Democracies die from the inside. Almost always. They did not defend themselves enough, or they allowed extremists to break the law and grow without punishment. The institutions weakened, and when the people reacted it was too late: A tyrant was ruling them.
There are lots of examples of democracies that collapsed, like the one in Chile before Augusto Pinochet and the one in Venezuela before Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. They were not perfect, but they managed to elect legitimate presidents. Yet they could not control the strong authoritarian currents within the system – the military in Chile and radical Chavismo in Venezuela – and democracy disappeared at the first opportunity.
Democracies are so fragile! Today there are many more democracies than at the end of World War II. In 2017, the Pew Center counted 97 democracies among 167 countries with populations of more than 500,000. But even a democracy in existence for more than two centuries, like the United States, runs risks.
Today I want to write about that.
Failing to take Donald Trump seriously is an extremely grave mistake. His Big Lie – insisting that he and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election – is a serious danger to democracy in the United States. The majority of Republicans – seven out of 10, according to different polls – believe Trump’s lie. Worse still, there are now many politicians and Congress members in Washington who agree.
They are the infiltrators.
At least 220 Republicans who reject or are skeptical of the results of the 2020 elections won their races to become governors, secretaries of state, prosecutors and House and Senate members in Washington, according to a New York Times tally. That is a whole army of people who are suspicious of democracy.
And some of the same people who questioned Biden’s win, and even refused to legally recognize it – election deniers – now hold highly influential jobs. CNN reported that 11 of the 17 committees in the House, now controlled by the Republican party, will be chaired by members who refused to certify Biden’s win in 2020. And that means the United States, one of the most powerful and oldest democracies in history, has inside its government structures hundreds of people who do not believe in democracy or simply refuse to accept their candidate lost. That is very dangerous. In a moment of crisis, how will those politicians act and vote? Will they defend US democracy, or Donald Trump? Within the Capitol building in Washington, there is a seed of anti-democracy.
Bad examples can be copied. Just as Donald Trump refused to accept his loss in 2020, a New Mexico Republican who ran for Congress in November, Solomon Peña, refused to acknowledge his defeat by a Democrat. Peña, a Trump supporter, lost the election by a huge margin. He won 26 percent of the vote. His opponent won 74 percent. But Peña was worse than Trump. According to police in Albuquerque, Peña orchestrated a series of gunfire attacks on the homes of several of his Democratic rivals. Today he is under arrest, facing 14 criminal charges.
The bad example also reached Brazil, where about 5,000 people invaded Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential offices in Brasilia on January 8, in a failed attempt to topple recently elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The police in charge of protecting the buildings were easily overwhelmed by the protesters, and there was a lot of damage. Fortunately, the Brazilian armed forces rejected the calls for insurrection and a coup.
That insurrection in Brazil was very similar to the one staged by Trump supporters at the US Capitol on January 6 2021. Several people died as the protesters tried to impose Trump as president until 2024. They could not do it. But the attack cast a spotlight on the vulnerability of US democracy. “None of the events of January 6th would have happened without” Trump, according to the conclusions of a lengthy investigation by Congress. And despite the threat he represents to the US democratic system, Trump is once again seeking the presidency in 2024.
That shows no democracy is safe forever.
“We might be tempted to think that our democratic
heritage automatically protects us from such threats,” Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny. “This is a misguided reflex.”
US democracy has been infiltrated. We have been warned. No one will be able to say that they did not know.