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A number of troubling signs, such as Donald Trump’s refusal to endorse a peaceful transfer of power and his refusal to condemn white supremacists, lead many to worry about what has, until recently, been unthinkable. As a historian of Nazi Germany, I share this concern. But two features of our political landscape give our democracy a fighting chance. First, although our president has the instincts of an autocrat, he lacks the skill set it requires. Second, while multi-party democracies have often succumbed to tyrants with the opposition splintering, the two-party system has facilitated solidarity against Trumpism.
This solidarity creates grounds for hope that Joe Biden will win the election on November 3. Yet Trump is an authoritarian personality and those of us who oppose him ought to prepare for trouble, no matter what the election brings.
Even if the election goes according to plan, that guarantees little: From Adolf Hitler to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aspiring autocrats have pretended to play by the rules of the democracies they intended to destroy. Experience in the military or politics taught other dictators, such as Spain’s Francisco Franco and Greece’s Ionannis Metaxas in the 1930s and Hungary’s Viktor Orban today, how to unify their followers and divide their enemies, as well as how to deceive allies and outwit rivals. Their keen ability to gauge the political situation, combined with their tactical agility, made them masters of deception.
The political situation in the United States offers a contrast to these successful autocrats. Donald Trump lies, but his deceptions are transparent and sometimes nonsensical. He refused to serve in the military and eschewed electoral politics until he ran for president. But his very different background also shapes his attitude toward the office he holds in ways that earlier historical examples do not illuminate. His contempt for the law made him rich, and his braggadocio made him a reality television star. In both of these roles, as in the presidency, he has never concealed his desire to wield unchecked power. But it is as president that these tendencies have become most destructive. In 2019 he boasted: “Article II [of the Constitution] says I can do whatever I want.” In April 2020 he asserted: “When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total. It’s total.”
All autocrats boast about their absolute authority. Yet this openness about craving unchecked power suggests Trump’s lack of conventional political savvy because, in the words of Elizabeth Warren, “Usually dictators do not announce their plans in advance.” As modern history suggests, aspiring autocrats’ stealth has contributed to their success. Trump’s lack of stealth, his arrogance, and his need to share his unedited thoughts create opportunities to stop him.
This is where the solidarity that a two-party system invites, and that has produced a united opposition that spans the liberal left and Never Trump Republicans, matters. The twentieth century shows that when autocrats have emerged in multi-party democracies, their opponents fragmented in the face of this political challenge. Communists quarreled with Socialists, royalists rivaled republicans, Christian democrats distrusted liberals, and regional parties despised central power. Years of inter-party hostility consistently crippled efforts to forge a common defense as autocrats consolidated their own power through pragmatic alliances and intimidation.
Paradoxically, the polarized American electorate facilitates solidarity against those who would usurp democracy and reshape American politics to their own purposes. The Democratic Party has provided a single, albeit temporary, home for dissent that seems to be holding fast on the eve of this critical election. Early on, a few Republican Trump critics formed the Lincoln Project and the Coalition of the Decent (now Republicans for Biden); these have been joined more recently by Republicans for the Rule of Law. Whistle-blowers and high-level public servants in both parties have sounded alarms, as have military leaders. George W. Bush, seven members of his cabinet, and eight Republican former governors have broken ranks with Trump. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has openly deplored “The way [Trump] kisses dictators’ butts” before going on to state that Trump “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”
Distinguished officials from across the political spectrum have parted ways with Trump. The President’s affinity for Vladimir Putin prompted 489 former security officers to protest: “Thanks to [Trump’s] disdainful attitude and his failures, our allies no longer trust or respect us, and our enemies no longer fear us.”
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris should win this election. On Sunday, a headline in the New York Times cited the reasons: “Lies, Anger, Corruption, Incompetence, Chaos, Decay.” This headline coincided with the Financial Times projection of an Electoral College split between Biden 279 and Trump 125, with 134 considered as “toss up.”
Yet this is not the time to relax in anticipation of a landslide Biden victory, or to presume that winning this election is more than the beginning of a longer struggle in which anti-Trump solidarity must be preserved. Most autocrats tightly control their parties which all but vanish after their demise. That would not be the case with the Republican Party. Trump will go, but Trumpism will remain.
But so will a conservative movement that has been rolling back liberal achievements for 40 years. Trump landed unexpectedly at the head of a party he had no hand in creating, but whose goals he has advanced. Even though he seems to bully its leaders into submission, if Trump disappeared, the GOP would continue to advance a “constitutional revolution” that aims to undermine federal authority, and has been funded since the 1930s by billionaires, corporations and foundations. If it succeeds, historian Nancy MacLean has warned that “instead of a Constitution with checks and balances, what we would have is a Constitution of locks and bolts.” Even if Trump loses on November 3, as many expect he will, behind the façade of democracy a powerful oligarchy will pursue its longstanding agenda to accumulate power by paying for influence. For this coalition, as Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted during the vice-presidential debate, “democracy isn’t the objective.”
But demographic anxiety is, and nativism will remain an issue on the populist right and a concern among Republican powerbrokers. Lindsay Graham expressed it at the 2012 GOP Convention, long before Donald Trump was in elected office: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” With more non-white than white students in public schools today, GOP rhetoric consistently depicts this as a now or never moment that calls for extreme actions.
