Republicans would "rather end democracy" than turn away from Trump, says Harvard professor

Co-author of "How Democracies Die" says the GOP is ready to seize power. But they might not be able to keep it

Published October 13, 2021 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | The US Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | The US Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It can happen here. The "it" ought to be obvious by now: an authoritarian or even fascist regime in the United States. That was a big reason why Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, along with his colleague Daniel Ziblatt, published the 2018 book "How Democracies Die." They wanted to warn Americans of the dangerous signs they saw in Donald Trump's presidency that followed the authoritarian playbook.

So where are we now in terms of our democracy? I spoke with Levitsky recently for Salon Talks, and here's one line that really stood out: Levitsky told me, "Five years ago I would have laughed you out of the room if you suggested our democracy could die." But today, he added, we see the Republican Party apparently focused on breaking our democracy. In a nutshell, Levitsky believes the threat to our democracy is more acute today than when Trump was in the White House, since the GOP is desperate to retain its fading power in the face of hostile demographic change.

Levitsky describes today's GOP as "clearly an authoritarian party." Worse yet, it's no longer all about Trump. He sees the GOP continuing on its anti-democratic path for years to come, saying that even the contested term "fascist" is becoming more defensible given the GOP's defense or denial of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

You can watch my Salon Talks episode here, or read a transcript of our conversation below to hear Levitsky's suggestions about how Democrats can strengthen our democracy while they still control the White House and Congress, and why that might involve progressive swallowing some of their policy goals.  

As always, the following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In 2018, when your book "How Democracies Die" came out, on a scale from zero to 10 — with 10 being the most dire concerns about our democracy and zero being, no, everything's fine — where were we then in terms of your concern about our democracy?

I would say if 10 is most concerned, we were at five or six. We wrote the book because we were concerned. We wrote the book because we saw warning signs. But where I'm going is that I think we were too optimistic because we blamed the Republican Party for dropping the ball and allowing Donald Trump, a demagogue, an authoritarian demagogue, to be nominated. We thought they should have broken with Trump in defense of democracy. They obviously didn't. But we believed at the time — not long ago, three years ago — that the bulk of the Republican Party was minimally committed to small-D democracy.

We believed there was a faction in the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate, that would be able and willing to draw a line that they wouldn't let Trump cross. And we were wrong about that. The speed and the extent to which the Republican Party has been Trumpified is way beyond anything that we expected.

It's enough to have an authoritarian president — that's threatening. One of the two major parties has now basically given up on playing by democratic rules of the game. That's a new level of threat. And so now I would say—  it's hard to put a number, but I would say seven or eight.

I'm afraid to see what nine looks like, if this is seven or eight. You mention in your book the idea of using democratic methods to save our democracy, one being the election. The idea was that defeating Trump through the election might help preserve our democratic institutions. I imagine you could never have predicted what Trump would have done after losing the election, or what happened on Jan. 6. So even though we had a democratic election, are democratic institutions actually weaker now, after November 2020?

Let me answer that in two parts. First of all, we did have elections as an escape hatch, and we used them. And it's a damn good thing we did. We would be much, much worse off had Trump managed to retain the presidency and stay in power for four years. The fact that we sent him to Mar-a-Lago is very important, and shouldn't be understated. Now that said, I don't predict things accurately very well. One thing I did predict, I knew would happen.

I knew that Donald Trump would not accept the results of the election. What I did not anticipate is that the vast bulk of the Republican Party would go along with it. And of course, I didn't anticipate anything remotely like Jan. 6. So yes, things have gotten much worse, because not only has the Big Lie taken hold among the vast bulk of the Republican Party, to the point where you can't be a member of the Republican Party in good standing if you don't adhere to the Big Lie.

And they're acting upon that, right? They are now taking steps in various important states — Texas, Arizona, Georgia — to make it easier to overturn an election. So I think there's a good chance that the Republican Party, not just Donald Trump but the Republican Party, tries to overturn the results of the 2024 election. And that is, again, a worse place than we were a few years ago. But we would be even worse off had Trump remained in power.

