Liberal democracies are rarely overthrown, but frequently corrupted. Vanquishing a democracy outright is difficult, and is likely to provoke fervent opposition. But you don’t need to end free elections if you can create a playing field so un-level that your opponents are highly unlikely to win. This model has become so common, in states such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey, that it has a name – ‘illiberal democracy’. It’s becoming increasingly clear that President Trump, and some of those around him, aspire to rule America as an illiberal democracy. This is not compatible with conservatism, so conservatives must resist. Given the stakes silence is becoming a form of complicity.
This may strike you as hyperbole. You may think that America’s institutions are too advanced and developed to be undermined, and until not so long ago I would have agreed. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that institutional and legal protections are only as strong as the desire to enforce them, and this is where problems are developing. The Republican Party should have spat out Donald Trump. A demagogue with a clear disregard for democratic norms, and sympathies for a hostile foreign dictator, is not an acceptable candidate for a party which defines itself as ‘conservative’. But the Republican Party accepted Trump as its candidate, and thus the first wall protecting liberal-democratic America was breached.
Trump’s behaviour since his inauguration has been that of a textbook authoritarian. Those institutions which constrain his behaviour, namely the judiciary and free media, have come under fervent attack. The ‘so called judges’ who blocked Trump’s partial Muslim ban have been accused of threatening national security, and could well become the whipping boy after any future terrorist attack. Meanwhile sections of the media have come under unprecedented attack, both in terms of verbal de-legitimisation and some physical restrictions. Trump has decried certain critical publications as ‘the enemy of the American people’, whilst his aides have blocked them from attending White House press briefings.
Alongside this is a view has gained currency amongst conservatives, particularly in America, that Trump is essentially containable. Yes he’s an unhinged authoritarian, but he’s our unhinged authoritarian and the system will keep him in check. And whilst he’s President we might as well take advantage of the situation to get stuff we like, like tax cuts and reduced business regulation. This view strikes me as very naïve. For a candidate as intrinsically unappealing as Trump to get elected, there must be some powerful force behind them. In Trump’s case is was a form of ethnic nationalism. Not necessarily racist, but certainly racially aware and driven by concern about ethnic change.
The form of identity politics which swept Trump to power should not be underestimated, and cannot be reliably controlled by mainstream conservatives. Trump’s poll ratings may be sketchy at the moment, but if he recreates the ethnically laced politics which allowed him to win this year he could certainly be re-elected. Moreover events could strengthen his hand. The best allies an authoritarian can have are instability and chaos. Throw in a couple of serious race riots or terror attacks, either of which are possible, and Trump will portray himself as the candidate of order and stability. The more serious the situation appears, the more leeway Trump will gain to deviate from liberal-democratic values.
It’s important to emphasise that Trump is not a conservative. He represents an ideology, a form of authoritarian-nationalism, which is entirely distinct from Western conservatism. Conservatism means, at the very least, adherence to liberal-democratic-capitalist values. Trump’s attitude to these values varies between ambivalence and hostility. It’s not just that Trump doesn’t adhere to our values, his authoritarianism actively threatens them.
As Trump rejects our values conservatives, and certainly those worthy of the title, have a duty to resist him. Trump’s authoritarianism, his disregard for democratic and constitutional norms, make him too dangerous to be even a temporary ally. We should be wary of underestimating the strength of the brand of identity politics which propelled Trump to the White House. Fundamentally, like it or not, Trump’s rise was facilitated by the collaboration of American conservatives, including much of the Republican Party. History is unlikely to be kind to those involved. Because of this conservatives have a particular duty to defend liberal-democratic civilisation from Trump’s authoritarianism, and thus contain a monster we helped create. If we fail it may be some time before decent people start self-defining as ‘conservatives’ again.
James Bickerton is a liberal-conservative blogger and former researcher in the House of Commons. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.