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Dangers I didn’t see coming: “tyranny of the minority” and an irrelevant press

A scholar of the Holocaust finds threats to American democracy coming from unexpected directions.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first official news conference since the November elections.
At his first press conference since the November elections, Donald Trump went on the aggressive against CNN and other organizations.
Spencer Platt / Getty

For many who did not vote for Donald Trump, his unexpected victory has left us much more alarmed, bewildered, and demoralized than previous electoral defeats. Even for those on the left or center-left who have survived the electoral triumphs of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, Reagan’s sweeping landslide of 1980, and the heartbreaking cliff hanger and Supreme Court selection of 2000, this past year of 2016 still felt different. Why?

All too many have suggested alarmist parallels between Trump and Hitler, with our current situation described as eerily akin to 1933 and the demise of Weimar democracy. No doubt Hitler’s rise to power (from a seemingly ludicrous fringe party leader to chancellor in less than two and a half years) seemed as improbable to many then as Trump’s 17-month odyssey does to us now: Trump didn’t just survive but actually thrived through a string of seemingly “disqualifying” outrages. Certainly both Hitler and Trump were charismatic personalities who connected emotionally with their followers, constructed coalitions of discontent, innovated new styles of campaigning, raged against the corrupt establishment, and promised that as leader each alone could solve all our problems.

But Hitler was a fixated ideologue with a strong party organization, while Trump is an opportunistic narcissist driven above all by the need for adulation. Hitler was the “little corporal,” the man of the people, who feigned austerity, while Trump is a billionaire who flaunts his wealth and luxurious life-style. Ultimately, Trump seems far more a hybrid of Berlusconi and Putin, potentially merging kleptocracy and autocracy, than the reincarnation of an ideologically driven, war-mongering, and genocidal dictator.

I would suggest that a major source of our unease — beyond Trump’s personal unfitness for the presidency — is not that Trump is going to attempt to construct some fascist-style dictatorship, but rather that the trends that are manifested in his triumph represent a threat to our democracy that has arrived from an unexpected direction. That is what has left me, in any case, bewildered and unprepared.

The risk we were primed to watch out for was tyranny of the majority

Our democracy is based on majority rule tempered by minority rights. I had always assumed that the major threat to our democracy, if one arrived, would come through a “tyranny of the majority” that cast aside or subverted the constitutional protections of the minority. What we have seen between 2010 and 2016, however, is not the emergence of a tyranny of the majority, but an increasingly irreversible capture of our elected institutions by a focused and uninhibited minority.

2010, the year when the Republican takeover of many state legislatures coincided with congressional redistricting, opened the door to computer-driven gerrymandering that, at its most extreme, in two states in which the parties are fairly evenly matched — North Carolina and Pennsylvania — has produced 10 Republican and three Democratic House members in the former and 13 Republican and five Democratic House members in the latter. Similar disparities can be found in states like Michigan and Virginia — and, increasingly, in many state legislatures.

Moreover, this is a model that will surely be copied in every state in which the Republicans control state legislatures and governorships in 2020. It was already estimated that it would have taken a Democratic nationwide vote of at least 56 percent or 57 percent in 2016 to overturn the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. After 2020, the odds will become even more remote that the Republicans could lose their House majority: It would take a genuine Democratic landslide nationally.

The irony is that for the Founding Fathers, the House of Representatives was supposed to be the most democratic institution, reflecting volatile changes in popular opinion, while the institutions of Senate (apportioned by state) and president (selected by the Electoral College) would assure some degree of stability and moderate change. Yet Republicans are creating a stable House under their control.

With the increasingly polarized geographical map — a minority of blue states on the West Coast and in the Northeast bookending a vast sea of red states — the Senate is even more likely to remain in Republican hands, regardless of Democratic strength in the national popular vote. Indeed, the most pertinent issue at stake in each election may well be whether the Republicans obtain a mere majority in the Senate or a supermajority capable of overriding any filibuster. Most ominously, following Gore’s popular vote victory and Electoral College defeat in 2000, and now Hilary Clinton’s substantial popular victory (by nearly 3 million votes) combined with an Electoral College defeat, anti-democratic presidential outcomes should no longer be seen as freakish events. Rather, they are a logical product of the diverging demographic and geographical realities of American politics — urban versus rural, coastal versus inland, and so on.

Republicans appear to be close to locking down three branches of government

There are, in short, three nationwide electoral arenas — House, Senate, and presidency — and the Republicans are positioned to dominate all three even without a majority of voters in any one of them. To hide that reality, and to make their electoral triumphs even more irreversible, the Republicans have already launched a systematic campaign of voter repression, disproportionately targeting (“with surgical precision” as one court ruled) Democratically inclined groups of voters. Many of these laws, or at least portions of them, have been held up by the courts so far. But thanks to the successful obstruction of Senate Republicans, the next Supreme Court appointment (or appointments) will now fall to Trump.

And even before those appointments, the Supreme Court had shown itself willing to gut the Voting Rights Act, a decision that opened the door to many of the voter repression tactics we saw leading up to 2016. The Court has also been unwilling to intervene against even the most extreme political partisanship in redistricting. One casualty of the Trump victory was hope for a Supreme Court ready to protect democracy against the extreme abuses of voter repression and gerrymandering.

A second assumption I held about the potential demise of American democracy was that it would be tied to censorship or repression of the free news media. The delivery of accurate news able to shine the disinfecting sunlight of real facts and relevant information on vital political issues was a first line of defense against anti-democratic demagoguery, disinformation, character assassination, and outright lies.

In the marketplace of competing ideas, I assumed, falsehoods would be exposed and truth would prevail, and the news media were the vital instrument in this regard. What never occurred to me is that politics could be conducted in an environment in which the exposure of falsehoods and cynical denial of even what one could see time and again on numerous video replays simply made no difference.

One of the great surprises of this election is that one does not need to repress the free news media when it has simply become irrelevant — because factuality has become irrelevant to how so many people choose to vote. With a flood of false news (not just spin, but disinformation about, for example, Hillary Clinton’s health), science denial, the capacity to isolate oneself in the comforting and confirming news cocoon of one’s own choosing, and a winning candidate who prefers consulting conspiracy websites to intelligence briefings, there is no agreed-upon standard of accuracy, facts, and recorded statements by which most people can measure or decide anything.

What is so discouraging to me, therefore, is not that I fear a blatant demise of American democracy and the rise of a traditionally recognizable dictatorship. Rather, I am bewildered as to how to proceed in a situation in which the legitimizing mechanics of democratic majority rule are preserved even as the reality of an increasingly irreversible minority control prevails.

I am bewildered how to conduct political discourse and persuasion — about how to conduct politics, in short — when each political tribe lives in its own reality, increasingly incomprehensible to the other, and with no agreed-upon standards and measures concerning how we might ascertain facts and truth, much less agreement on even the desirability and relevance of such an effort.

Sadly, our democracy is challenged not just by the fraying of a democratic political culture through ever-intensifying polarization and demise of traditional norms. It is also challenged by a basic collapse of two vital institutions: rule through electoral majorities and a free media. That is the predicament we face today.

Christopher R. Browning is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.


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