If Trump ever got back in office, I don't know if he would ever leave. If you look at the GOP now from an academic point of view, how would you describe it? People throw around terms: It's autocratic, it's fascist. But how do you look at it?

I think ideologically it has evolved into something fairly similar to European far-right parties. It's primarily an ethno-nationalist nativist party. It is essentially preserving the identity of a white Christian America, and that is fairly similar to what we describe as far-right parties in Europe. The thing about far-right parties in Europe is they win 12, 15, 17, 18 percent of the vote and they're at the margins of politics. At best, they're a junior partner in a coalition government, but mostly they're in opposition. So they're kind of at the margins throwing rocks at the boat of the system, but they're not in power. There's no country, no established democracy in the world, with the exception of India, in which one major party is an extremist ethno-nationalist party.

That's frightening. So they are sort of like the AFD in Germany, let's say.


AFD didn't do well in the last election in Germany, they are nowhere close to electing a prime minister or chancellor. But we have a party here that's knocking on that same door that controls more of the governorships. When there's no resistance within the GOP to Donald Trump, drawing on history, what alarm bells does that raise about what could happen in the future?

It means that the Republican Party, as has been the case since 2016, will be following and acting in service to an authoritarian leader. I mean, there are many, many leaders past and present in the Republican Party who I may disagree with on policy, but I know at the end of the day, they're going to play by democratic rules. That's not true of Donald Trump. And we know very well, more than we did three years ago, that the vast bulk of the Republican Party will line up behind him. They stuck with him even after he instigated Jan. 6. I mean, that's worse than shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue. It's now crystal clear that they will follow him to whatever authoritarian destination he takes them. And that's more dangerous than just one guy. He has a party behind him.

In America, there's this sense by some that it can't happen here — whatever that could be, an autocracy, a dictatorship, a fascist regime. I think it is happening here. And I think a lot of people are not equipped, in the Democratic Party or in the media, to see what's going on right now. Is Donald Trump how democracies die?

Potentially. I mean, interestingly, we may have an election in 2024 where the election is stolen by the opposition party. That doesn't happen very often. But look, we wrote "How Democracies Die" precisely for the reasons you said. Americans take our democracy for granted, all of us. Me growing up until five years ago, I would have laughed you out of the room if you suggested that democracy might die. For 99 percent of Americans across the political spectrum, we took for granted that no matter how recklessly our politicians might behave, we couldn't actually break our democracy.

We wrote the book because we started to see, yeah, well, we might break our democracy. And even though at the time we may have only seen the risk level as a five or a six, we thought it was worth trying to raise the level of awareness, which I think we've done. Americans are much more worried than they were five, six, seven years ago, but I think you're right. We in the media, most Americans and most in the establishment and even the Democratic Party, even the Biden administration, doesn't quite have the level of urgency that we need to have.

I've never heard an American president talk about the battle between autocracy and democracy the way President Biden does. A lot of times it's talked about in the foreign context, but he brings it home domestically as well. There was a CBS poll in July in which 55 percent of Trump supporters — not Republicans, but Trump supporters — viewed Jan. 6 as an act in defense of freedom. How alarming is that for you? Are we getting to the point where if the GOP base is saying they're OK with violence, then they can be called a fascist movement and it's not hyperbolic?

I've always personally resisted the "fascist" label. I think it gets thrown about for right-wingers we don't like way too much. I think the label is growing more defensible now than a couple of years ago. But I think it's more straightforward and more defensible to say that this is now clearly an openly authoritarian party.

There are different kinds of measures you can use, but a couple of clear indicators that scholars of regimes all agree on is a party that embraces, condones, accepts and promotes political violence and a party that does not accept electoral defeat, that can't accept defeat. On those two criteria, especially between November 2020 and January 2021, we saw the bulk of the Republican Party swing and miss on those two criteria: Always renounce violence, always accept defeat. They are no longer doing either of those things. So I wouldn't have said this to you when we first published the book, but I think the Republican Party can be legitimately labeled an authoritarian party.

