Political scientist on the crisis of democracy: 'This is the same roadmap we saw in Germany'

Political scientist on the crisis of democracy: 'This is the same roadmap we saw in Germany'
Donald Trump supporters outside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, Wikimedia

In a recent interview with MSNBC, former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt issued a stern warning to Americans who have not yet grasped the nature of our present crisis of democracy. "We have an autocratic movement teeming with violence and the intimations of violence in this country," he said, inviting viewers of the liberal news channel to imagine "that domestic terrorist, that criminal who desecrated the American flag by wrapping it around his head, who committed violence in the name of right-wing extremism."

What is it that he has heard? He has heard that he lives in an occupied country with an illegitimate president who lost the election, who was put into power by millions of fraudulent votes, mostly Black and brown votes out of the inner cities. …

Discussing the threat still posed by former President Donald Trump, Schmidt observed that Republicans seem obsessed with "the language of violence, the image of the gun, the idea that their countrymen are their enemies":

So, historically, we know when you put all of that fuel on the ground and you start throwing sparks at it, you can ignite a conflagration, and when you dehumanize people the way that this man and this movement has, in the end, it kills people. Historically, this type of politics has wound up, in its worst excesses, killing tens of millions of people. That's why it's such a frightening moment, and that's why it's time to wake up and understand that we don't have a shortage-of-panic-buttons problem. We have a political extremism problem that is very quickly metastasizing into violent extremism that we'll be dealing with for a generation because of what happened over the last five years.

New polling and other research show that tens of millions of Americans have been radicalized into potentially supporting political violence in order to remove Joe Biden — who they perceive as a usurper — from office. This is part of a larger pattern where the Republican-fascist movement will support any strategy or tactics they believe will help preserve their "way of life."

To that point, a new poll from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics shows that more than 50% of Trump voters would support seceding from the Union. Given the racial grievance and white supremacy politics of Trump's followers, such a course of action could lead to a second American civil war. It is no coincidence that a fair number of Trump's terrorists waved Confederate flags as they attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Ultimately, the coup attempt of January is only a prelude to similar events in the future, when Republicans and their allies fully intend to overthrow any election they lose, and therefore deem illegitimate. In a much-discussed recent essay at the Washington Post, Robert Kagan summarizes this moment of existential crisis:

The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial….
We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.

What comes next? Can a full-on collapse of America's democratic institutions and political culture be stopped? Why has the mainstream news media consistently normalized the anti-democratic and other politically deviant behavior of the Trump regime and the Republican Party? Can the media confront its own culpability in terms of failing to warn the American people about the rising threat of fascism?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Norm Ornstein, emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the bestselling books "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported" and "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism."

Ornstein has been a guest on numerous cable and broadcast news outlets, including CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and "PBS NewsHour." His essays and other writing have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and other leading publications.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

American democracy and our system of government feels like it's all on the verge of collapse. These deep crises that made Trumpism possible feel like a type of national breakdown or crackup. My concern is that once things are this broken, they cannot be put back together again. Help me make sense of these feelings and intuitions.

I believe that it is more broken than anything else. There are several layers of problems here.

One layer is that the Republican Party has really descended into the abyss. It's not a party anymore. It's a cult, a full-blown cult. We could call it a cult of personality, but it was really a cult before Donald Trump came along. He's just the leader right now. We see this, for example, with the fact that literally only two Republican members of Congress were willing to stand up to a violent insurrection and a complete collapse of norms — and that is in the House and Senate combined.

Mitch McConnell is saying that if the Republicans recapture the majority in the Senate, he won't vote to seat any Supreme Court nominee from Joe Biden. There is also the COVID response by Republican governors and other elected officials.

This problem is going to get worse before it gets better at the level of elected officials. Every serious candidate that Republicans have for president is going to be saying, "I'm just like Donald Trump, except I'm tougher, meaner and stronger." Anybody who is even to the slightest side toward sanity is going nowhere in today's Republican Party. That is a big problem at the level of elites and across the federal, state and local levels.

There is also the problem that begins with the leadership of Trump and extends down through Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham and many others, including social media more generally. That's the problem of disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

There is a major cultural gap that is not going away anytime soon. For example, 30% of the Republicans basically say that violence is appropriate if people are supposedly trying to "destroy your way of life." In this case, "destroying your way of life" means basically doing anything that does not protect white people first.

Then you've got the fact that there's not just voter suppression, but that direct attempts to overturn the results of lawful and fair elections are running rampant.

We are also seeing a Supreme Court that will basically provide no boundaries. There is the farce of having the most extreme partisan justices saying, "Well, it's ridiculous to think that decisions are made on the basis of personal views or partisanship." These Supreme Court justices are not only partisans, they are liars.

We can mitigate some of these problems with election and voting reform. We can also reform the laws that enabled Donald Trump to use executive power in misguided ways. But ultimately, I would say the system is broken.

Why do America's political elites, especially the pundit class, keep treating these "revelations" about Trump and his regime's criminality and attacks on democracy as something surprising? The coup attempt and attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 were all obvious and threatened in public by Trump and his followers.

The sheer volume of scandals dilutes the impact of each of them singularly and together. Most people don't pay close attention, day to day, to what's going on. When you see a scandal become something of political consequence is when it gets hammered away at, day after day and week after week. That can be a real scandal or a faux scandal.

An example would be the Afghanistan withdrawal. The American news media were all over that story for 10 days. Almost all of the coverage was harshly critical. For a large number of Americans who had not really spent three minutes thinking about Afghanistan previously, the story is processed as being something terrible that happened all of a sudden.

