“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can do much to help it.”—Judge Learned Hand
The evidence is overwhelming that Donald Trump has been a menace to truth, law, and democracy. Far less attention, however, has been paid to how the structures of “the world’s oldest democracy” can still derail an authoritarian assault that in the blink of history has gone from inconceivable to implausible to “in plain sight.”
A century ago in Germany and Italy, comfortable elites were lulled into thinking that public institutions would maintain democratic stability and that “it couldn’t happen here.” And then it happened. The reason that dictators in the 1930s succeeded, concludes political analyst Steve Schmidt, “was not because fascism was strong but because democracy was weak.”
In post-insurrection America today, one party has quit governing and sounds like a 24/7 talk radio station. A new book by the leading scholar on civil wars—How Civil Wars Start, by Barbara F. Walter—warns that the growing normalization of violent language, threats, and acts can become self-fulfilling. Timothy Snyder, author of the best-selling On Tyranny, thinks it “pathetically naive” to assume that the GOP won’t try to overturn the results if it loses the 2024 presidential election.
Can we erect stronger levees to hold back the red tide of creeping fascism… before Trump, Manchin, and GOP governors entrench minority rule? Here’s a scorecard of 10 key variables that might answer that question, labeled either with a + (plausible) or a—(uphill):
1. January 6 Committee (+). Holding Trump criminally accountable for a life of lawlessness has proven difficult. Special counsel Robert Mueller inexplicably refused to recommend obstruction charges that he himself documented, and two open-and-shut impeachments didn’t lead to removal by the Senate because of Republican solidarity.
Will the third time be the charm?
The bipartisan January 6 House Select Committee—with subpoena power, relentless members, and no third party able to block it—appears poised to move the needle in three ways: publish a timeline of White House involvement before, during, and after January 6 (“Trump sent us!”); conduct public hearings that educate millions of voters as to why violent extremism isn’t very patriotic; and make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, perhaps including Trump, that will increase pressure on a so-far diffident Attorney General Merrick Garland.