Author of “For The People: A Citizen’s Manifesto to Shaping Our Nation’s Future”
There are two paths to dictatorship – the military one and the populist one.
The populist path is well-trodden and clearly sign-posted. The aspiring dictator must achieve three primary goals:
1. Get elected, preferably on an authoritarian populist platform. Doing so requires a very alluring – and yet all too familiar – narrative: “Everything is a mess. It’s all the fault of (brown/Jewish/Chinese/Communist – choose your flavor) others; once we eliminate this threat, all will be wonderful; only I can do it”
2. Once in power, weaken, neutralize or destroy all other forms of power that can get in your way – the media, judiciary, legislature and any other opponents
3. Reward your “winning coalition” (the people who really put you in power and on whom you depend to stay there), preferably with money; and feed your “selectorate” (the people who actually elected you), preferably with smoke, mirrors and a diet of hate against those pernicious “others”.
And, hey presto, you are a dictator! This is the path that has been taken by totalitarians down the ages – Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, Jomo Kenyatta, Hugo Chavez. All these trod the path. And, since 2015, it has been the path trodden by Donald Trump.
If we needed any evidence for this (and there has been plenty), we only had to witness the expert neutering of the Senate during the impeachment trial. GOP legislators, in thrall to their leader, brazenly preferred to place power ahead of their sworn duty to act as impartial jurors. While many of them may criticize and bemoan him in private, they are so terrified of him that they toe the line. That achieved, Trump then turned his attention to a full-out assault on the judiciary.
But why are legislators so terrified? Because they know full well that, if they stepped out of line, an avalanche of money would come down against them in what would be vicious, power-threatening primaries. The money would not necessarily come from the GOP itself, but from PACs and Super-PACs representing Trump’s “winning coalition”
Money is the most corrupting agent in modern American politics. Ever since the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court that corporations are “persons” under the Constitution, the role of money – much of it untraceable to its real donors – has become paramount. Since 2002, the amount spent by PACs in major elections has risen from $17 million to over $1 billion. Of the $6.5 billion spent overall in the 2016 election, 25% came from PACs. And where super-PACs are concerned, the top 1% of donors gave 95% of the money. What that basically means is that a very small handful of people control a very large slice of election spending – and when that results in a win, the victors (our future dictator and beholden legislators) need to keep them happy.
Until the influence of money is severely reduced or eliminated in our election system, power will be there to be bought and the easier it will be for authoritarian populists to subvert democracy. Contrary to received wisdom, this is not a difficult thing to do. Almost all other major democracies have systems in place for mitigating the influence of money – whether that be limiting donations, limiting spending, paying for elections out of the public purse or severely limiting the length of campaigns. All it takes is legislators with spines.
And for that particular oxymoron to be resolved, the whole electorate in this country needs to raise its voice, demand reform and get out and vote. If it can’t do that, it gets the government it deserves – just ask the people of Venezuela.