After Jan. 6, I was as surprised as you. I actually thought the GOP was going to jettison Donald Trump and go, "He's gone. He lied for two months. He clearly incited this attack. It might be a criminal violation, it might not be, but it was clearly, it was him. He did it." A week later on the floor of the House, Kevin McCarthy was denouncing Donald Trump. Then time went on, and now they celebrate the people who did that. Worse, they're making martyrs of people like Ashli Babbitt, who was killed jumping into a secure area against the directions of an officer who knew there were elected officials behind him in the area. What does that mean to you? What concerns do you have when you hear Donald Trump defend the attackers, calling them persecuted, calling them political prisoners and defending Ashli Babbitt by name?

I mean, this is what authoritarian political movements do. I don't want to go rushing to the comparison to Italian fascism or German Nazis, but this is the kind of stuff that fascist parties did. They glorified, defended, promoted violence. And violence is the path to power, so they became OK with it from top to bottom, from grassroots activists to voters to leaders. They became OK with violent seizures of power. How else do you read Jan. 6 and the reaction, and now the glorification of Jan. 6, other than these guys are going to be OK with a violent seizure of power?

I had the same reaction as you did in the days after Jan. 6. I really was hopeful, listening to Mitch McConnell on the floor of the Senate, listening to McCarthy, that finally this would be the turning point. But I think that the Republicans took a few days, put their finger to the wind and realized that the base was still with Trump. And because of the existence of primaries and because these guys are just too small to stand up for democracy over their own political careers, they went where their base was.

They were unwilling, for whatever reason — with the exception of Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney and a small handful of others, many of whose careers are over — they were unwilling to stand up to the base. Standing up the base means probably ending your political career and they just didn't want to do it. They'd rather end democracy.

It's their pursuit of power at all costs. It's something that you read about in history books. I'm reading "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and "The Gathering Storm" by Winston Churchill at the same time, which is scaring the crap out of me with what we're going through. It's actually cruel to look at Germany and the rise of the Nazis, where Churchill says, "We had numerous opportunities to stop this and we didn't do that." I'd love you to share what has worked in other countries, and maybe could be a model here, where even competing political parties join together to form essentially a pro-democracy coalition — not ideologically aligned, but at least pro-democracy.

First of all, let me say there is no magic solution. When you're in a situation where one of the two political parties representing almost half the country is committed to an anti-democratic project, there is no easy out. And we're going to be in this battle, I think, even in the best of cases, for 10, 15, 20 years. This is not something we're going to put to rest in the next couple of years.

The good news is that we're probably not on the brink of sort of long-term, single-party rule. The U.S. has a lot of things going for it as well. The small-d "democratic" opposition, mostly the Democratic Party, is strong. It's well organized, it's electorally viable, it's well-financed. This is not an opposition that can be steamrolled like in Russia or Hungary or Venezuela. So even in the worst case, even if the Republicans steal the 2024 election, ending democracy momentarily — and that could happen — that's not going to be the end of the story. We're not going to slide into 30 years of authoritarianism. The Democrats are going to fight back. There will be protests in the streets. There will be another election. It may not be an entirely fair election, but the Democrats will continue to contest for power. It's more likely that we reach a period of sliding in and out of crisis than sliding into outright long-term decay.

What do we do? I personally think that the key, and this is a lesson we've taken from other cases, particularly in Europe, is a  broad small-D democratic coalition that has to range from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to include democratic conservatives. As many Republicans as want to join, have to be embraced. Now, that's not an easy message for progressives. It means swallowing some policy goals and programmatic goals and getting into political alliance with people you really do not like, and you've really disagreed with in the past.

Liz Cheney is nothing compared to some of the people who might end up being in the democratic coalition. But it's the only way that we ensure that we win, that we build a coalition that includes as many Republicans and as many conservatives as possible: evangelical Christians, business people. It's got to be a broad coalition. If it's a blue-state coalition, it's not enough.

