Trump’s Big Election Lie Pushes America Toward AutocracyRoundup
tags: authoritarianism, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, is the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century and, most recently, Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary. Follow him on Twitter @TimothyDSnyder.
When you lose, it is good and healthy to know why. In the First World War, the conflict that defined our modern world, the Germans lost because of the overwhelming force assembled by their enemies on the Western Front. After the Americans entered the war, German defeat was a matter of time. Yet German commanders found it convenient instead to speak of a “stab in the back” by leftists and Jews. This big lie was a problem for the new German democracy that was created after the war, since it suggested that the major political party, the Social Democrats, and a national minority, the Jews, were outside the national community. The lie was taken up by the Nazis, and it became a central element of their version of history after they took power. The blame was elsewhere.
It is always tempting to blame defeat on others. Yet for a national leader to do so and to inject a big lie into the system puts democracy at great risk. Excluding others from the national community makes democracy impossible in principle, and refusing to accept defeat makes it impossible in practice. What we face now in the United States is a new, American incarnation of the old falsehood: that Donald Trump’s defeat was not what it seems, that votes were stolen from him by internal enemies — by a left-wing party. “Where it mattered, they stole what they had to steal,” he tweets. He claims that his votes were all “Legal Votes,” as if by definition those for his opponent were not.
Underestimating Donald Trump is a mistake that people should not go on making. Laughing at him will not make him go away. If it did, he would have vanished decades ago. Nor will longstanding norms about how presidents behave make him go away. He is an actor and will stick to his lines: It was all a fraud, and he won “by a lot.” He was never defeated, goes the story; he was a victim of a conspiracy. This stab-in-the-back myth could become a permanent feature of American politics, so long as Trump has a bullhorn, be it on Fox or on RT (formerly Russia Today) — or, though Democrats might find this unthinkable, as an unelected president remaining in power.
After all, a claim that an election was illegitimate is a claim to remaining in power. A coup is under way, and the number of participants is not shrinking but growing. Few leading Republicans have acknowledged that the race is over. Important ones, such as Mitch McConnell and Mike Pompeo, appear to be on the side of the coup. We might like to think that this is all some strategy to find the president an exit ramp. But perhaps that is wishful thinking. The transition office refuses to begin its work. The secretary of defense, who did not want the army attacking civilians, was fired. The Department of Justice, exceeding its traditional mandate, has authorized investigations of the vote count. The talk shows on Fox this week contradict the news released by Fox last week. Republican lawmakers find ever new verbal formulations that directly or indirectly support Trump’s claims. The longer this goes on, the greater the danger to the Republic.
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