COVID Isn’t the Only Plague Americans Should Be Worried About

Authoritarianism is just as infectious.

Sikander Hayat Khan
Jan 5 · 6 min read
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Fifty years from now, they’ll be teaching children about 2020 in their history lessons. But not just because of a pandemic that ravaged the world. No, they’ll be teaching them about a different type of plague too; one which doesn’t claim human souls but that of a democracy instead.

I’m talking about how we’ve seen American politics be plunged into the black hole of authoritarianism. And I do mean black hole. Because countless in the developing world have been trying to claw their way out for decades — with little success. And if America is to stop that from happening, it first needs to realise that the threat to its democracy isn't over yet.

Why? One word — surrender.

That’s what Americans will be doing if they refuse to believe that Trump is leaving behind a brand of authoritarian politics that will inevitably consume their democracy whole. Why do I say that? Because authoritarianism is infectious. Politicians the world over are already known to have a certain lust for power. But you never really saw it because they’d been forced to operate within the confines of democracy. Trump, in an American context, was the first to show that you didn’t and could still get away with it. And that sends a message to the dictators waiting in the ranks. It tells them that it’s possible, that they can learn from Trump’s mistakes and be the first to impose their will on the American people rather than the other way around.

And that’s how authoritarianism spreads. Look at the Third World. Dictator after dictator, they all try to get away with more than the one before them did. And in doing so, every regime redefines what’s “possible.” Unfortunately for America, Trump was the equivalent of a few dictators. He didn’t settle with one failed attempt — he tried every trick in the book. Which is why all that the next one can do to beat Trump is to succeed. That — make no mistake — is a frightening prospect for American democracy. Because it gives the people no buffer zone. You see, had Trump given up after his failed lawsuits, that would have left influencing the electoral college vote and toying with the idea of martial law as untested avenues to power. But Trump went the distance. What that takes away from American democracy is time.

Because the next one won’t have to experiment. And that means if another dictator comes in and manages to get the job done, authoritarianism won’t be “infecting,” it will have infected. And it’s the kind of plague you can’t find a vaccine for. You see, had there been an easy fix for dictators seizing totalitarian control over the machinery of the state, wouldn’t the developing world have gotten rid of their dictators sooner?

This is why America can’t go back to its old ways of complacency. It can’t leave authoritarians to “get on with it” and hope for the best. If anything, it’ll only make things worse. You see, Trump was removed from office because the American people refused to be complacent. They refused to let America be subject to White rule. But what will happen once Trump goes and they stop caring? The dictators win office and authoritarianism spreads like wildfire.

Which is why, contrary to what many Americans want to believe, this isn’t a one-time fix. You can’t write off a brand of authoritarianism that lures in 73 million votes with one election. If anything, the fact that Trump’s voter base grew substantially between 2016 and 2020 proves that there was more to him than just being “the outsider.” It proves that his brand of authoritarianism is capable of gripping America. And that’s just another reason why it’s bound to contaminate American politics. Because politicians want to win. So why would they abandon tactics that work?

And you only need to look at how the GOP have conducted themselves during America’s first coup. Did they denounce the man trying to overturn an election? Or were they silent? Refusing to acknowledge the outcome in public? You see, many Americans are probably taking the actions of the GOP at face value and moving on. But take a second to ponder and you realise it’s more serious than you think. Because their silence was a declaration — as loud as a declaration can be — that they worked for Donald Trump and not the American people.

That is what happens when authoritarianism takes hold. By definition, it means that the state works for the dictator — not you. And I really mean their declaration of loyalty couldn’t have been louder. Because in an election that was supposed to win back democracy for the American people, the GOP turned around and said, “We don’t care about your democracy.” Want to hazard a guess as to which kind of countries that stuff happens in?

Yup, authoritarian ones.

And I know that, regardless of all of this, many Americans will simply carry on paying no attention to their democracy eroding before their very eyes. Why? Because America’s not going to feel the effects like a poor country would. It’s not going to have instant rises in poverty levels, inflation or in the number of hours they don’t get electricity every day. But not paying attention is risking that happening. Why? Because that’s what happens when dictators take office. They start serving themselves and your needs get neglected in the process. In the developing world, where there’s no room for error, you see the effects of that immediately. America’s got a buffer zone. How long before it expires?

You see, democratic accountability was pretty much all America had to begin with. Politicians have long been known to do favours for special interests at your expense. But there was always a limit to what they could get away with. Why? Because they knew they still needed your vote. What happens when they realise they don’t really need it anymore? When overturning elections seems like a plausible plan B?

And yes, while it’s true that you can never guarantee the arrival of a dictator, hasn’t Trump’s rapid rise and subsequent attempts to overturn an election shown that anything’s possible? That too in a country where you would have never thought you’d see this kind of thing? This is why Americans need to understand that their democracy isn't safe from authoritarianism yet — and if they’re to protect it, they must learn from the democracies that fell — and from their own that almost did.

Because even though American democracy nearly broke, it still left the electorate with an important lesson — one on why it didn’t. Yes, judges and Congress got in Trump’s way. But those institutions are occupied by humans and constantly relying on them to bail America out will inevitably lead to disappointment. What it did was teach America to focus on the one thing it can control — how seriously it takes its democracy. Because had America not intervened just in time, Trump would’ve gotten away with it fair and square. And we’d be having a very different conversation right now.

That’s why, come future elections, America has to vote. Because, barring the more extreme methods, that’s the only way the world knows is capable of ridding a country from authoritarianism. If the people keep showing up, it makes the job of the dictators that much harder. Especially in a country like America. Because the courts and Congress have shown they haven’t cracked yet. If you add to that an electorate that keeps coming up with votes, the mountain the next dictator has to climb to do what Trump couldn’t get’s even larger.

That is how America adds in the “buffer zone.” That’s how Americans win their democracy more time. Because every election that goes against a dictator is only going to reinforce the notion that “democracy is still alive.” It puts time between this Trump and the next Trump. And the more time there is, the more the next one is going to realise that, “This is what Trump tried to do. And this is how the people consistently rejected it.” It’s politics. If Americans can show that pushing authoritarian politics is what makes you lose elections rather than win them, no politician is going to want to go down that road.

But that will only happen if Americans take their democracy seriously. Because if they don’t, they’ll be surrendering it to authoritarians and hoping for the best. And that strategy sounds awfully similar to 2016 to me.

The Purple Giraffe

Dynamic insight about politics, policy, leadership, culture, social issues, and the economy.

Sikander Hayat Khan

Written by

Political opinion from a Law & Politics grad. Top Writer in Government & Politics. Twitter @SikanderH8

The Purple Giraffe

The Purple Giraffe reports on what is happening today; with a dynamic insight into politics, policy, leadership, culture, social issues, and the economy.

Sikander Hayat Khan

Written by

Political opinion from a Law & Politics grad. Top Writer in Government & Politics. Twitter @SikanderH8

The Purple Giraffe

The Purple Giraffe reports on what is happening today; with a dynamic insight into politics, policy, leadership, culture, social issues, and the economy.

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