There’s a burgeoning cottage industry among historians and intellectuals manufacturing theses on why authoritarianism is popping up around the globe, sometimes in bastions of democracy. In some countries autocratic rulers have neutered democratic institutions.
Yes, Trumpism immediately comes to mind. But the study of the decline of democracy predates The Donald’s assumption of office, though he has worked diligently to install America First leadership of the movement, aided and abetted by members of the Republican Party who have abandoned their historical commitment to constitutional values.
My musings are prompted by an email from a friend who related she had just listened to an interview with Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, describing her most recent book, “Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism.”
Here are links to two recent interviews, the first, a seven minute discussion on NPR’s “Morning Edition”
(https://www.npr.org/2020/07/22/894074616/anne-applebaums-latest-book-twilight-of-democracy). The second link is to a 35 minute broadcast of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” The link also contains a transcript of the interview (https://www.npr.org/transcripts/869722081).
I am neither an historian nor a certified intellectual, but upon receiving my friend’s email I provided some thoughts on the allure of authoritarian rule:
“From religion to business enterprises to sports teams to orchestras to theater/movie productions to all manner of communal activity we are drawn to and often revere strong leaders, be they popes/rabbis, dynamic CEOs, coaches/managers, flamboyant conductors, visionary directors.
“Of course, we also willingly follow the authoritative general who provides us with security from our enemies and leadership when we covet what others have.
“It is thus in all societies. We seem to be hard wired in our DNA to seek out strong leaders. It is only in the last 300 or so years that the concept of popular democratic government has evolved. But it has not taken hold in business, the arts, the military, religion. Those disciplines would be unable to succeed under democratic rules. It would result in bedlam.
“Even in democracies like America, India, Israel, Turkey we see too many citizens revert to the innate desire to follow a strongman.
“Democracy, to work, requires education and the absence of existential fear. Trump is stoking fear. From his campaign four years ago to his dystopian inaugural address to his anti immigration rules to his 2020 campaign that spreads warnings of what may happen if the Dems win to his use of armed services to control protesters Trump trades on fear.
“Fear is one of humankind’s most basic and motivating emotions. Even some of the most educated succumb to fear and seek comfort in an authoritarian leader.”
It is not for nothing that our form of government is called the “American experiment.” But just as experiments can go akilter (I am reminded of an unintended high school chemistry explosion when the teacher added water to a beaker of sulfuric acid instead of the other way around), so too can our democracy implode if participants fail to act appropriately.
Asked on “Fresh Air” if she sees similarities of creeping authoritarianism in America with actions past and current overseas, Applebaum replied, “Absolutely. The use of the military, the use of language to incite violence - you know, all these are - you know, these aren’t just random things that Trump is doing; these are known tactics. You know, this is how Chavez took over in Venezuela. You know, this is the kind of language that Erdogan uses in Turkey. This is the kind - these are the tactics that Putin uses in Russia. I mean, these are - you know, it’s not coming out of the blue. These are methods that have been used in the past in other places.
“I mean, Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional. And actually, I believe in many ways, we are. You know, we’re uniquely lucky. We’re uniquely gifted. We’ve been a very fortunate nation. We’ve had - you know, we’ve achieved many wonderful things. But we are not exempt from the lure of authoritarianism. We are not exempt from people trying to create authoritarianism. There is nothing about our democracy that is magic. You know, a person who is determined to destroy it can destroy it, unless people can fight back.”
(Most of you are pandemicly stuck at home with time to spare. If you haven’t already, click on the Fresh Air link I provided above. Listen to the interview or read the transcript. It won’t cheer you up but it should galvanize your support in defense of our fragile democracy.)