How is it that even robust and well-established democracies based on the rule of law can begin sliding down that dark and slippery slope leading toward authoritarian rule? The common features marking the early stages of this insidious path are actually rather well known, as history has shown us in numerous countries around the world in recent times.
It could begin with a charismatic and sociopathic leader able to cultivate a passionately loyal base ready to forgive all of his misdeeds, to overlook his apparent lack of any true moral center, to uncritically accept everything he says, and to blindly follow wherever he leads. He would do this with skillfully crafted words aimed at playing upon people’s deepest fears and hopes in order to rally them around him, sowing seeds of populist nationalism, angry divisiveness and an “us Vs. them” mentality everywhere he goes, along with the belief that only he can make things right. He would bully, belittle, attack and humiliate his political rivals along with any who question or oppose him.
If then catapulted to power on the momentum of this base, and feeling empowered as a result, he would then proceed to obliterate any inconvenient “norms” serving as constraints on his powers, and begin using those powers now provided by his position to progressively attack and undermine all existing “checks and balances” upon him, working to bend them to his will and to reshape them into instruments which he can use as he sees fit, thus amplifying his ability to attack his political opponents, to consolidate his own power, and to enrich himself through a wide range of corrupt practices.
With members of his party in Congress enthralled by power and acting as either willing minions or silent enablers, and with relentless attacks upon the Department of Justice and the FBI (both purposefully designed to be independent agencies serving the nation – not the President) who are tasked with investigating his conduct, and in conjunction with placement of loyal supporters into key positions and relatively unlimited power to “pardon” anyone he chooses, it becomes easier to interfere with, undermine and disrupt these investigations, which seems warranted to him given his view that he is now “above the law” anyway.
And in light of the crucial importance of controlling the flow of information, certainly the free press would warrant particularly vicious attacks intended to undermine their credibility, as they would challenge his relentless use of disinformation, “alternative facts,” and conspiracy theories to serve his own needs – a daunting task given an individual for whom actual truth and facts are quite irrelevant, and are easily brushed aside in favor of whatever story he wishes to present as “truth” in order to serve his own agenda. There is a very specific term for this, of course, as any student of history knows all too well: “propaganda.”
A novel entitled It Can’t Happen Here written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935 (and later made into a play) now serves as an eerily timely and ominous warning to us all. Let us hope that this constitutionally-limited democratic republic based on the rule of law and crafted by our Founding Fathers over two centuries ago continues to demonstrate its resiliency in the face of the challenges which it now faces. And may we all remain vigilant and do whatever we can as an informed citizenry to protect this great nation and the values it holds dear, and to ensure that it continues to thrive.
Dale E. Buonocore,