Ancient Rome? Italy? Hungary? Envisioning a Post-Democratic United States

 by Michael C. Dorf

How will future historians chronicling our current age write about the 2020 election and its aftermath? Conventional wisdom holds that it will either be described as the narrow aversion of a catastrophic second term for Donald Trump or an unheeded warning and thus at most a pause. If those turn out to be the options, of course I hope that the next few years play out in a way that puts us in the first scenario. However, I want to suggest a third--and still darker--option. Consider the following opening to a future history of the by-then-formerly-democratic United States.

During the 2020 campaign, candidate Joe Biden warned that a second term for Donald Trump would change the country in a way that would do permanent harm, whereas his election would restore U.S. institutions and values that had been damaged by Trump but not irreparably so. Biden's warning was both right and wrong. Biden's election and the policies he pursued did temporarily restore the status quo ante, but in retrospect, it was probably the worse outcome for the long-term status of constitutional democracy in the U.S.

Had Trump legitimately won the 2020 election, he would not have had occasion to challenge the basic institutions that had to that point credibly calculated votes. True, given demographic trends and the fundamental unpopularity of Republican policies, his party would have pursued the voter suppression strategies it had pursued before Trump and that it aggressively pursued in the actual aftermath of the 2020 election. But if Trump had legitimately won the Electoral College vote in 2020, it would not have occurred to him to cajole or threaten state and local election officials; nor, in this alternative universe, would 2021 have seen the transfer of power to count votes from persons with integrity to people controlled directly by gerrymandered Republican state legislatures. And if that had not happened, then Trump would have retired from politics after the completion of his second term. Instead, in our actual universe, the ability of Republican-controlled state legislatures and their agents to determine the outcome of not only the presidential election but all elections led eventually to the demise of constitutional democracy in the United States and its replacement in all but name by one-party minority rule.

Put differently, in this third scenario I'm imagining, we would have been better off--well, less bad off might be more accurate--had Trump won a second term. Awful as his policies would be in every respect, attacking the vote-counting apparatus of government would not have become the central element of Republican ideology. Dark enough for you?

I should be clear that I am not saying that we definitely would have been better off if Trump had won. It is still possible that, despite everything, there will be a future for constitutional democracy in the United States. And it's also possible that the nightmare I'm imagining playing out over the next few years--Republican takeover of the House in 2022 despite losing the national popular vote, followed by the election of Trump or a Trumpist successor in 2024 despite losing both the national popular vote and the Electoral College vote but as a result of Republican-controlled state legislative chicanery declaring the Trump/Trumpist the winner--would happen anyway even in the alternative universe in which Trump had won re-election in 2020. Perhaps in 2024, Ivanka Trump, Lara Trump, Josh Hawley, or some other Trump-annointed successor would have lost the election but claimed to win exactly as Trump has done in our actual dystopia, so that we would have seen the same assault on the vote-counting elements of our democracy, but four years later. In that universe, we would have the same extinction of American democracy but without even the brief reprieve of the Biden administration. How's that for seeing a glass half full?!

No one knows what the actual future looks like or how an alternative history would have unfolded. What we can say is that there are plenty of bleak scenarios and only a handful of sunny ones. In the balance of today's essay, I'll explore a few variations on the bleak scenarios. I omit a glorious restoration of pre-Trump institutions (which were hardly perfect in all sorts of ways but at least held out the possibility of improvement over time). Let's start with ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome began as a republic and devolved into an autocracy ruled by an emperor. In many respects, of course, the comparison is inapt. The Roman republic was not democratic by modern standards. Moreover, Augustus, the first emperor, was a highly competent and generally popular ruler. By contrast, Trump is an ignorant buffoon who is quite unpopular; a successor might be more competent but is unlikely to be broadly popular. Still, I provide ancient Rome as my comparison because it is the best-known example of a republic becoming a long-term autocracy.

Optimistic readers might be thinking that the Roman analogy isn't so bad. After all, Roman culture (which was itself mostly Greek culture) thrived for centuries under the emperors, including terrible ones like Caligula and Nero. We generally mark the fall of Rome as the beginning of the Dark Ages, so the Roman empire might not be so bad as a model. Science, art, literature, music, and private life all were pretty good for many people--except for, you know, people who were enslaved or otherwise oppressed, who were numerous.

In any event, I begin with a comparison to ancient Rome for one basic reason: We have modern examples of relatively short-lived democracies becoming autocratic and also of autocracies becoming democratic for at least a time, but we're not especially familiar with transitions that lead to a centuries-long form of government. In pointing to ancient Rome, I'm suggesting that it is possible for a centuries-old republic to become transformed into a stable autocracy that also lasts for hundreds of years. Not to put too fine a point on it, Senators Manchin and Sinema, but Augustus claimed to restore the Senate's role, even as he reduced it to what eventually became essentially ceremonial. Is that what you want? Just saying.

So much for ancient analogies. If we want to be optimistic, it might be possible to imagine a post-democratic U.S. that is something like Italy over the last seven or so decades: government is fairly dysfunctional and often corrupt, but private life and civil society work reasonably well, so most people are satisfied.

That fate may be elusive, however. The characteristic features of Italian government in this period have been gridlock in a multi-party system, leading to short-lived governments, punctuated by periods of rule by a corrupt clown and very occasionally competent technocrats. Government usually didn't work but it mostly wasn't oppressive.

Trumpism promises government that doesn't work, because it incorporates traditional Republican opposition to effective social welfare while adding on a layer of irrationalism (like attacking sensible public health measures on libertarian grounds). But Trumpism does not merely extol incompetence; it also elevates racist, misogynistic, and all-purpose brutality for its own sake. It's fascism but the trains still don't run on time.

Accordingly, I think it's fairly unrealistic to hope that the post-democratic U.S. will look much like Italy. A much closer model for what Trump and Trumpists are apparently attempting is the path down which Viktor Orbán has led Hungary.  Orbán's anti-immigrant, right-wing populist authoritarianism was a model for Trump's substantive policies, just as his refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of his party's electoral defeat in 2002 paved the way for his triumphal return to power in 2010 seems to be serving as the model for a Trumpist revival.

How dismayed should we be about the U.S. becoming Hungary? One might think the answer is something like well that's surely bad but not like Stalinist Russia or Cambodia under Pol Pot. Fair enough, but the Hungarian path is still very bad news. For one thing, Hungary's current status--what is sometimes called "soft fascism"--could be just a temporary stopping point en route to full-on totalitarianism.

For another, Hungary has a fairly homogeneous population. That makes it particularly bad for the persecuted minorities--especially Roma and the very small numbers of immigrants still in the country--but it also means that the xenophobic commitments of the regime are directed largely externally. By contrast, Trump's racism targets people who are a much more substantial portion of the U.S. population. The resulting opportunities for community-level violence and even civil war are accordingly greater.

On that sour note, I end. But hey, the news isn't all bad. Private life is still possible and of late even enjoyable. Fully vaccinated in a community with a high vaccination rate and low transmission rate, I ate with friends from other households indoors at a restaurant this week for the first time in over a year. It was great. So there's that.