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Authoritarian experts warn time is running out to stop Tump

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  • Americans are running out of time to stop Trump’s authoritarian slide, experts warn. 
  • “There need to be mass protests,” a Yale philosophy professor and expert on fascism told Insider. “The Republican party is betraying democracy and these are historical times. Someone has got to push back.”
  • Since he was acquitted in the GOP-controlled Senate, the president oversaw a White House purge of impeachment witnesses and the attorney general intervened in the trial of a Trump associate.
  • Republicans have mostly sat back, with at least one senator conceding that Trump’s behavior does not seem to have changed due to impeachment.
  • “There is absolutely no reason for [Trump] to stop pushing. It goes against both his personality and his experience,” Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, told Insider.

If Americans are concerned that President Donald Trump and Republicans are moving the US toward becoming a one-party, authoritarian state, they are running out of time to stop them, experts warn. 

Trump has exhibited autocratic impulses since his 2016 campaign and from the moment he entered the White House.

The president has attacked virtually every democratic institution in the US when he’s felt their actions were unfavorable to his agenda or public appearance. Meanwhile, he pushed traditional US allies away while openly embracing many of the world’s most repressive leaders. 

All of these trends have raised concern among top experts on authoritarianism, fascism, and democracy, but they often said that the robust political system in the US, with its checks and balances and constitutional norms, have prevented Trump from becoming a full-blown authoritarian and doing whatever he wants. 

Since Trump was acquitted in the Senate after being impeached in the House over his dealings with Ukraine, which was followed by a White House purge of impeachment witnesses and Attorney General William Barr intervening in the trial of a close associate of the president, Roger Stone, their tone has changed dramatically.

‘Someone has got to push back’

“The system is enabling Trump,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works,” told Insider. 

“There need to be mass protests,” he said. “The Republican party is betraying democracy and these are historical times. Someone has got to push back.”

“The deeply worrying moment is when you start to become a one-party state,” Stanley added. “The Republican party has shown that it has no interest multi-party democracy…They are are much more concerned with power, with consolidating power.” Stanley said recent actions from Republicans and Trump are “straight from the literature on authoritarianism.”

Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to convict Trump over abuse of power in his Senate impeachment trial. Romney was also among just two GOP senators to vote in favor of an ultimately failed motion to call witnesses. All of the 15 Senate impeachment trials prior to Trump’s had witnesses, but Republicans blocked potentially crucial testimony from the president’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. 

Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, in 2012 has since been excoriated by fellow Republicans and treated as a pariah.

Stanley said that there should have been mass protests in the street after the vote against witnesses, warning that the absent of significant public outcry served as “a further sign to the party in power that they can go ahead and do what they want.”

Romney

Sen. Mitt Romney announces his intention to vote to convict President Donald Trump for abuse of power during Senate debate ahead of the resumption and final vote in the Trump impeachment trial at the US Capitol in Washington, on February 5, 2020.

Reuters


Trump urged Ukraine, a vulnerable US ally, to dig up dirt on his political rivals during an reelection year. This included former Vice President Joe Biden, who until recent electoral setbacks was thought to be the leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. And Trump did so while withholding almost $400 million in vital, congressionally-approved military aid from Kiev as it fights an ongoing war against pro-Russian separatists.

There was a mountain of evidence that Trump directed a broad, complex scheme to essentially blackmail Ukraine into smearing his political opponents, but not all of it was delivered under oath because Republicans prevented key witnesses from testifying.

Several Senate Republicans decried Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, but still voted to acquit him. One such Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, conceded that she hadn’t seen changes in Trump’s behavior from his impeachment, despite her colleague Sen. Susan Collins of Maine recently suggesting that the president had learned a lesson. “There haven’t been very strong indicators this week that he has,” Murkowski told reporters on Wednesday.

‘There is absolutely no reason for him to stop pushing’

“From the moment he entered the Republican primary in 2015 to his impeachment five years later, Donald Trump has ignored advice to moderate and change and, in his view (which is largely correct) won. He has tested the boundaries of people and institutions several times, and found them to be bendable and weak,” Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who’s an expert in populism, extremism, and democracy.

“There is absolutely no reason for him to stop pushing,” he added. “It goes against both his personality and his experience.”

Mudde said the only question is whether there is still a breaking point for the Republican party. 

“Note that Trump has not changed the institutions, so the powers are still there,” he said. “This is all about the courage and willingness of Republicans to stand up for the rule and law and to the president.” 

Since Trump’s acquittal, he’s ousted two key impeachment witnesses: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran, was pushed out of the National Security Council. Gordon Sondland, a Republican donor who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, was fired as US ambassador to the EU.

Within less than a week, Barr intervened in Stone’s trial, publicly overruling the prosecutors who’d been working on the case against the longtime GOP strategist and calling for a lesser sentence than the one prosecutors had recommended.

Trump took to Twitter to celebrate this controversial intervention, which led to the withdrawal or resignations of all four prosecutors working on Stone’s case. “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” the president said.

‘They’ll do whatever they can to hold onto power’ 

As the president applauded the attorney general, Stanley said Barr is a “dangerous, authoritarian enabler,” going on to say that Trump and those in his administration are not the only issue when it comes to an anti-democratic slide in the US. 

“It’s almost all of the Republican party,” Stanley said. “Mitch McConnell already showed that he has no loyalty to the rule of law when he denied Obama the right to appoint Supreme Court justices…It’s a much deeper problem.”

“We need conservatives and Republicans to stand up for the rule of law, and if we don’t have that, it’s over,” he said.

Trump and Barr

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is greeted by President Donald Trump at a presentation of Public Safety Medals of Valor to officers in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2019.

REUTERS/Leah Millis


Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and expert on authoritarianism, told Insider that the resignations of the prosecutors over the interference with Stone’s sentencing sent “a powerful message of protest.”

“For Trump and Barr, though, this is likely ‘good riddance to bad eggs,’ Ben-Ghiat said.

If Americans are truly concerned with Trump’s “abuse of power,” Ben-Ghiat said the best strategy is for voters to mobilize and use “their electoral power to vote out these authoritarians while they still can.”

But with a president who was just impeached over allegations he solicited foreign election interference, and Republican lawmakers that appear fully willing to enable his behavior, Stanley is not particularly optimistic about Election Day in November.

“I don’t know what would happen in the absence of mass protests,” Stanley said. “I’m not at all sanguine about the fairness of the upcoming elections…As they’ve shown, they’ll do whatever they can to hold onto power.”

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