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Donald Trump’s Cult of Personality and the Erosion of American Democracy


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If it wasn’t certain before, now it’s crystal clear. Former President Donald Trump has a stranglehold on the Republican Party. No allegation of impropriety or illegality, no preoccupation with fueling extremism and violence, no documented obstruction of the rule of law can shake its apparent dominance over the American right.

This month it emerged that the FBI was investigating Trump for unlawful possession of classified US documents, including items allegedly linked to the US nuclear arsenal. The wholly partisan reaction to the revelations has only bolstered Trump’s stock, generating millions of dollars in donations to his political action committee and fueling right-wing outrage over the state’s supposed excess. Meanwhile, the results of a string of primary elections across the country — including Tuesday’s landslide defeat of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy0.) by a Trump-aligned challenger — have bolstered how the opposition internal party to Trump has generally proven to be a political death sentence. Of the 10 House Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump for his role in instigating the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, only two even have a chance of returning to the chamber next year.

Trump’s grip on the Republican Party has led to the rise of a new generation of would-be Republican lawmakers who are repeating the former president’s lies about the 2020 election. This 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 positions with authority over future elections involve candidates who have embraced lies and conspiracy theories about precedent. and deny its legitimacy.

Since Trump left office, his influence with Republicans has arguably grown. A mock poll of attendees at the right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month saw enthusiasm for Trump higher than ever. If he chooses to launch a presidential campaign in 2024, the bulk of the Republican establishment should meekly line up behind him. “If you look at political analysis, there’s no way this party will stay together without President Trump and his supporters,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) told my colleagues last year . “There is no construction where the party can succeed without him.”

This is a more familiar situation in other parts of the world than in the United States. The massive capture of one wing of American politics by what is, as Cheney put it, a “cult of personality” surrounding a demagogic leader has limited precedent in US history. But we can see current variations of the theme, among others, in Hungary under its illiberal nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in Turkey under longtime President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and in 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 personality at the top. They are at different stages in their evolution: Erdogan’s grip could be loosening, old allies defecting and forming new parties, while Modi and Orban are more comfortable in charge. The rulers’ majoritarian demagoguery has led to the erosion of their democracies, which critics say have become to varying degrees quasi-autocracies where the media are intimidated, ethnic or religious minorities are intimidated and the opposition marginalized.

This phenomenon is visible in other democracies dominated by illiberal factions, as political polarization only deepens the incentives to retain power and punish opponents. “The Republican Party’s zealous devotion to getting rid of anyone who challenges Trumpian dogma seems all too familiar,” scholar Brian Klaas wrote in a Washington Post column last year that noted how Republican loyalty to Trump was. mirrored by Poland’s ruling party politicians who have weaponized conspiracy theories about the media and the 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 kind of corrosive loyalty test has caused enormous damage to Polish democratic institutions.

Organizing America: The American Right Follows Hungary’s Path

For the United States, there is a long avenue for further democratic backsliding. Some analysts say it is necessary for the full weight of the justice system to hang against Trump, though others warn of the dangerous precedent he could set. A sizable minority of Americans buy into Trump’s narrative of victimization and persecution by the Democratic establishment.

“Trump’s entire presidency was unprecedented,” countered Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and scholar of 20th-century authoritarian politics. “He differed from former heads of state of either party in having no interest in public welfare or consensus politics. His goals were autocratic: to gain power, to domesticate the GOP, and to make his financial and personal interests prevail over national interests in the making of domestic and foreign policy.

Republican critics of Trump have been demoralized by the extent to which the party base has abandoned them and flocked to the Trumpist banner. “Maybe there wouldn’t be a tidal wave of people coming, but I certainly didn’t think I would be alone,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told reporters the last week. Along with Cheney, Kinzinger served on the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 riot; he is not seeking re-election in November.

Now Trump can see a way to override the institutional checks and accountability instruments put in place against him. Sean Illing, co-author of the new book ‘The Paradox of Democracy’ which traces the long history of democracies becoming increasingly susceptible to so-called authoritarians, has warned that the existing democratic guardrails in the United States may not hold. if large numbers of Republicans vote for people who “explicitly promise to overthrow the rule of law”.

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