a pathological liar. Trump's technique was startlingly reminiscent of how earlier autocrats — think Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega since the 1980s and Ecuador's Rafael Correa for a decade ending in 2015 — combined blatant falsehoods and grievance politics to concoct a convenient enemy. (The news media as "the enemy of the people" is always first in line.) The strongmen invent facts and concoct conspiracies in order to brainwash or gaslight their core supporters so they can be kept under the leader's command and control.
But, to be fair to the Latin American leaders of the past, their words have usually been more nuanced (or coded) than the blatant orders issued by Trump and his allies on Jan. 6. And, once the throng he exhorted had arrived on Capitol Hill, they found alarmingly little resistance — so reminiscent of "free zones," as they're called in Latin America.
Those are when demagogues utilize loyal civilian armed militias to intimidate the masses, often by embedding them within the crowds at their rallies to incite passions and perform the dirty work. The strongmen use these militias to give themselves plausible deniability. Law enforcement is told to stand down, or to offer only the most perfunctory resistance, so the militias can operate in these free zones.
Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, for example, has used such paramilitary mobs to his benefit since 2017, ever since his party lost elections. Just last year he had them occupy the Palacio Federal Legislativo in order to block access by the majority of legislators opposed to him.
Free to act, the autocrats escalate. They find excuses to lock down Congress whenever their party loses power at the ballot box. To prevent that from happening again, they rig the elections and suppress the vote to assure their party wins — and Congress reopens, with opposition leaders imprisoned and the political rights of the people denied.
Another lesson from the region's history: Trump is out of power, but maybe not for long unless there's accountability for his and others' role in fomenting a coup against a legitimate democratic government. All who were involved in whipping up the base, and aiding and abetting the lies, must be called out.
If not, either Trump or future dictators will feel empowered to advance their agenda. That's what's happened across Latin America over the past half-century when out-of-control regimes went unpunished.
Accountability can take different forms. The political sort can be swift, but the judicial kind takes more time.
And so the autocrat must be stripped of power immediately. In this, we are fortunate Trump's time was up just two nerve-wracking weeks after the Capitol siege. But the Senate should still follow the House and send a message to his followers that there are consequences for his actions.
Concern that following through on impeachment will only enrage and infuriate his followers is naive at a minimum — and a form of complicity from those who now aim to victimize, distract or obstruct.
There is no difference between the terrorist mob and those who enabled and unleashed it with the Big Lie. Apologetic rhetoric now is too late.
Trump left office with his allies still laying the groundwork for reclaiming power in 2024 — replicating exactly how dictators I've lived under assured their return. (It took only four years on the outs before Cristina Fernandez returned to power in Argentina last year.) That many years go by very fast in a country where an autocrat's opponents focus only on putting out the most obvious fires left behind.
The time for finding remedies can come later — and the solutions will be the same as those offered up to Latin American nations when their democracies were imperiled. Strengthening institutions is where it must always begin.
But the history of that region shows very clearly that there must be accountability right away, or the United States will not be able to successfully move on from these events. If Trump and his allies still in authority face no consequences, then Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered as only the beginning.
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McMahon is an adjunct associate professor of applied economics and political science at the University of Vermont and an international democracy and governance consultant.
Many of my fellow Democrats have spent the past three weeks aghast at the reality that more than 73 million of our co-citizens saw fit to vote for the re-election of Donald Trump. "How could they do that?" we ask. After four years of his presidency, there is no longer any question of how manifestly unfit he is to lead this country. How could our fellow Americans have voted for a feral autocrat, a misogynistic racist, a narcissist, a liar and a cheat? The list could continue. What could possibly have motivated them to make such a choice?
Of course we know the answer on one level. His pugnacious personality and anti-establishment schtick strike a chord outside the Beltway, the big cities and the two coasts. And he offers policy pronouncements that sound appealing.
But the full answer lies deeper. It has to do with how threatened people are by change.
