The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The actual threat posed by a political ‘cult’ in America

A Donald Trump supporter attends a campaign rally for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster on May 1 in Greenwood, Neb. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star/AP)
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Speaking in Florida this week at an event focusing on climate change, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered the Republican Party both a carrot and a stick.

“I want the Republican Party to take back the party,” the California Democrat continued, mentioning that Republicans used to have a broader range of opinions on abortion and the environment. “Hey, here I am, Nancy Pelosi, saying this country needs a strong Republican Party, and we do.”

“Not a cult,” she added, “but a strong Republican Party.”

The comments sparked criticism from Democrats and Republicans. The former saw her comments as mirroring past Democratic insistences that perhaps the Republican Party would, in fact, revert to some more moderate space, insistences that have not borne out. The latter obviously objected to being disparaged as a cult.

By using that word, however offhandedly, Pelosi singled out something we often end up talking around. The Republican Party’s focus on Donald Trump is intense, if occasionally spotty. Taken in concert with the party’s frequent criticisms of democracy, though, that focus on the former president becomes potentially more problematic.

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In 2017, the World Values Survey Association began conducting another wave of international polling, the latest in an endeavor that began in the 1980s. That included surveying a large group of Americans, posing a range of questions about politics and social issues.

Included in those results was a question about governmental leadership. Among other questions, respondents were asked whether they viewed a country having a strong leader who didn’t have to bother with elections or a legislature was a good or bad thing. Most American respondents said that this would be bad, with more than a third saying it would be very bad.

Interestingly, this varied by age. Younger Americans were more likely to say this would be good than were older Americans, though it was still the case that a majority viewed the idea of an anti-democratic autocrat as a negative. The dividing line appeared to be about age 45.

This comports with other polling focused specifically on the war between Ukraine and Russia. Younger Americans, particularly those under 45, are more likely to express indifference about who wins the conflict. It’s a divergence that one might safely ascribe to when that group grew up, overlapping only a little if at all with the Cold War. Grow up out from underneath the specter of global annihilation as a result of nuclear conflict with Russia, and you might have a different view of that nation. Grow up in an era where autocrats are seen as problems for other countries and not as an existential threat to the United States, and you might have more sympathy for the idea that such a style of government might work out well.

But the distinction is not just by age. There’s also a big gap by party, with those who expressed support for Republican candidates in an election expressing much more openness to autocratic leadership than those who would support Democrats. Overall, 44 percent of Republican voters viewed this form of government as very or fairly good, compared with 28 percent of Democratic voters. There is an age gap among Democratic voters, but it’s mild compared with the gap among Republican ones.

Among Republican voters, more than half of those under 50 said that a strong leader who doesn’t need to worry about elections is at least a “fairly good” thing. If we subtract the percentage of each group saying autocracy is very or fairly bad from those saying it’s very or fairly good, the party difference becomes immediately apparent.

These are opinions offered during the first year of Trump’s presidency. By the last year of his presidency, his supporters in Congress and in the streets were agitating for him to hold power despite the results of the election.

This polling comports with other analyses of how the Republican Party has evolved. The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden measures global political parties on a number of metrics that correspond to support for liberal democracy — that is, democratic power-sharing determined by the results of free and fair elections. That analysis finds that the GOP has grown more illiberal over the past 20 years, with its rejection of liberal democracy spiking with the Trump election.

This is often something discussed in the abstract. But it has concrete manifestations even beyond the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Ryan Kelley is not likely to win the Republican nomination for governor in Michigan, but it’s useful to focus on a speech he gave as he campaigned for that position recently. Kelley, a local official in the state, was explaining the slippery slope that he claimed free and fair elections represent.

“It starts with democracy. That’s the ticket for the left: They want to push this idea of democracy, which turns into socialism, which turns into communism in every instance,” Kelley said. “My friends, we are a constitutional republic. We need to be proud and loud about that.”

“Some people you see on Fox News and even Republicans say, ‘We have to protect our democracy,’” he continued a bit later. “That is absolutely incorrect.”

This isn’t simply rhetoric for Kelley, who was at the Capitol on the day of the riot. Nor is he reflecting a view that’s far outside the party’s mainstream.

About a month before the election, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) informed his followers on Twitter that America is “not a democracy.”

“Our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic,” he wrote in a subsequent tweet. “To me it matters. It should matter to anyone who worries about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.”

Lee, too, would put his money where his mouth was. In the wake of the 2020 election, text messages show that he pressed forcefully on Trump’s behalf in an attempt to block Joe Biden’s victory. What was important wasn’t what the voters indicated with their ballots. It was whether the process could be redirected to grant Trump a victory.

There is certainly a conceptual and practical gulf between “America isn’t a democracy but a constitutional republic” and “make Trump leader for life.” But that gulf would seem wider if Kelley and Lee hadn’t worked to grant Trump more time in office despite his obvious election loss. If being a constitutional republic means that one can set aside the will of the electorate in favor of brute force or legal machinations, the distinction being drawn with autocracy is a subtle one.

What’s unclear is the extent to which embrace of anti-democratic politics is dependent on Trump. Pelosi’s “cult” descriptor had Trump as its implied target, but one could also argue that the cult is something else: Trumpism — that nebulously defined mix of nationalism and populism — or perhaps just fealty to the right-wing base itself. Would those young Republicans approve of a strong leader if that leader were, say, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah)?

This is not an academic question. Trump is poised to run again in 2024 and to potentially gain power with the support of a party that he will by then have helped to shape for nearly a decade. If the GOP is a Trumpian cult and one in which many members view a strong, anti-democratic leader as acceptable, one national endpoint moves from theoretical to possible.

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