Trumpism and other forms of American fascism are not acute illnesses in the nation's civic life and society. They are more like chronic illnesses; the infection runs deep.
New research by Morning Consult reveals the extent of this problem, reporting that "26% of the U.S. population qualified as highly right-wing authoritarian." Using researcher Bob Altemeyer's right-wing authoritarianism test and scale and building on work he has conducted recently with the Monmouth University Polling Institute, Morning Consult "found that U.S. conservatives have stronger right-wing authoritarian tendencies than their right-of-center counterparts in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom":
Altemeyer defines authoritarianism as the desire to submit to some authority, aggression that is directed against whomever the authority says should be targeted and a desire to have everybody follow the norms and social conventions that the authority says should be followed. Those characteristics were all on display in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, culminating earlier this year in the attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump. ...
Take views on the rioters themselves, for example: More than a quarter of high-RWA respondents and conservatives said those that broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 were protecting the U.S. government rather than undermining it, compared with roughly 9 in 10 liberal or low-RWA respondents who said the opposite.
Similar divides cropped up on the questions that helped lead to the Jan. 6 riot, with most right-leaning and high-RWA Americans agreeing that Joe Biden won the presidential election due to widespread fraud. A slim majority of those respondents also said they were more likely to believe Trump than U.S. judges when it comes to the existence of evidence of voting irregularities.
These findings complement new research from the Voter Study Group finding that 46% of Republicans believe state legislatures should have the power to overturn the results of the popular vote — specifically, to nullify Biden's victory by giving electoral college votes to Donald Trump, irrespective of the actual vote.
Political scientists and other experts have described the political system that Republicans want to impose as "competitive authoritarianism" or "managed democracy," which is used by Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Nearly one in three Republicans reject the basic premise that in a democracy the candidate who loses an election should admit defeat and respect the outcome. These new findings complement earlier research showing — that Republican voters – especially Trump supporters — are willing to reject democracy and embrace authoritarianism if it means that white people remain the dominant and most powerful group in the United States.
There are many more examples of the ways the Republican Party and its voters have rejected democracy and embraced authoritarianism.
The Jim Crow Republican Party is currently engaged in a nationwide campaign to keep Black and brown people and other likely Democratic voters from voting at all. Republican voters have been propagandized and programmed with racist lies about "voter fraud" and "election integrity," and overwhelmingly support these attacks on democracy.
New research by the American Enterprise Institute shows that almost 40% of Republicans are willing to support political violence if they deem it necessary to "protect the country" or America's "traditional way of life."
As a result of the Big Lie strategy and repeated claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, approximately 70% of Republicans believe that Trump is still president and see Biden as a usurper. Furthermore, 30% of Republicans have managed to convince themselves that Trump will be "reinstated" as president as soon as August. (There is no legal or constitutional way to accomplish that.)
The Department of Homeland Security has warned that Trump's followers may engage in acts of political violence and terrorism, as they did on Jan. 6, if he does not return to power.
Other polls show that 21% of Republicans support Donald Trump's coup attempt and attack on the U.S. Capitol, with 30% of Republicans describing those who stormed the Capitol in January as "patriots."
How are President Biden and the Democratic Party responding to this rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism and its toxic hold over tens of millions of (white) Americans? In fairness, Biden has repeatedly voiced his profound concerns about the Republican Party's ongoing attempts to overthrow America's multiracial democracy.
But Biden's response to this democracy crisis is to focus on "bipartisanship," creating economic growth, fighting the coronavirus and passing an infrastructure bill and other legislation as a way of improving the lives of all Americans — including, of course, Trump supporters and Republicans. To this point, Biden's approach to governance has relied on ignoring the right-wing rage machine and its attempts to bait him into "culture war" fights.
Biden's core logic is as follows: If his administration and the Democrats in Congress can improve people's material circumstances and day-to-day lives, democracy will be redeemed as the best form of government. In a new essay at CNN, Frida Ghitis describes this strategy:
The President has not changed his mind about how important democracy is; he didn't just decide that bridges and highways are a higher priority than the right to vote. Rather, Biden has made a tactical choice. He is wagering that improving infrastructure, creating jobs and raising standards of living for the bulk of Americans will prove a more effective way to show democracy works than shifting procedures on how to vote. It's a gamble, and like every gamble, it may or may not pay off. …
Biden understands that voting rights are paramount to safeguarding democracy. But from what he has said we know that he believes the future of democracy depends on something beyond everyone's right to cast a ballot. What matters more is persuading the public that this is a system that produces tangible results for them. If the system doesn't give you a better life, some may ask, why is it so important to protect it?