Trump’s autocratic style mirrors a longer strategy by the GOP to wield absolute power, something they were able to do before Democrats won back the House in 2018. An investigation by the New York Times described GOP strategists’ tactics for disrupting democracy: “Flood every state, every television news network, every newspaper and news feed with manufactured evidence of fraud to suppress Democratic votes before Election Day.” Last summer the GOP pledged $2,000,000 to support 50,000 poll watchers in 15 key states, who would assemble to discourage Democrats from voting. We know that it is a show of force because Eric Trump, the president’s younger son, calls them “The Army for Trump.”
The possibility of violence and intimidation at the polls not seen since the civil rights movement is coupled with a voting system that has known flaws. In every national election since 2000, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have identified weaknesses in our electoral infrastructure. Proposed reforms have failed, and our elections remain vulnerable to interference. Even if the Electoral College make Joe Biden the clear winner, GOP strategists could use these weaknesses to attempt to invalidate Democrats’ victories at local, congressional, and state levels. These post-election legal challenges would weaken citizens’ trust in the electoral process—particularly since many would be tried in federal appellate courts dominated by Trump-appointed judges.
While the eruption of post-election violence is not likely, it is a real possibility that Democrats are preparing for. In the event that Trump loses, it’s impossible to predict where his recklessness might lead. But a glimpse at autocrats’ behavior in the final months of World War II attests to their willingness to risk their own and their countrymen’s survival in the hope of beating even overwhelming odds. Mussolini thought in either/or terms, as suggested by his motto (made famous by Trump’s plagiarism of it) “Better to live for a day like a lion than 100 years like a lamb.” Hitler, an inveterate political gambler with a flair for the dramatic, met obstacles in his path with an “all or nothing” va banque strategy. While Allied bombing destroyed civilian centers in 1945, the delusional Führer believed that the miracle V-2 rocket and the draft of teens and old men would turn the tide. Two days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wartime leader Hideki Tojo ridiculed the high command’s fear of “the new type of bomb.” Axis leaders’ delusional daring recalls an adage that Rev. William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s campaign has been known to cite: “A dying mule always kicks the hardest.”
How would Trump react to a resounding defeat? He has already told us. He will not accept the results of an election of which he is not the winner and he will urge his followers to reject it as well. When, during the first presidential debate, he said he would order the white supremacist Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by,” he demonstrated what we also know after the summer of 2020: that violence serves his interests, and that he will promote it. After FBI agents arrested eight militia men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and put her on trial for “treason,” Trump criticized Whitmer. When the crowd chanted “Lock her up!,” Trump shouted: “Lock them all up!” The dark web may have spawned similar plans, like the plot against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam that was foiled last summer.
Facing electoral defeat, together with legal and financial catastrophe, Trump’s gambling instincts could prompt him to take high-stakes risks, such as signaling his approval of vigilante violence and retweeting QAnon incitements to search and destroy imaginary clandestine dangers. The chaos that has been a Trump hallmark would be in full flower. Commentators, among them Thomas Friedman and Jamelle Bouie, have sounded the alarm. But besides calling for a huge voter turnout, they give little guidance as to what should be done in the event that Trump’s challenge to democracy escalates in the aftermath of a loss.
We must build on the pre-election solidarity that Democrats and Never-Trumpers have forged, and the organizations that arose specifically to combat Trumpism. Citizen networks must be prepared to call mass demonstrations, on the model of Black Lives Matter and the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Get-out-the-vote organizations must not disband after the election. The recently formed Protect the Results provides information about local events on a national scale. In 2013, Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II developed a new model of peaceful resistance when he rallied protesters to convene on Moral Mondays outside the North Carolina legislature to demand the end of voter suppression. In the face of politicians’ inaction, Rev. Barber recalled, “17 people decided to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. We were quoting scriptures, quoting the Constitution, talking about issues, and they arrested us.” From this small act, the Poor People’s Campaign grew to become the national organization it is today.
But we also need to reach out to Republicans who care about democracy. Thousands of ordinary Republicans make anti-Trump views respectable in the selfies and brief statements on their website, Republican Voters Against Trump. High-profile critics of the Trump administration ought also to be communicating with their peers from different backgrounds.
Mobilizing people already exhausted from a long election season will burden these busy public figures. They can, however, task their social media-savvy staffers with organizing a “big tent,” action-ready coalition that draws together defenders of democracy whose diverse professional concerns motivated them to “go public” in the first place. These organizers could learn from the Democratic congressional staffers who, over the 2016 Thanksgiving weekend, pulled together Indivisible, a nationwide coalition of grassroots organizations.
Our post-election efforts must reflect the broad coalition that assembled to oust Trump in the first place. As former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats put it: “The most important part of an effective response is to finally, at long last, forge a genuinely bipartisan effort to save our democracy, rejecting the vicious partisanship that has disabled and destabilized government for too long. If we cannot find common ground now, on this core issue at the very heart of our endangered system, we never will.”
The stakes are high, and the enemy is concentrated. A loosely coordinated, non-partisan network that builds on the anti-Trump coalition can draw leaders and ordinary Americans together in defense of the democracy we cherish.
Claudia Koonz is Peabody Family Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.