Thursday, August 29, 2019

Republicans, Boris Johnson, and "Soft" Authoritarianism

The historical memory of the 20th century has in many ways left us ill-prepared for 21st century threats to democracy. Most people hear "authoritarianism" and think of Hitler and Stalin, one party states, and concentration camps. For this reason anything short of those totalitarian scenarios isn't taken seriously enough. Modern day "soft" authoritarians know this and act accordingly.

Take the Republican Party. From 1992 to the present it has won the plurality of the popular vote in the presidential election only once, in 2004 with the benefit of incumbency. Despite that, a Republican has held the office for three terms in that period. This has been enabled by the electoral college. When Republicans have held the White House they have used their positions to flood the federal bench with young ideologues, altering the interpretation of the law for decades in a direction that is not popular. When Republicans do not hold the White House they do everything they can to deny Democratic presidents their nominees.

Republicans also use gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain their position despite being unpopular. In Wisconsin a majority voted for Democrats for the state legislature, but gerrymandering produced a majority of Republicans in both houses. That legislature then stripped powers from the newly elected Democratic governor. In multiple states, including my home state of Nebraska, Republican legislators have refused to honor ballot initiatives where clear majorities of voters opted to expand Medicaid.

In this regard Trump is not an outlier, but a regular Republican. As president he has used executive orders to target Muslim immigrants, throw children in prison camps, and fund a border wall without Congressional approval. According to recent reports, Trump is demanding that land be confiscated for his wall, and is dangling pardons for any underlings who fear legal prosecution. By outsourcing work to Fox News, Trump does not appear to have a state-run propaganda machine, but Fox basically fulfills that function.

Fellow nationalist Boris Johnson has also figured out the tricks of soft authoritarianism. He maneuvered to have Theresa May stabbed in the back, able to become prime minister without having to win an election. Johnson, who does not have majority support, has also moved to prorogue parliament in order to force the UK into a very unpopular no-deal Brexit. He is essentially preventing the people from having any kind of voice in the matter.

Because neither Trump nor Johnson are putting tanks in the streets or arresting their opponents, most regular people do not see this as authoritarianism, but it is. It is a smarter authoritarianism attuned to the fact that overt moves to grab power by force won't fly in this day and age. The memory of the last century is a big reason why. However, that memory serves us poorly because we are stuck fighting the last war. Unless we oppose this soft authoritarianism with the vigor it deserves, it won't stay soft much longer.

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