Is American democracy at risk? Some scholars see creeping fascism and historic parallels

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Men wearing symbols of Proud Boys, a violent right-wing extremist group, stand watch as supporters of President Donald Trump kick off a truck caravan near Portland, Oregon. - Richard Read/Los Angeles Times/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Anne Berg, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was born and raised in Germany, and while her parents are basically hippies, she said, her grandparents were Nazis.

That close connection led Berg to a vocation as a scholar of Nazi Germany, exploring the role played by people, she said, “who rocked me to sleep.” Now, Berg is among many academics and others watching what she calls a “rapid descent toward fascism,” in the United States, right from her home in Fishtown.

Back in 2017, she was already drawing parallels with prewar Germany but warned her students against “catastrophizing.” No longer.

“To expect that things are going to return to normal is irresponsible,” Berg said. “People need to be aware of the risks we are facing right now.”

Is American Democracy at risk? After last week’s volatile debate, with a belligerent President Donald Trump signaling paramilitary white supremacist groups to “stand by,” repeatedly calling the voting process into question and raising the specter of postelection violence, lots of Americans may have joined a growing chorus of academics and others who have sounded the alarm for, in some cases, years.

“We have to understand, we are not immune from what has happened in other parts of the world and other time periods,” said Nikol Alexander-Floyd, a Rutgers University political science professor. “This is what a potential coup looks like.”

Post-debate, on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being a total democratic breakdown, a survey of independent experts by the Protect Democracy Project scored the current level of threat to American democracy at 56, indicating “substantial erosion.”

“We’re on a knife’s edge,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University. “The Republic is in serious jeopardy.”

But even while drawing historical parallels to countries that have faced totalitarianism, or have experienced contested elections that became violent — Germany, Kenya, Venezuela, Ukraine — scholars interviewed last week have advice (vote), and say it is more difficult to truly predict where the country is headed.

“My biggest concern has been President Trump’s statements calling into question the integrity of our election process,” says Sarah Bush, a Philadelphia-based Yale professor who studies democracies worldwide, focusing on conditions causing voters to lose faith in elections. She also has taught at Penn.

“I worry that this will discourage people from voting or from accepting results,” she said. “I am concerned that the U.S. is at more risk of postelection instability and even violence than it has been in the past.”

Still, scholars say, a backsliding democracy is still a democracy that can be protected and fortified, from the bottom up even if not from the top down.

“People understand the window is closing for us to stop this,” says filmmaker and authoritarian scholar Andrea Chalupa, cohost with author Sarah Kendzior of the Gaslit Nation podcast, which has been sounding the alarm about rising autocracy under Trump since 2018.

“In autocracies like Turkey and Russia, even when up against the autocracy of a dictatorship, local elections do matter,” said Chalupa, whose film, Mr. Jones, takes place in Stalinist Ukraine, during the Holodomor, the catastrophic famine. “The most crucial thing Americans must be doing right now is getting to know local government from bottom to top and running for office themselves.”

Glaude sees Trump as “that loud indicator,” sitting in “the sweet spot of unbridled greed and racism.” But he also views the current threat as an outgrowth of a 40-year ideology that challenged the notion of a strong central government, “eviscerating the notion of public good.”

“Liberty has become a synonym for selfishness,” he said. “People can’t even put on the damn mask.”

That intensifying polarization — with rivalry among neighbors exacerbated by social media, with anger and accusations erupting on even the mildest of community Facebook pages, with political flags flying over beach chairs — is itself a sign of an eroding democracy, scholars say.

Berg, the Nazi scholar, says she is reminded of early-1930s Germany, in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, when both ends of the political spectrum, fascists and communists, lost faith in the democratic system and urged that it be dismantled.

“These are warning signs for democratic fragility,” Berg said. “Once we agree the democracy is under threat and the institutions no longer work for us, we don’t feel the need to defend them.”

In Philadelphia, she said, the police teargassing of Black Lives Matter protesters and the response by self-styled white militia groups feed moments that “speed into a general sense of hopelessness.” The coronavirus pandemic only further exposed inequalities.

“The fragmentation, the disillusionment, the sense that opposing world views are fundamentally irreconcilable are an important parallel,” Berg said.

Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called 2020 “a much more fragile election than you see in almost any well-established democracy.”

He cited the country’s “decentralized and antiquated” electoral system, and the continued stoking by Trump of mistrust in voting.

“He’s calling out to the most violent of his supporters,” Carothers said. “They’re ready to defend him. That’s awfully dangerous.”

In the last decade, he said, there has been a trend toward disputed elections and electoral violence.

“It’s become more and more a pattern, mostly in developing democracies,” Carothers said. “It’s startling to see it in the United States.”

While some may feel newly startled in confronting existential civic crises, racial injustice, and economic, health, and voting insecurity, those shifting grounds can feel like worn territory for communities of color.

“The underbelly of the country is in full view,” Glaude said. “We have been dealing with that for generations.”

But democracies do not topple all at once, scholars note. In Kenya, election-related violence in 2009 led to a unity commission that decentralized power, “to make it less of a thing worth fighting for,” Carothers said.

Trump’s “power to break democracy is to convince people to go along with his process,” he said. “He himself can’t control the process.”

Alexander-Floyd, the Rutgers professor, says people are not powerless and points to general strikes that have slowed coups elsewhere. “We have a role to play,” she said.

In Tunisia, during the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, 28 days of civil resistance led to the country’s democratization. “Votes do matter,” Bush, the Yale professor, said.

There’s little enthusiasm among scholars for the argument that alarmism is itself harmful, or that Trump’s words overstate his actions.

“That is a formulation that comes out of the idea of America as the redeemer nation, as democracy achieved, on our way to a more perfect union,” Glaude said. “All of that is the rhetoric of feigned innocence. We have to grow up.”

Glaude says to prepare for the long haul. “November’s not going to settle anything,” he said. “If [Trump] wins, all hell’s going to break loose. If he loses, all hell’s going to break loose. We just need to buckle up.”

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