Like many who read this blog, I get the Letter from an American from Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a historian, and the great benefit of her Letters is that they provide what I like to think of as a look in humanity’s rear-view mirror.
Driving a car requires checking the traffic behind us in order to navigate the road ahead. History serves much the same purpose (which is one of the many, many reasons why the rightwing hysteria over teaching the country’s history of racism is so deranged…)
It has been hard for me to see the historical outlines of the present-day attack on American democracy clearly. But this morning, as I was reading a piece in Vox by foreign affairs specialist Zack Beauchamp, describing Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s path in Florida as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the penny dropped.
She proceeded to outline the political currents prior to the election of Trump: the evolution of today’s GOP into the pro-oligarchy party, following what she described as the usual U.S. historical pattern to that point– “in the 1850s, 1890s, 1920s, and then again in the modern era, wealthy people had come around to the idea that society worked best if a few wealthy men ran everything.”
Each of those periods was a reaction to the expansion of civil equality. Richardson reports that wealthier Americans protected their privileged status by playing on the racism of poorer white male voters– telling them that passage of laws protecting equal rights was really a plan to turn American governance over to immigrants or to Black or Brown Americans.
The idea that poor men of color voting meant socialism resonated with white voters, who turned against the government’s protecting equal rights and instead supported a government that favored men of property. As wealth moved upward, popular culture championed economic leaders as true heroes, and lawmakers suppressed voting in order to “redeem” American society from “socialists” who wanted to redistribute wealth. Capital moved upward until a very few people controlled most of it, and then, usually after an economic crash made ordinary Americans turn against the system that favored the wealthy, the cycle began again.
When Trump was elected, the U.S. was at the place where wealth had concentrated among the top 1%, Republican politicians denigrated their opponents as un-American “takers” and celebrated economic leaders as “makers,” and the process of skewing the vote through gerrymandering and voter suppression was well underway. But the Republican Party still valued the rule of law. It’s impossible to run a successful business without a level playing field, as businessmen realized after the 1929 Great Crash, when it became clear that insider trading had meant that winners and losers were determined not by the market but by cronyism.
Trump deviated from the usual cycle in one way–he didn’t care about enriching the oligarchy, only about enriching himself, his toadies and his family. Despite his repellent personality and embarrassing ignorance of government and policy, he was especially dangerous because he turned the Republican base into a cult that no longer respected the rule of law.
Richardson warns that Trump’s deliberate destabilization of faith in our democratic norms is especially dangerous because it creates space for two right-wing, antidemocratic ideologies. Two current Republican governors model those ideologies: Abbott in Texas, who is pursuing the South’s Civil War insistence on “states’ rights,” and DeSantis in Florida, who is emulating Viktor Orbán’s “soft fascism.”
Orbán has taken control of Hungary’s media, ensuring that his party wins all elections; has manipulated election districts in his own favor; and has consolidated the economy into the hands of his cronies by threatening opponents with harassing investigations, regulations, and taxes unless they sell out.
DeSantis is following this model right down to the fact that observers believe that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled on a similar Hungarian law. DeSantis’s attack on Disney mirrors Orbán’s use of regulatory laws to punish political opponents (although the new law was so hasty and flawed it threatens to do DeSantis more harm than good).
Richardson counsels us to look in that rear-view mirror–to access the knowledge and tools that history provides to defend democracy from the ideology of states’ rights.” But she also warns that, because the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “soft fascism” is new to us, we need to understand how it differs both from Trump’s version of autocracy and from the old arguments for states’ rights.
At risk of over-extending my somewhat strained analogy, Orbanism represents a massive pothole on the road to democratic self-governance and civil liberty–a pothole requiring us to drive carefully and keep our eyes on the road– ahead and behind.