Read, Debate: Engage.

Study: US Republican Party is embracing authoritarianism

January 09, 2021
tags:#authoritarianism, #democracy, #USA, #Republican Party, #Donal Trump, #Joe Biden, #2020 elections
by:Yair Oded
A recent study published by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden shows that the Republican party in the United States is flouting democratic norms and is becoming more akin to authoritarian parties such as the AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary.

The study, which examined shifts in policy positions and organisational structures in ruling parties across the world over the past few decades, has identified a global trend among parties in power of espousing a more authoritarian manner of conduct. 

Expiating their findings, researchers from the V-Dem Institute pointed out that over the past few decades, and particularly since the rise of Trump, members of the Republican party have accelerated their demonisation of political opponents, openly encouraged violence, and cracked down on minority rights. 

The new data emerging from Sweden, along with troves of other evidence attesting to the alarming disregard for democratic norms and procedures by Republicans, demonstrate that the United States is not impervious to the fangs of authoritarianism. In fact, Trump’s attempted coup following the presidential election and the enthusiastic support it received from a vast majority of Republican politicians served as an alarming indication that the conditions are ripe in the US for an autocratic takeover. 


The study, titled New Global Data on Political Parties: V-Party is the largest research ever conducted into the identity shifts both between and within political parties across the world. To do so, it closely examined trends in behavior of political parties in 169 countries between the years 1970 and 2019. The hundreds of experts who participated in the study have looked at 30 different variables in their work in order to map out and identify shifts in party behavior.

In examining the illiberalism index, researchers focused on four main indicators: low commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence.

Overall, the study’s findings were grim. In the US, the researchers concluded, the Republican party has increasingly flouted democratic norms and is espousing a rhetoric more akin to authoritarian regimes, such as the one in Hungary and Turkey. 

"What we see is that the disrespect of political opponents, the encouragement of violence and also the violation of minority rights ... they have all clearly increased with the Republican Party in recent years, since [President Trump] came in the leadership but also before that," Anna Luehrmann, V-Dem's deputy director and a lead author of the study, stated in an interview for CNN

"The disagreement about immigration policy, the disagreement about LGBT equality ... yes, we have that - we have sort of issue polarization here as well - but what we can see is that there's a dangerous lack of commitment to democratic norms," she added, referring to Republicans’ method of conducting politics in recent years.

The study’s authors further pointed out that although members of the Democratic Party did exhibit a shift towards populism, anti-elitism and citizen-centrism over the past two decades, the party did, overall, retain respect for democratic norms and procedures and has not demonstrated illiberal tendencies. 

Adhering to the autocratic playbook

A quick glance at the trajectory of the Republican Party, especially since it has been taken over by Donald Trump, corroborates the study’s findings, as members of the party, empowered by President Trump, have willingly and soberly eroded the pillars of American democracy. One could go as far as stating that over the past several years, Republicans have ticked virtually every box in the authoritarian playbook. 

This has been evident, for instance, in their relentless packing of the Supreme and federal courts. Republicans’ tradition of court-packing predates President Trump, and can be traced back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s crusade to block Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in hopes of having the seat filled by a future Republican president. Throughout his term, President Trump, aided by Mcconnell and other Senate Republicans, has installed three Supreme Court justices, the most recent one being Amy Coney Barrett, whose appointment stirred nation-wide controversy as it was rammed through by Republicans just weeks before the presidential election. 

In addition to Supreme Court justices, Trump and Mcconnell jointly advanced the appointment of hundreds of federal judges and numerous state Supreme Court justices across the country. “My motto for the year is ‘leave no vacancy behind,’” McConnell stated during an April interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show. Many of these appointments reeked of anti-democratic political motives, as Republicans sought to inundate the nation’s judiciary with conservative judges who are, often, manifestly under-qualified for the job and can offer nothing but blind loyalty to the party’s ideology.  

Violation of minority rights, a longstanding Republican (and generally American, for that matter) tradition has become a hallmark of the Trump presidency. Aided by Republican allies, the president has, over his term, expressed utter disregard and hatred for members of minority demographics and fanned the flames of racism across the US. Time and time again, Trump espoused rhetoric that dehumanised minorities (most frequently immigrants) and enacted policies that deprived them of access to services, opportunities, and liberty. This was evident in the violent and dismissive response by Trump and key Republicans to the Black Lives Matter movement, their relentless flirting with white supremacist groups, their abbhorrent crackdown on immigration and brutal separation of families, and their increasing militarisation of the southern US border. 

Under Trump, the Republican party’s demonisation of political opponents has grown ever so blunt and spiteful, with expletives and derogatory catch-phrases such as “crooked Hillary” and “the radical left” infiltrating Republicans’ mainstream vernacular. Trump and his allies have also openly encouraged violence among their supporters by emboldening militias and daring people to take up arms against the party’s perceived enemies. This was evident, among countless other instances, in the president’s calls to “liberate” states from the COVID-19 lockdown last spring, his repeated attacks on Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan (which culminated in a derailed plot to kidnap her), and his calls on members of a white-supremacist paramilitary group to “stand back and stand by” in case he loses the election. 

In typical autocratic fashion, Trump has also conducted repeated political purges in the executive branch throughout his term. The most recent purge took place immediately following the election, when the defeated president embarked on an erratic firing spree in the Pentagon and fired, among others he deemed disobedient, his Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Over his time in office, Trump has repeatedly appointed ‘loyalists’ to positions of power, most notably through “acting” officials who did his bidding without securing official nominations and thus bypassing legislative oversight. These blatantly authoritarian moves were, for the most part, met with complete silence or obsequious approval on the part of Republican lawmakers.

