In the end, Donald Trump’s coup failed but it was squeaky-bum time for a week or so. ‘I won the election,’ he tweeted in the early hours of 16th November, almost a fortnight after he lost the election. A week later, even as he finally permitted the transition to Joe Biden’s presidency to begin, he was still refusing to accept defeat in what he called ‘the most corrupt election in American history’. The outgoing president cited ‘massive fraud’ (seamlessly co-ordinated by the Democratic Party in half a dozen states) without producing a scrap of evidence. Who cares? Not the Republican Party, it seems. Evidence is superfluous and even suspect in the post-truth era – and that’s the way populists like Trump and Boris Johnson like it. In his memoir A Promised Land, Trump’s predecessor in the White House issues a stark warning. ‘If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false,’ Barack Obama writes, ‘by definition our democracy doesn’t work.’ In other words, Trump’s antics in the wake of the US election weren’t just a challenge to the result but to democracy itself.
Some people think Trump is a loser or a clown instead of a fascist. He’s too pathetic to be a fascist, or so the argument goes. Yet lying, paranoia and conspiracy are the key ingredients of fascism, and Trump is a past master of all of them. Johnson is an inveterate liar but doesn’t do paranoia or conspiracy nearly so well. He leaves that to his fanbase in the Tory twittersphere. The other ingredient of fascism is militarism – which Trump also flirted with in the summer, seeking to deploy troops on the streets of American cities in order to quell the Black Lives Matter protests. By the same token, Johnson increased the defence budget by £16 billion while freezing public sector pay and denying free school lunches to hungry children.
The real threat to democracy doesn’t come from tin-pot dictators staging military coups but from civilian governments in power. Given time, unscrupulous leaders like Trump or Johnson can hollow out democracy more or less completely. Trump’s aim in the days and weeks after the election was not to overturn the result. Had that been a realistic objective it’s unlikely he would have hired Rudy Giuliani to mount the legal challenge. His real purpose was to undermine the average citizen’s trust in America’s democratic system. It may be flawed – the electoral college is just as antiquated and in need of overhaul as our first-past-the-post system – yet it functioned remarkably well at the height of a pandemic and in response to a quasi-fascist challenge.
Trump’s post-election game plan was obvious and predictable. He’d been flagging it up for months in any case. Stoking a toxic culture war is what he does best. The myth of his stolen re-election was just another addition to his repertoire of right-wing grievances. Trump and his fellow populists around the world came to power as a result of the failings of democratic governments. In rich countries working-class voters came to believe that politicians didn’t care about them. As unemployment rose and living standards fell, it was easy to blame immigration. The same lies demolished blue walls and red walls in America and England respectively. The Trumpists who yelled ‘stop the steal’ outside ballot counts from Arizona to Pennsylvania were the same rednecks who’ve been protesting all year against mask-wearing and in favour of keeping Mexican children in cages.
Trump and Johnson have acted as cheerleaders for right-wing populism not just in the United States and Britain but internationally. Their supporters around the world range from Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil to Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Viktor Orban in Hungary, all of whom peddle the same mix of nationalism and xenophobia. In the world’s largest democracy the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi is borrowing from the Trump playbook, capturing institutions such as the courts and the police, and even the election commission – which Trump himself narrowly failed to do.
The government of Poland has trampled on democracy in recent years too, coercing judges, attacking journalists and using the state to obstruct rivals. In Turkey, an elected leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, governs as if democratic power is absolute and condemns those who oppose him as enemies of the state.
It used to be thought that the spread of democracy was a slow but irresistible process. Now the trend has gone into reverse.
Yet every Sunday the people of Belarus risk their freedom and, in some cases, their lives by protesting against a fraudulently elected dictatorship. Others in Hong Kong and Sudan and Thailand are sending the same message: if you stop fighting for democracy, it just gets taken away again.