‘Classic Authoritarian’: How Historians Rate Trump’s Danger to DemocracyHistorians in the News
tags: democracy, authoritarianism, Donald Trump
President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Joe Biden, but his rhetoric escalated last week, only 40 days before the presidential election. On Thursday, Trump expressed his skepticism that the election would be “honest” after initially saying “we’ll see what happens” when asked a day earlier if he would accept the results in November.
While Trump made similar remarks on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, he was not then the incumbent president with all the powers of the executive branch at his disposal. Last week’s comments provoked guarded critiques from Republican elected officials on Capitol Hill who often literally subtweeted him, sharing statements on social media that did not mention Trump by name.
The reaction couldn’t have been more different from leading scholars and historians who study countries that have fallen into dictatorship. A half-dozen prominent academic figures interviewed by Intelligencer warned of extreme danger for the country and analogized the United States right now to Eastern European and Latin American countries that faced a breakdown of the democratic order and sometimes plunged into autocracy as a result. Even so, they cautioned that analogies are only so useful given the unprecedented nature of events in the United States.
“It’s hard for me as an historian to think of a coup d’état as well telegraphed in advance,” warned Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale and a scholar of Eastern Europe’s blood-soaked history.
Snyder noted that Trump’s repeated comments dismissing the legitimacy of the election “make it clear to us that he wants to stay in power illegally.” In Snyder’s view, this is “characteristic of an authoritarian or pre-authoritarian situation.” He said that there will likely be a power struggle after the election unless the Democrats win decisively. He analogized the situation to Serbia in 2000 where the opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic knew “that it had to win by at least ten points … by some kind of margin that looks big.” But the opposition didn’t win by a big margin — and it took mass demonstrations labeled “the Bulldozer Revolution” and the threat of a military coup for Milosevic to finally yield power.
Domestic parallels were harder to come by. Sean Wilentz, an award-winning historian at Princeton University, thought the “the great parallel” was the election of 1860 where slaveholders were not willing to accept any Republican president and seceded when Abraham Lincoln was elected. Granted, Wilentz said the “ideological issues today were not quite as sharp,” and the country is not as purely sectional — after all, “Austin would have to secede from Texas.”
He also dismissed comparisons to the election of 1876, which constitutional scholars have repeatedly cited in recent months as the only time a disputed presidential election plunged the United States into political chaos. In that case, election returns from four states were disputed and the outcome was not resolved until the eve of the inauguration with a grand compromise where Democrats conceded — effectively in return for Republicans ending Reconstruction in the South. “It was a constitutional crisis, no question,” said Wilentz, but the presidential winner, “Rutherford B. Hayes was not a would-be authoritarian.”
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