The signal that goes out to the general public is that if something is discussed on the front page on a regular basis, or on the cable news programs and the Sunday programs, over and over and over again, it must therefore be something serious and important. If a news story comes up and then disappears the next day, that must mean it is not important.

There is an obsession with being "neutral" and doing the "both sides" type of coverage. They do not know how to treat abnormal behavior, therefore the American news media largely normalizes it. And there's a certain amount of bandwidth that news organizations are going to give to stories about a president or a president's family or an administration. If there are 20 stories, 19 of them are not going to get covered — and the 20th story will soon be superseded by another one that comes along.

We are also in a situation where the mainstream news media wants to show equal treatment, which means they take a president like Joe Biden, who doesn't have scandals of any significance, and then blow them up by using the same amount of bandwidth as was used to cover Donald Trump. That story on Biden has more resonance because there is only one such story to focus on.

So many members of the media kept denying even the possibility that Trump and his regime would attempt a coup. They were openly contemptuous of voices who kept trying to warn the public about what was obvious and imminent. Will those individuals and organizations in the media ever publicly explain or apologize for their failings in terms of Jan. 6 and the Trump era more generally?

The New York Times, just days before the 2016 election, had a front-page, above-the-fold story saying that the FBI says there is no evidence of Russian connections to Trump's campaign. That story had a big impact. Whoever in the FBI gave the Times that story lied. Now, does the Times out the person who lied?

If you have a source and the bargain is that they will remain anonymous if they give you significant information, and they lie to you, that bargain is broken. Has the New York Times ever apologized for publishing an utterly inaccurate and distorted and deceptive story that could have turned the election? No, of course not. Are there news organizations that are willing to apologize for their failures or their misleading stories? No. If you get a story on the front page that's wrong and you show factually that it's wrong, you'll get a correction somewhere inside.

This notion that a news organization never explains and never apologizes unless they are under threat of a lawsuit that could cost them large sums of money is deeply ingrained in the DNA of journalism. This is especially true of large and highly influential news organizations. If they are wrong about a major story — because they just didn't get what was going on, not because they published something that was flat out wrong — the likelihood that you'll get an apology or that they'll learn a lesson from it or do anything about it is zero.

It is one thing to make mistakes and or do false equivalents on the small stuff. When a country is at a point where it is crystal clear that the fundamentals of your political system are on the cusp of being destroyed, the first thing that will happen, if and when those democratic norms and institutions are gone, is that the free press will no longer exist. We have seen that with every authoritarian society. So the failure to change, to understand and to be blunt about the reality of what's happening in this country is not just reckless for the American people. It is suicidal for the news media. In the end, that just shows how ingrained these practices I outlined above are.

For Black and brown folks, poor and working-class folks, women as a group, gays and lesbians, undocumented people and other marginalized folks, none of this is an abstraction. America's democracy crisis and the rising fascist tide are literally a matter of life and death for those communities. But so many in the media elite are members of a social milieu where they are deeply invested in the system and have convinced themselves that they are immune from these threats. Is it that simple?

In general, it is just denial. It's denial and it is also just an unwillingness or inability to change decades-long patterns of behavior. In terms of the reporters who cover the White House and Congress, their own careers are tied to access. They pal around with the people they cover. I see not just Manchin and Sinema but many others talking about their "Republican friends" and how they can all get along. I know a lot of these Republicans. I've had meals with many of them.

There are some who are really kind of fun to be around — not the completely crazy ones — but others have gone along with all of the bad behavior. You can get lulled into thinking that is all just temporary, or that the Republicans really don't believe these extreme things. You can convince yourself that it's only a small fringe group doing such things. It distracts a person who operates in this political insider world that the Republicans vote for these policies repeatedly. They protect each other and they're all in on the cult.

There is another disconnect as well. So many members of this political class I am describing have never faced discrimination. It is just not on their radar screens in the same way as people who have. They're not sensitive to it. How can you not look at what we have seen, with a violent coup and everything else that's followed, and not recognize that you are at risk of racism and nativism?

People who have had in their family histories a history of discrimination and worse are going to be more sensitive to the path that's being taken here in this country — and sensitive to the reality that this is the same roadmap that we saw in Germany.

But even for a whole lot of journalists who are or should be in that category, it gets superseded by the way in which they do their own business. To me, that is as sad as anything else.

Is American democracy and its political culture and governmental system facing a legitimacy crisis?

Yes, the United States is experiencing a legitimacy crisis. One recent prominent example: the Arizona fraudulent "audit" says that Biden "won."

There is another disconnect as well. So many members of this political class I am describing have never faced discrimination. It is just not on their radar screens in the same way as people who have. They're not sensitive to it. How can you not look at what we have seen, with a violent coup and everything else that's followed, and not recognize that you are at risk of racism and nativism?

People who have had in their family histories a history of discrimination and worse are going to be more sensitive to the path that's being taken here in this country — and sensitive to the reality that this is the same roadmap that we saw in Germany.

But even for a whole lot of journalists who are or should be in that category, it gets superseded by the way in which they do their own business. To me, that is as sad as anything else.

Is American democracy and its political culture and governmental system facing a legitimacy crisis?

Yes, the United States is experiencing a legitimacy crisis. One recent prominent example: the Arizona fraudulent "audit" says that Biden "won."

There is also the Electoral College, which is growing more and more distorted. Even if the elections are fair, it means there's a greater likelihood that we will elect, several more times, presidents who lose the popular vote, perhaps by millions of votes.

At some point the majority of Americans are going to see those presidential elections as illegitimate. We've got crises all over the place in this country and society.

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