In a matter of years, the United States' deeply flawed and increasingly fragile democratic system could collapse under the weight of a long-running reactionary onslaught and be replaced by a right-wing dictatorship — one for which former President Donald Trump was "just a warm-up act."
Such was the stark warning that Thomas Homer-Dixon, executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University and a scholar of violent conflict, delivered in an exhaustive op-ed published in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail.
Homer-Dixon, the former head of a center on peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, warned that the "political and social landscape" of the U.S. — a profoundly unequal and ideologically polarized nation that also happens to be "armed to the teeth" — is "flashing with warning signals."
"By 2025," he wrote. "American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship."
Arguing that prominent reactionary figures such as the late right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh and Trump — who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020 — "are as much symptoms" of U.S. political dysfunction as its causes, Homer-Dixon contended that the nation's present crises have their roots in myriad historical phenomena:
Some can be traced to the country's founding — to an abiding distrust in government baked into the country's political culture during the Revolution, to slavery, to the political compromise of the Electoral College that slavery spawned, to the overrepresentation of rural voting power in the Senate, and to the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"But successful polities around the world," he continued, "have overcome flaws just as fundamental."
So why is U.S. democracy particularly vulnerable to full-scale collapse in the near future?
Homer-Dixon argued that "what seems to have pushed the United States to the brink of losing its democracy today is a multiplication effect between its underlying flaws and recent shifts in the society's 'material' characteristics."
These shifts include stagnating middle-class incomes, chronic economic insecurity, and rising inequality as the country's economy — transformed by technological change and globalization — has transitioned from muscle power, heavy industry, and manufacturing as the main sources of its wealth to idea power, information technology, symbolic production, and finance. America's economic, racial and social gaps have helped cause ideological polarization between the political right and left, and the worsening polarization has paralyzed government while aggravating the gaps.
Eager and well-positioned to exploit such divisions are Trump and his Republican loyalists, many of whom have endorsed the "Big Lie" that Trump won the 2020 presidential election but had it stolen from him by the Democratic Party.
That falsehood — which helped fuel the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and, according to one new survey, is embraced by two-thirds of GOP voters — is "potent anti-democratic poison," Homer-Dixon wrote.
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"Willingness to publicly endorse the Big Lie has become a litmus test of Republican loyalty to Mr. Trump," he observed. "This isn't just an ideological move to promote Republican solidarity against Democrats. It puts its adherents one step away from the psychological dynamic of extreme dehumanization that has led to some of the worst violence in human history. And it has refashioned — into a moral crusade against evil — Republican efforts to gerrymander Congressional districts into pretzel-like shapes, to restrict voting rights, and to take control of state-level electoral apparatuses."
As the Guardian reported Sunday, "Allies of Donald Trump and others who have spread baseless conspiracy theories about the election have launched campaigns" for key positions — from governor to secretary of state — that have significant influence over the post-election certification process":
"Republicans who have embraced lies about the election are also running for secretary of state offices in Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Overlooked for years, there is now a broader awareness of the enormous power these secretaries of state wield over how elections are run and ballots are counted. That power was on unprecedented display in 2020, when secretaries of state made decisions about things like how to establish ballot drop boxes and whether to automatically send out mail-in ballot applications to voters.
"Secretaries of state wield enormous unilateral power and, if they were elected, election deniers could do extensive damage in future elections," the Guardian added.
While his worst-case predictions are dire, Homer-Dixon made clear that he's far from the only scholar who feels U.S. democracy is teetering on the verge of total failure.
"This past November, more than 150 professors of politics, government, political economy, and international relations appealed to Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would protect the integrity of U.S. elections but is now stalled in the Senate," he noted. "This is a moment of 'great peril and risk,' they wrote. 'Time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching.'"
Homer-Dixon also consulted experts who offered a range of possible outcomes — "none benign" — should Trump return to power in 2024:
They cited particular countries and political regimes to illustrate where he might take the U.S.: Viktor Orbán's Hungary, with its coercive legal apparatus of "illiberal democracy"; Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil, with its chronic social distemper and administrative dysfunction; or Vladimir Putin's Russia, with its harsh one-man hyper-nationalist autocracy. All agreed that under a second Trump administration, liberalism will be marginalized and right-wing Christian groups super-empowered, while violence by vigilante, paramilitary groups will rise sharply.
Homer-Dixon went on to invoke "another political regime, a historical one, that may portend an even more dire future for the U.S.: the Weimar Republic."
"As I read a history of the doomed republic this past summer, I tallied no fewer than five unnerving parallels with the current U.S. situation," he wrote, including that "in both cases, a charismatic leader was able to unify right-wing extremists around a political program to seize the state."
Another potential parallel between Weimar and the U.S. could be "democratic collapse followed by the consolidation of dictatorship."
"Mr. Trump may be just a warm-up act — someone ideal to bring about the first stage, but not the second," Homer-Dixon wrote. "Returning to office, he'll be the wrecking ball that demolishes democracy, but the process will produce a political and social shambles. Still, through targeted harassment and dismissal, he'll be able to thin the ranks of his movement's opponents within the state. ... Then the stage will be set for a more managerially competent ruler, after Mr. Trump, to bring order to the chaos he's created."
In October, Steve Bannon, former White House adviser to Trump, openly told audiences that GOP "shock troops" should be deployed inside the federal apparatus as soon as the next Republican president takes office in order to "reconfigure the government" from within.
Anticipating critics who might view his analysis of the state of U.S. democracy as alarmist, Homer-Dixon cautioned that "we mustn't dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine."
"In 2014," he pointed out, "the suggestion that Donald Trump would become president would also have struck nearly everyone as absurd. But today we live in a world where the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace."
As a Canadian, Homer-Dixon focused his call to action on his home country's government, which he urged to "convene a standing, non-partisan Parliamentary committee" to prepare for the possibility of a democratic collapse to the south, an outcome that could have major implications for Canada.
"We need to start by fully recognizing the magnitude of the danger," he warns. "If Mr. Trump is re-elected, even under the more-optimistic scenarios the economic and political risks to our country will be innumerable."
In the U.S., advocacy groups are imploring Democrats currently in control of the U.S. Congress to do everything in their power — including taking a sledgehammer to entrenched Senate rules — to protect voting rights and democratic institutions from state-level Republicans, who are moving aggressively to restrict ballot access and "hijack elections" ahead of the pivotal 2022 midterms.
"End the filibuster," the advocacy group Fix Our Senate urged Democrats in a recent tweet. "Pass voting rights legislation. Save our democracy."
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