Ghitis concludes with this warning:
The risk is that, as Biden allocates his finite political capital toward longer-range programs, even as Republicans focus sharply on strangling Democrats' efforts to strengthen voting rights, he is allowing the most fundamental mechanism of democracy, the act of voting, to become increasingly difficult for citizens to exercise.
If his gamble fails, he could end up creating prosperity and well-being, just in time for the party that is undercutting democracy to take power.
Unfortunately, Biden is in error here: Like other forms of fascism, Trumpism is fueled by resentment, fear, collective narcissism and an almost primordial belief that one's own racial or ethnic group is superior to others. Improving the material circumstances of Trump's followers may peel a few of them away on the fringes, but the base and core will remain.
Biden's error reflects a more general mistake in reasoning that all too often hobbles Democrats, liberals and other members of the so-called left in their confrontations with fascists, authoritarians and other illiberal forces: Yes, the economy and "class" are important, but fascist movements are also fueled by dreams of a fictive past and a return to "greatness," power, and dominance for one's social or demographic group.
Trump's followers are not, as a group, economically impoverished. "White working-class" Trumpists have a median household income of $72,000. As seen on Jan. 6, it is not the white poor or the working class who are being most severely radicalized into right-wing extremism. Rather, it is middle-class white people who have become afraid of being "replaced" by nonwhites.
Joe Biden is receiving high marks from Democrats as well as many Republicans for his approach to stopping the COVID pandemic and reinvigorating the economy. Nonetheless, Republicans overwhelmingly oppose him and view his presidency, along with the Democratic Party and its voters, as an existential threat to white power.
Writing at CNN, Matt Egan offers this warning about how Trumpism distorts Republicans' perception of the state of the economy:
Unemployment is shrinking. The stock market is booming. Americans are returning to the skies and even to movie theaters. And yet Republicans are deeply worried about the state of the economy.
Even though the US economy is expected to grow this year at the fastest pace in decades, consumer sentiment among self-identified Republicans is worse today than during the height of the pandemic, according to the University of Michigan.
In fact, Republicans are more pessimistic than at any point since September 2010, when the economy was just beginning to dig out of the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, consumer sentiment among self-identified Democrats is higher than at any point during the presidency of Donald Trump — even though unemployment was far lower then than it is today.
This polarization of consumer sentiment across party lines is not entirely new, but it got significantly worse during the Trump era and continues to this day.
Unfortunately, white identity politics and white rage are more important than pocketbook issues for many of today's Republican voters. How can Biden and the Democrats and Joe Biden fight back? They must start by acknowledging that this crisis of democracy is existential — and then act with extreme urgency.
This means not cooperating with the Republicans on any policies in the name of "bipartisanship." Protecting American democracy should be the Democrats' No. 1 priority. To work with Republicans is to legitimize them as responsible partners in government, when in reality today's Republican Party is an extremist, anti-democratic and white supremacist criminal organization. The Senate filibuster, long an impediment to democracy, must at last be eliminated.
The Democrats should learn from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's cruel tutelage in realpolitik. "What would Mitch McConnell do?" should be a principle that Democratic leaders internalize — and they should then turn McConnell's ruthless tactics on the Republicans.
The Democratic Party must develop better messaging that attacks the core brand identity of the Republican Party. To that end, the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election must become a referendum on democracy versus fascism.
In a recent conversation here at Salon, political scientist and polling analyst Rachel Bitecofer summarized the Democrats' predicament:
The GOP is running this very strategic, very intentional branding campaign, and we're still talking about politics in terms of policies and things like that. We're ... making a huge mistake when we're tinkering around in the branches of electioneering infrastructure on the left, because our real problem lies at that root level, where we are not engaged in a campaign technique that matches the moment.
Finally, Biden and the Democrats must understand that time is once again their enemy. Bold and forceful action to save American democracy is needed, right now. It is better to act boldly and with confidence than to wait for salvation at some future moment — because the Trump movement and the Jim Crow Republicans are working to foreclose all such future options. If Democrats, and all Americans, are going to lose this existential struggle for the future, it would surely be better to go down swinging rather than to sit there passively, hoping for the best.