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America's authoritarianism

by Daniel Haufler Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 at 5:14 PM

Donald Trump declared himself the winner, although the votes are far from being counted. His contempt for democracy knows no bounds. Anyone who previously thought that the USA was clearly different from Hungary or Poland was mistaken. Americans voted for a liar, racist and macho who thinks little of democracy.

America's authoritarianism

The elections in the USA confirm this: Donald Trump became president in 2016 not only because Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate. He represents a propensity for authoritarian populism, which is more widespread in America than many have previously assumed. This problem will shape the country for a long time to come.

By Daniel Haufler

[This article published on 11/4/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Donald Trump declared himself the winner, although the votes are far from being counted. His contempt for democracy knows no bounds.

Anyone who previously thought that the USA was clearly different from Hungary or Poland was mistaken. According to the current count, more than 66 million Americans voted for a liar, racist and macho who thinks little of democracy. Already on election evening he declared himself - as predicted - the winner of the election and announced that he wanted to have the further counting of postal votes forbidden by court. Whether he can succeed in this is questionable, but the attempt alone is enormously damaging to democracy in the United States.

Trump's constituents do not care that he admires autocrats. On the contrary, Trump's voters* accept this. After all, they did not vote for an unknown outsider, but for the president who has been in office for four years. For a man who prefers to govern by presidential decrees rather than by laws that have to be painstakingly negotiated with Congress. For a man who prefers to talk to autocrats he admires, such as Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un, rather than democratically elected leaders of allied states. For a man who lowers taxes for the rich instead of relieving the middle and lower classes. For a man who lets a pandemic rage, to which many people fall victim, instead of taking decisive measures to protect the health of citizens.

Obviously, none of this matters to almost half of Americans. They admire his conduct as a strong man who does not follow conventions and rules. In a sense, this is the return of the Wild West, when in many cases there were no laws or it was difficult to enforce them. Trump acts like a Western hero who says: I am the law. Just let me do. And in return, I'll let you do as long as you don't get in my way.

In other words, sociologically speaking, Trump embodies the US version of authoritarian populism. This populism is anti-liberal, anti-pluralist and anti-multilateral. It is anti-liberal because it places the supposed majority culture and majority opinion above individual and minority rights. It is no coincidence that Trump, like his Polish and Hungarian counterparts, has begun the institutional demolition work in the courts-and even now in the election process-relies on supreme judges he has appointed. He is anti-pluralist because he defends only the rights of one group in society: white rural society. And Trump is anti-multilateral because he sets national sovereignty against international institutions even when his nationalism has negative consequences for allies or turns former allies such as the Kurds over to their enemies.

Even if Joe Biden were to win by a narrow margin, he would not be able to overcome the divisions in US society - and would have a weak mandate for his reform agenda.

The political scientist Michael Zürn has described the consequences of authoritarian populism with regard to Hungary and Poland as follows: "But when authoritarian populists in power restrict basic rights and third-party power in the name of a partially imagined majority, then established liberal democracies also start to totter. If such governments not only verbally question the regional integration network but also pay homage to free-riding in practice, then a supranational institutional system like the EU threatens to fall apart. And if the existence of global goods is generally denied at the international level, the liberal world order is on the brink of the abyss. These three dangers reinforce each other.

Even if Trump still loses, his populist authoritarianism will remain

But we are not only talking about relatively small European states. We are talking about the most important and most powerful great power on earth to date. If authoritarian populism becomes even more prevalent here than Trump has already managed to do, if he is re-elected, the consequences for the USA, but also the global consequences, are hardly foreseeable. The only thing that is clear is that social conflicts in the USA will intensify dramatically, and the confrontation between Republicans and Democrats will in many cases prevent reasonable government. Internationally, the classic alliances may well break up - at the expense of Europe, which will first have to sort itself out anew - and a cold war with China may bring undreamt-of dangers.

Perhaps it will not happen like that. But: The mere fact that Trump has received so many votes - more than any Republican before him - is evidence of a hitherto unrecognized tendency toward authoritarianism, which has not disappeared in the event of a narrow defeat for the president. In America, an anti-etatism is manifesting itself, as is well known from many right-wing populist parties in Europe. In Italy, he once gave Silvio Berlusconi several terms in office, and in his succession, Matteo Salvini briefly took over the government with his Lega. Just as right-wing populism has not disappeared in Europe, it will not disappear in the USA. Trump may go, but authoritarian Trumpism will remain.

Daniel Haufler is the responsible editor for the online debate magazine Gegenblende and its podcasts.

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