It's almost surreal to be having this conversation in America in 2021. It's like something out of a Philip Roth book. This is real, it's happening right here. Are you optimistic? You mentioned certain things that give you hope. On a practical level, while Democrats control Congress, would it give you more hope if they passed a voting rights act, a "freedom to vote" act or something along those lines?

Oh yeah. I mean, I look back to the Lodge Act of 1890, right before the consolidation of Jim Crow. There was a law to establish much greater federal oversight of elections that passed the House, that had a majority in the Senate and was blocked by a filibuster. But that majority eventually cracked because the Republican Party, which at the time was the more pro-voting rights party, disagreed over trade and had other priorities. They gave up and didn't pass the bill, and immediately the former Confederate states, Southern states, started enacting constitutional forums and electoral forums that disenfranchised African Americans, who were almost half the population in the South. It ushered in 80 years of authoritarianism in the South because we didn't pass that democracy bill in 1890. I don't think things would get quite as bad this time around, but it is consequential if we don't take steps to combat voter suppression and election subversion.

What gives me hope? I mean, a couple of things. I think the raw materials for democratic survival exist in the United States. The kind of extraordinary imbalance of power between one side and the other that you see in Russia or in Venezuela or in Turkey or in Hungary doesn't exist in the United States. It's a pretty evenly matched fight. It could get ugly, it could slide into some pretty nasty crises, but the Democrats are going to continue to have a fighting chance for years to come.

What really gives me hope is I think that we're actually on the brink of establishing an unprecedented multiracial democracy. That's a really hard thing to pull off, and arguably no other society has really pulled it off. We have not, but we're on the brink of it. We got there in a formal sense in 1965, and we've been inching in the direction of making that real for half a century. That's what this war is about. That's what this Republican reaction is about. But if we prevail — and it's not going to be easy, or be quick — if we prevail, I think on the other side could be a remarkable democratic experiment that could be a model for the world. That's what allows me to sleep at night and get up the next day and keep going.

A lot of people talk insist that Donald Trump should be prosecuted for Jan. 6. Does that actually end the threat or at this point does it transcend Donald Trump?

I think it definitely transcends Trump and pervades the GOP overall. Trump could go into exile to Iceland tomorrow, he could pass away tomorrow, and that's not going to end this. This ideology is going to persist, whether it's out of Tucker Carlson or someone else. There are many, many political entrepreneurs who, now that Trump has gone there, now that he's crossed that line, now that he's established that identity, I don't think there's any putting it back in the bottle.

Trump is a unique figure and certainly nobody will replicate him. I think there is a good argument to be made for prosecuting Trump. It's double-edged, but I think a pretty good case can be made. But even if they did, it's not over with that. The Republican Party will continue to be in essence, a Trumpist party, I think, for a while to go.

Recently Democratic members of Congress, Adam Schiff and others, introduced legislation to reform the system so when they looked at what Trump did in the White House. Not about the election so much as about how he exercised power. We had a lot of reforms after Watergate. Do you think the Democrats should make that a priority, as well as voting rights? Understanding that the next president might not be a Democrat — it might be Trump, or it might be another person like Trump — should they enact reforms now?

Absolutely. Obviously, enacting reforms is really difficult now because it's difficult to peel away even a single Republican vote. It's much easier said than done, but what Adam Schiff is saying makes a lot of sense to me. In our system, as we wrote in "How Democracies Die," for years the rules were actually under-specified and we relied a lot on the restraint of politicians.

We trusted that politicians wouldn't go there. They wouldn't blatantly make millions of dollars out of being president. They wouldn't pardon their friends or people who conspired with them. And now it's clear, given the level of polarization given the example that some have set, that we're going to have to formalize what used to be informal norms. We can't rely on self-restraint anymore. We can't rely on forbearance. We need to create hard guardrails, rather than soft.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

MORE FROM Dean Obeidallah