The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s personality cult and the erosion of U.S. democracy

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If it wasn’t certain before, it’s crystal clear now. Former president Donald Trump has a viselike grip over the Republican Party. No allegation of impropriety or illegality, no concern over stoking extremism and violence, no documented trammeling of the rule of law can cut away at his seeming dominance over the American right.

This month, it emerged that the FBI was investigating Trump for his wrongful possession of classified U.S. documents, including items allegedly related to the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. The wholly partisan reaction to the revelations only boosted Trump’s stock, driving millions of dollars in donations to his political action committee, and fueling right-wing outrage over the supposed overreach of the state. Meanwhile, the results of a series of primary elections across the country — most notably, Tuesday’s landslide defeat of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy0.) by a Trump-aligned challenger — reinforced how internal party opposition to Trump has generally proven to be a political death sentence. Of the 10 Republican lawmakers in the House who voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, only two even stand a chance to return to the chamber next year.

Trump’s hold over the Republican Party has led to the rise of a new crop of potential Republican lawmakers who parrot the former president’s 2020 election lies. That has profound implications for the country’s electoral processes: According to an analysis published by my colleagues this week, nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over future elections involve candidates who embraced falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the previous one and deny its legitimacy.

In the time since Trump left office, his sway over Republicans has arguably grown. A straw poll of attendees at the right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month saw enthusiasm for Trump as high as ever. If he chooses to launch a 2024 presidential campaign, the bulk of the Republican establishment is set to meekly line up behind him. “If you look at a political analysis, there’s no way this party is going to stay together without President Trump and his supporters,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told my colleagues last year. “There is no construct where the party can be successful without him.”

It’s a state of affairs more familiar in other parts of the world than in the United States. The wholesale capture of a wing of American politics by what is, as Cheney put it, a “cult of personality” surrounding one demagogic leader has limited precedent in U.S. history. But we can see current variations of the theme in, among other places, Hungary under its illiberal nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkey under long-ruling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In all three countries, the ruling faction in a parliamentary democracy has become a vehicle for consolidating the power of the figure at the top. They are in different stages of their evolution: Erdogan’s grip may be loosening with former allies defecting and forming new parties, while Modi and Orban are more comfortably in control. The leaders’ majoritarian demagoguery has led to the erosion of their democracies, which critics argue have become to varying degrees quasi-autocracies where media is cowed, ethnic or religious minorities are bullied, and the opposition marginalized.

This phenomenon is on show in other democracies dominated by illiberal factions, as political polarization only deepens the incentives to retain power and punish one’s opponents. “The Republican Party’s zealous devotion to getting rid of anyone who challenges Trumpian dogma feels entirely too familiar,” wrote academic Brian Klaas in a Washington Post column last year that noted how Republican fealty to Trump was mirrored by politicians in Poland’s ruling party who have weaponized conspiracy theories about the media and liberal establishment.

“It’s a litmus test. Are you a true believer, willing to repeat the theory even if you don’t believe it yourself?” Klaas wrote. “If you are, the party accepts you. This sort of corrosive loyalty test has caused tremendous damage to Poland’s democratic institutions.”

The Orbanization of America: The U.S. right walks in Hungary’s path

For the United States, there’s a long runway for further democratic backsliding. Some analysts believe it’s necessary for the full weight of the judicial system to be brought to bear against Trump, even while others warn of the dangerous precedent it may set. A considerable minority of Americans buy into Trump’s narrative of victimhood and persecution by the Democratic establishment.

“Trump’s whole presidency was unprecedented,” countered Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and scholar of 20th century authoritarian politics. “He differed from past heads of state of either party in having zero interest in public welfare or consensus politics. His goals were autocratic: amassing power, domesticating the GOP, and having his financial and other personal interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy.”

Trump’s Republican critics have been demoralized by the extent to which the party’s base has abandoned them and flocked to the Trumpist banner. “Maybe there wasn’t going to be a tidal wave of people to come over, but I certainly didn’t think I’d be alone,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said to reporters last week. Along with Cheney, Kinzinger served on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot; he is not seeking reelection in November.

Now, Trump may see a path to override the institutional checks and the instruments of accountability set against him. Sean Illing, co-author of the new book “The Paradox of Democracy” that traces the long history of democracies growing susceptible to would-be authoritarians, warned that the United States’ existing democratic guardrails may not hold if large numbers of Republicans vote for people who explicitly “promise to subvert the rule of law.”

“The only response is to persuade more people to resist it,” Illing told Post columnist Greg Sargent. “The history of democratic decline is a history of demagogues and autocrats exploiting the openness of democratic cultures to mobilize people against the very institutions that sustain democracy itself.”

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