Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a friend of mine – an expert on international relations – made a joke: “Now that Eastern Europe is free from the alien ideology of communism, it can return to its true historical path – fascism.” Even at the time, his quip had a real edge.
And as of 2018, it hardly seems like a joke at all. What Freedom House calls illiberalism is on the rise across Eastern Europe. This includes Poland and Hungary, both still members of the European Union, in which democracy as we normally understand it is already dead.
In both countries the ruling parties – Law and Justice in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary – have established regimes that maintain the forms of popular elections, but have destroyed the independence of the judiciary, suppressed freedom of the press, institutionalized large-scale corruption and effectively delegitimized dissent. The result seems likely to be one-party rule for the foreseeable future.
And it could all too easily happen here. There was a time, not long ago, when people used to say that our democratic norms, our proud history of freedom, would protect us from such a slide into tyranny. In fact, some people still say that. But believing such a thing today requires willful blindness. The fact is that the Republican Party is ready, even eager, to become an American version of Law and Justice or Fidesz, exploiting its current political power to lock in permanent rule.
Just look at what has been happening at the state level.
In North Carolina, after a Democrat won the governorship, Republicans used the incumbent’s final days to pass legislation stripping the governor’s office of much of its power.
In Georgia, Republicans tried to use transparently phony concerns about access for disabled voters to close most of the polling places in a mainly black district.
In West Virginia, Republican legislators exploited complaints about excessive spending to impeach the entire state supreme court and replace it with party loyalists.
And these are just the cases that have received national attention. There are surely scores if not hundreds of similar stories across the nation. What all of them reflect is the reality that the modern GOP feels no allegiance to democratic ideals. It will do whatever it thinks it can get away with to entrench its power.
What about developments at the national level? That’s where things get really scary. We’re sitting on a knife edge. If we fall off it in the wrong direction – specifically, if Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress in November – we will become another Poland or Hungary faster than you can imagine.
This week, Axios created a bit of a stir with a scoop about a spreadsheet circulating among Republicans in Congress, listing investigations they think Democrats are likely to carry out if they take the House. The thing about the list is that every item on it — starting with Donald Trump’s tax returns – is something that obviously should be investigated, and would have been investigated under any other president. But the people circulating the document simply take it for granted that Republicans won’t address any of these issues: Party loyalty will prevail over constitutional responsibility.
Many Trump critics celebrated last week’s legal developments, taking the Manafort conviction and the Cohen guilty plea as signs that the walls may finally be closing in on the lawbreaker in chief. But I felt a sense of deepened dread as I watched the Republican reaction: Faced with undeniable evidence of Trump’s thuggishness, his party closed ranks around him more tightly than ever.
A year ago, it seemed possible that there might be limits to the party’s complicity, that there would come a point where at least a few representatives or senators would say, no more. Now it’s clear that there are no limits: They’ll do whatever it takes to defend Trump and consolidate power.
This goes even for politicians who once seemed to have some principles. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was a voice of independence in the health care debate; now she sees no problem with having a president who’s an unindicted co-conspirator appoint a Supreme Court justice who believes that presidents are immune from prosecution. Sen. Lindsey Graham denounced Trump in 2016, and until recently seemed to be standing up against the idea of firing the attorney general to kill the Mueller investigation; now he’s signaled that he’s OK with such a firing.
But why is America, the birthplace of democracy, so close to following the lead of other countries that have recently destroyed it?
Don’t tell me about “economic anxiety.” That’s not what happened in Poland, which grew steadily through the financial crisis and its aftermath. And it’s not what happened here in 2016: Study after study has found that racial resentment, not economic distress, drove Trump voters.
The point is that we’re suffering from the same disease – white nationalism run wild – that has already effectively killed democracy in some other Western nations. And we’re very, very close to the point of no return.
Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service