Let's take a clue from history. Consider Hitler's accession to power in Germany in the 1930s, the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic's rise toward the presidency of Serbia in the 1980s and the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. What made so many people in those countries support leaders who sought to eliminate certain sectors of society? What could possibly have motivated them to have undertaken the unspeakable act of exterminating other human beings?
Was it because these people were subhuman, totally amoral individuals? Of course not. They were human beings whose sense of identity was manipulated by demagogues such that they believed that they were facing an existential threat from another group; in the countries above it was the Jews, the Muslims and the Tutsi.
What connection might all this have to our own election? Other autocratic populists use fears of a false or overblown and distorted existential threat to garner popular support, which is what Trump did. These autocrats don't care who the alleged threatening group is; he — and it always has been a he — just has to make his potential constituency feel like there is one.
And, as with other populist autocrats before him, Trump discovered and manipulated a special sauce of resentment based on class and identity. By using that, he succeeded in creating in his target constituency feelings of dependency and subservience, which bypassed fact-based analysis.
These feelings find their basis in the very human phenomenon of existential fears — fueled, for example, by calls from some Democrats to defund the police. Note what the anti-Semites chanted in Charlottesville in 2017: "Jews will not replace us." Apparently those Unite the Right marchers saw this as a question of survival, if not literally on an individual basis then at least in a collective sense.
It is, of course, important for us to recognize that not all Trump supporters go so far as the Proud Boys and their ilk. Many of these supporters would insist they do not harbor such prejudices. And the election results, in which Trump significantly increased his support, including among African Americans, show it's too simplistic to ascribe Trump's appeal as being simply overt racism. It includes a more viral, partly class-based populism, in which Trump plays upon and inflates the grievances of those who believe they are not getting a fair shake out of the system. This includes not only many less- educated and lower-income Americans, but also others who focus on single issues such as abortion or religion. It also includes those who see themselves as the victims of reverse prejudice.
How ironic that Trump has pitched his appeal toward identity-based politics, while the same time heavily critiquing the Democrats' perceived use of it.
So if this dynamic is correct, what can be done? Thankfully the self-correcting mechanism in American democracy is functioning, and Trump will have to leave power. Trumpism won't go away, however.
We can take heart from President-elect Joe Biden's calm and patient approach to the election, and to governing. Calm and patience need to be a hallmark of his administration, as the entire country seeks to salve its wounds and look to the future.
But we must go farther, putting ourselves in the shoes of the Trump supporters and seeing the world through (what are to us) their oddly tinted glasses. We should understand they feel disenfranchised by globalization and its effects, and threatened by the bogeyman of "socialism." We have to recognize they question whether there is a future for them in a non-Trumpian world.
Take the question of America's energy dependence. Four years ago Hillary Clinton foundered when she was seen as calling for an end to dependence on coal, no matter its effects on employment in coal-producing areas. Biden, by contrast, was nuanced on the future of fracking, emphasizing he was not calling for its immediate end and urging a transition to renewable energy.
Trump's supporters thus need to be encouraged to feel comfortable with and accepting of, as did for example the vast majority of white South Africans, the reality that respecting and embracing diversity and economic and social justice is actually in their own self-interest, and that the alternative — opposition to change — will be very disadvantageous to them in the long run.
We should applaud and call for the continued statesperson-like approach taken by such leading progressives as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. After all, during the campaign they lowered the ardent tenor of their understandable demands for a more just and equitable society. It is vitally important this approach continue, because blunt calls for reparations or quotas or radical redistribution of wealth will simply feed the perception of Trump supporters' that they are under an existential threat.
We need to drain a significant amount of the venom out of our body politic. This is a responsibility which is as incumbent upon us, my fellow Democrats, as it is to others.
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McHugh retired in 2012 after 11 years as a justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Marcuss is a retired partner at the law firm Bryan Cave and a former senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School. They are on the steering committee of Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
Mitch McConnell refuses to accept the verdict of the American people. The Senate majority leader is willing to indulge President Trump's attempt to destroy American democracy, by supporting his fight to stay in office despite his repudiation by nearly 78 million Americans and a margin of at least 5.3 million votes. Other Republicans give Trump and McConnell comfort by standing on the sidelines in silence.
