Hopeful ReminderWhile the GOP has complete control of the government right now, this control is weak. They lost seats in both the House and Senate in this cycle. The presidency was won by the slimmest of electoral margins, by a madman who the GOP hopes they can control but likely won't be able to, with not even a plurality of voters in support and historically low approval going into office.
Warning for What May ComeThis situation means there will be a very strong temptation for the GOP to do whatever is necessary to hold on to power in the coming elections. We've already seen willingness to shed norms in the name of holding on to power over the last decade:
- Abuse of the filibuster to turn a Senate minority into a majority for purposes of legislation and appointments
- Refusing to even hold hearings on a moderate Supreme Court justice nominee that was widely liked for over a year
- Threatening the full faith and credit of the United States in paying its debts over a domestic policy dispute
- Shutting down the government, or threatening to, essentially as an attempted veto override
Each of these actions, in the moment, made some tactical sense from their perspective. However, each one has also chipped away at the foundations of the republic.
We have previously witnessed a miniature version of what a drift towards an authoritarian state would look like with George W. Bush:
- Implementation of new broad surveillance powers and programs (True, Obama hasn’t been that much better on this mark)
- Legalization of an immoral, illegal, and ineffective torture and imprisonment program
- Using nationalist rhetoric to cast dissenters as unpatriotic
- Attempt to purge career government employees based on political ideology
Soon (barring anything unexpected happening on January 6 when the Electoral College vote is certified), we will have a president who has evinced outwardly authoritarian tendencies and who has surrounded himself with like-minded advisors. If he puts forward authoritarian policies which the GOP base approves of and which would enhance GOP control, there will be a strong temptation to simply go along with them, or even to enthusiastically support them. Given what a relatively normal Republican president did, what might we see under the new one?
We've seen a more recent preview of this type of power grab in North Carolina, as the GOP legislature and outgoing governor have attempted to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor. And just today, House Republicans have moved to strip authority from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
Our Institutions Might Not Protect UsFortunately, there are still some potential checks on these temptations. There are still many judges who are independent and will not put up with such maneuvers. Judges in North Carolina have struck down several measures disenfranchising voters and a hold was placed on the power-stripping actions while a lawsuit against it moves forward.
However, the aforementioned judicial vacancies remaining for Trump to fill--including on the Supreme Court--allows the judiciary to be shaped in their favor. It also would fall on the president to accept and enforce any court decision, and it is at least questionable how this individual would handle a judicial rebuke.
There are several senators, including John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Roy Cooper, who appear willing to be tough, at least when it comes to Russia. With such a small GOP Senate majority—52, or 53 with the Vice President voting in a tie—these hold-outs could be enough to block the worst legislative proposals, especially as long as the filibuster is still available.
However, these same Senators were complicit in many of the previous actions undertaken to hold on to power, and John McCain made statements suggesting that these actions would have continued under a Hillary Clinton presidency. Unfortunately, their commitment to democratic principles in the face of political opportunism is not certain.
Lastly, there are some moves that simply won't be challenged or won't be subject to legislative approval, and thus could slip through the cracks of institutional protections.
Passivity is Not an OptionAuthoritarianism won’t arrive in one fell swoop, but will be parceled out in easily digested moves which then become normalized. Our institutions may slow down the pace, but they won't be able to save us permanently. Thus, it is up to us to recognize these individual moves as they happen and to push back against them, and strongly.
If we do this, we—anti-authoritarians of all political stripes, the resistance—may just be able to keep the country intact enough to regain power over the next 4 years. Once we do, the hard work of reversing the environment which enabled the rise of authoritarianism will begin.