Systemic voter suppression has been yet another indication that Republicans aligned themselves with authoritarianism. For years, Republican lawmakers have engaged in gerrymandering and redrawing of congressional districts in order to suppress minority votes and consolidate power. Emboldened by Trump, Republicans have accelerated their voter suppression campaign over the past four years, and the president himself has participated in the effort by promulgating baseless conspiracy theories about wide-spread fraud in mail-in voting systems, encouraging his supporters to attend polling stations and effectively intimidate voters, and openly demanding to stop the vote counts in states where his path to victory was shrinking. 

Not a ‘one-man' but a party issue

Republicans’ almost blind deference to Trump over the past four years, and their unwavering support of him even in the face of the strident racism, corruption, and authoritarianism that characterised his presidency, indicate that the problem doesn’t lie only with Trump himself, but with the entire Republican Party. 

This was painfully evident throughout the sham nomination proceedings of justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, as well as during Trump’s impeachment hearings, when Republicans banded together to block witnesses from testifying and brazenly ignored evidence detailing the president’s crimes. 

We witnessed it once more in the wake of the recent 2020 presidential election, when the vast majority of Republican lawmakers and politicians sided with Trump as he baselessly pinned his loss as a result of widespread fraud and attempted to stage nothing short of a coup d’etat

In total disregard of democratic norms, Republicans from across the country drummed up allegations of election malfeasance and took to the courts to challenge the election’s results. “That elected officials are undermining the results of an election - that’s terrifying,” Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and author researching authoritarian regimes stated during an interview for Amanpour & Company days after the election. 

A Worldwide Problem

As indicated by the researchers at V-Dem, the spread of authoritarianism isn’t limited to the Republican Party in the US, but has plagued political parties the world over. “The median governing party in democracies has become more illiberal in recent decades – rising from a score of 0.08 in 1970 to 0.28 in 2019,” the authors of the study write, adding that most threats to democracy these days come from within governments. “[M]ore parties show lower commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence,” the researchers further concluded. 

Referencing German social psychologist Erich Fromm, Gessen offered a possible explanation as to why dozens of millions of Americans have favoured the authoritarian style of Trump and other Republicans, even as it posed such an undeniable threat to the survival of American democracy. “There are times in human history when people feel so dislocated, so economically anxious, so fearful of the future that it is easier to hand over their agency to an autocrat in exchange for the promise of stability,” Gessen stated.

“The autocrats never deliver the problem of stability,” she added, “but there is an emotional promise of predictability, stability, and the message that you don’t have to think about your future. ‘I will lead you into it’. ‘I will constrain you enough to make it not so unpredictable and so frightening’.” 

The same undoubtedly holds true across the globe. In times of worsening socio-economic uncertainty, debilitating global pandemics, and monumental environmental shifts, we can expect the illusionary appeal of authoritarianism to continue to entrench itself in the hearts and minds of millions across the world. 

Action must be taken

Understanding the mortal threat that the steady rise of authoritarianism poses to democracies everywhere, people must engage in conscious attempts to defeat the tide of illiberalism at home, while maintaining an awareness of and connection with like-minded movements elsewhere in the world.

Referring to the situation with the Republican party in the US, Gessen warns against a hasty attempt to return to ‘normal’ and brush off the events of the past few years as a mere reaction to a blustering autocrat like Trump. 

Gessen contends that the incoming president must make it a point to dismantle the system of power fostered by Trump, in which all branches of government revolve around the head of the executive branch, and closely examine the conditions that made such a power structure possible to construct. Biden must also, Gessen argues, take upon himself the courageous and complex task of healing the collective national trauma of the past four years. Failure to do so, Gessen warns, will result in the rise of another autocrat in the near future who will easily fill the vacuum left by Trump and exploit the undemocratic-power structure he architected. 

It would be reckless to relieve Democrats of all accountability when it comes to the erosion of American democracy. Ever since the Clinton era, we have witnessed Democratic presidents and lawmakers placing big money interests ahead of the welfare of the people. We have seen the obstinate refusal of the Democratic Party establishment to tackle the military-industrial complex and halt the bloody wars and interventions abroad; to take on Wall Street; to fight for just immigration policies and cease the multi-decade war waged on migrants and immigrants by the US government; to make universal healthcare a reality in America; to listen and take their direction from the public that elected them. 

That said, Democrats are not too far gone, and, as the recent study shows, they still, overall, subscribe to the principles and norms of democracy. This puts them in a position of responsibility to allay the threat to democracy posed by a Republican Party that sinks deeper and deeper into the chaudron of authoritarianism. 

President-elect Biden will have to, despite himself, confront Republicans head on and call them and out for what they’ve become - agents of illiberalism. Just as urgently, he will have to push for exhaustive systemic changes in the nation's socio-economic and political spheres and tackle the very conditions - from deep-rooted racism to unfettered capitalism - that allowed the venom of authoritarianism to fester in the first place.

It will be the responsibility of Democratic lawmakers and politicians to support and empower Biden on this journey, and it will be incumbent upon each and every one of us to signal to our representatives that we refuse to give up on democracy. 

Image by Gage Skidmore

Article written by:
yair oded profile
Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
Embed from Getty Images
© Win McNamee / Staff
Embed from Getty Images
© Samuel Corum / Stringer
Call to Action
Help our democracies survive COVID-19
Support now