This must end if American democracy is to survive. The norms of democratic behavior must be restored. The divisions that have poisoned this country must be bridged. This calls for enlightened behavior.
President-elect Joe Biden has started the healing process by assuring Americans that he will be the president of all the people once he takes office. His history of reaching across the aisle in search of compromise gives hope. He is in a better position than most to appeal to those who care for the future of the country, to persuade them of the importance of ensuring that the mechanisms of democratic government survive. If he is successful, we may see the beginning of the end of the nightmare to which we have been subjected by an incompetent and corrupt president.
It will be just a beginning, however, unless the abuses of power that have crept into our system of government are recognized and reversed.
One week before the election, a compendium of abuses of power and needed reforms was released by our organization. More than 2,000 attorneys — including former judges and prosecutors, law school deans and managing partners of large law firms — formed two years ago to enlist our colleagues in the legal community to speak out against the threats to our democracy and to demand that Trump and Congress honor the fundamental principles, norms and values of our democracy.
Among the reforms we proposed are:
- Compelling presidential compliance with congressional subpoenas and requests for government testimony.
- Punishing government officials who lie and deceive the American public.
- Prohibiting permanent "acting" government officials from exercising any power.
- Prohibiting the Justice Department from being the president's personal law firm
- Prohibiting use of the pardon power to protect presidential wrongdoing.
- Punishing civil servants who work on the president's political objectives.
- Outlawing nepotism, especially in the White House.
- Prohibiting use of the White House for self-enrichment.
- Requiring disclosure of the president's and vice president's business interests and tax returns.
- Prohibiting revenge against whistleblowers and others who tell the truth.
- Prohibiting voter suppression.
Many of these proposals will require legislation. For most of our history, legislation was not thought necessary. Most Americans understood implicitly that abuses of power would undermine the delicate checks and balances that make our Constitution work. The experience of the last four years has taught us otherwise.
Without legislation, the risk of repeated abuses is real. In an age increasingly vulnerable to autocracy and the preservation of power for its own sake, we cannot count on what was implicit in the past being what governs the future.
Legislation alone, however, is not enough. Compassion and empathy cannot be compelled. Respect for truth, diversity, political compromise, unbiased law enforcement and an independent judiciary comes from within. It requires a willingness to reach out to opponents in order to understand their concerns and grievances, and a desire to find common ground that satisfies competing interests. And it requires repudiation of the instinct for a "they did it, now it's our turn" approach to governance.
The winner-take-all approach to governance makes losers of us all.
Presidential elections are often bitter contests. Candidates frequently claim that an election is the most important in American history and that the future of our republic depends on the outcome. This time the future of the republic really is at stake.
Trump long ago refused to say he would leave office peacefully if the election went against him. He said that an election he did not win had to be fraudulent. He did what autocrats do: Participate in the election as a fig leaf and discredit it if they lose.
In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Mark Antony observes: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." The evil the defeated president has done will persist long after he is gone — unless it is eradicated.
We have the means to do it. If we fail, the good that is in America is destined for interment with her bones.
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Jacobson is the founder of Men4Choice, an Illinois abortion rights advocacy group, an independent business consultant and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank.
The world has witnessed a shift from democracy toward autocratic rule over the last 30 years. As Donald Trump's presidency has rolled on, observers inside and outside the United States have wondered: Is America next?
Addressing this summer's Democratic National Convention, former President Barack Obama explicitly cautioned Americans that democracy was on the line in 2020. Despite his warning, awakening the nation to this threat has proved difficult because most misperceive how modern democracies die. In our collective imagination, the end comes through a high-profile singular moment, like a military coup. In reality, modern democracies die slowly.
The phenomenon is called "democratic backsliding." It's a process by which the incumbent party successfully consolidates power through intentional actions often legitimated within democratic institutions. These efforts curtail basic rights like voting and attack free speech, free press and the right to assemble. The goal is to substantially undermine opposition so the regime can maintain power. Elections still happen, but the party in power is incredibly difficult to defeat because it controls the rules of engagement. A thin veneer of democratic legitimacy remains, but the result is what political scientists call an illiberal democracy or competitive authoritarianism.
So are we at risk? To answer that, we have to understand how other democratic countries have slid into autocracy. Functionally, the ruling party has done three things to shift the balance of power and ensure control: Alter the rules of elections to make it harder for the opposition to vote, attempt to silence and weaken dissenting voices, and impair the independence of the judicial system.
There's strong evidence of all three occurring here now.
Republicans have aggressively purged voter rolls, changed registration rules, limited voting locations, redrawn election districts to their liking and added new burdens on elections, like attacking the Postal Service during the pandemic. These are all examples of suppression and manipulation designed to shrink the numbers who can vote.
What about silencing dissent? Overseas, perhaps the most aggressive form is the jailing of opposition leaders. This is what makes the "Lock her up!" chants Trump encourages at campaign rallies so dangerous, and his encouraging Justice Department prosecution of his political opponents. At worst, he wants to be taken literally. At best, he's having a chilling effect on some critics.
Dissent can also be silenced by tough libel or defamation laws, which Trump has advocated. And when he calls the press "the enemy of the people," he may be laying the ground for such efforts or simply working to negate contrary voices.
Dissent can also be stamped out from within a party when the leader aggressively attacks internal critics, like Trump has done so often — including taking on John McCain and Mitt Romney, his most recent predecessors as GOP national standard-bearer.
In democratic societies, politicians vie for the support of voters. In an autocratic society, politicians perform for the leader. When this happens, a major check on executive power is broken because the political cost for speaking out against the leader is too high. Increasingly, the GOP's political class is behaving like an autocratic party — lavishing praise on Trump, propagating his lies, refusing oversight and defending his autocratic impulses.
What about judicial independence of the judiciary? Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has spent the past four years packing federal appeals courts with Trump loyalists — capped by the vote, one week before Election Day, to shift the Supreme Court even more decisively to the right with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
We should also consider the prosecutor's office. Regimes instal prosecutors to ignore wrongdoings by individuals close to the regime. And Attorney General Barr fired the prosecutor in New York who was overseeing investigations into Trump and his family. Trump's assault on inspectors general is yet another example meant to weaken independent oversight.
In countries that have experienced democratic backsliding, society splits into three basic groups. One backs the party in power. Another resists. Members of the third group are the most critical. They may be politically moderate and independent. They may be politically aligned with either group, but have distrust of political institutions or leaders. Or they may be disaffected or disengaged, simply refusing to participate.
Here's how democratic backsliding unfolds. The process is catalyzed when the incumbent power pursues a nationalist agenda activating the loyalists -- generally members of the country's dominant racial or ethinic group. Such ethnic nationalism, though, limits the ability to expand support beyond the base, driving the party toward anti-democratic strategies. A nationalist appeal creates an "us versus them" framework, with the out-group defined as a threat to those in the "real" nation. To protect their way of life from the perceived attack, the in-group is willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior.
When the resistance rallies to oppose the regime, it risks sounding hyperbolic to those less engaged. The warnings, while accurate, are too dire for many to grasp. So, as the nationalistic attacks increase, the resistance's reactions escalate, affirming the fears of party in power. This self-fulfilling prophecy polarizes the groups even further.
How the middle responds determines the fate of democracy. When the economy is strong, history shows the incumbent party tends to get rewarded, enabling its leader to pursue autocratic power consolidation. When it's weak, the fear and voter suppression are the best options he has left. If his party holds power with this strategy, democratic backsliding unfolds as the barriers to consolidation of power are removed.
This is where America finds itself days from the election. The Republican Party and Trump, who exhibits unprecedented autocratic tendencies among American presidents, have pursued all three strategies necessary to consolidate power. The only question now is what happens at the ballot box.
Our institutions have been badly damaged. The guardrails are almost gone. Democracy is fragile, and the hour is late. No country that has switched to an illiberal democracy has yet broken free of its authoritarian leaders. America could be next.
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