Americans Appear More Amenable to Autocracy in 2024

8 minute read

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It was meant, as ever, as a softball question for his pal, but former President Donald Trump couldn’t just take the gimme from Sean Hannity. The Fox News host wanted to bat down the ample reporting that Trump and his allies were already laying the groundwork for a return to power, replete with penance for his foes, punishment for his enemies, and penalties for those who stood in his way. “Under no circumstances, you’re promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked Trump in Davenport, Iowa, back on Dec. 5.

But the former President, as ever, could not help himself. “Except for day one,” Trump replied

It was a stunning declaration, one that Democrats thought might be the key disqualifying piece of evidence in their case for ensuring Trump never again be allowed near the White House. Yet at that exact moment, the prestigious Des Moines Register poll was in the field, and what it found complicates the critics’ read of Trump’s answer. Among likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers, the poll found, a full one-fifth—19%—believe such a quest for vengeance makes it more likely that they would support Trump. 

The survey also found a full 14% were more inclined to back Trump based on his lies alleging fraud in the 2020 election justified his terminating parts of the Constitution. More broadly, 50% said Trump’s plans for "sweeping raids, giant camps and mass deportations" made him a more attractive candidate, and a solid 43% were more likely to vote for Trump based on his comments that "the radical left thugs that live like vermin" in the country needed to be rooted out. And 42% apparently experienced a similar surge of support when told that Trump has said immigrants who enter the United States illegally are "poisoning the blood.”

Put simply: Trump’s most audacious aspirations for an American autocracy are not costing him with the voters he needs the most at this moment, just weeks before Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina prove to be his first test of a comeback. In fact, such comments may help Trump build a firewall against challengers like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy. All the while, Trump is singing the praises of dictators and setting off alarms among scholars of autocracy.

For many Americans, the four years of the Trump administration were an abomination, an abnormality that could be treated as a blip of lapsed judgment that involved millions of voters. Maybe it was the nation’s deep-seeded sexism manifesting itself in a contest between a deeply problematic Trump but a decades-despised Hillary Clinton back in 2016. Maybe Trump got a devious advantage thanks to Russian interference. Maybe it was a Justice Department lapse in judgment to reopen the probe of Clinton’s emails in the final push toward Election Day. The phrase This Is Not Who We Are was on liberals’ lips for the entirety of Trump’s rise to and execution of power.

The political violence in Washington seen during Trump’s final days in office drew plenty of co-signers to that belief. But, in the almost three years since, polling has continued to suggest this uneasy truth: Maybe It Was Who We Were—And Are.

The explanations are as plentiful as they are complicated. Trump understood that, for a slice of Americans, the changes—some say progress—the country has seen in achieving greater equity and prosperity have not benefited everyone equally. Shifting norms and expectations left many white, working-class voters aggravated and feeling disaffected. The rise of social media made it easier for these like-minded isolates to find each other and amplify their perspective. In other words, the components of a healthy democracy—a more-level field, demands for inclusion, and free debate of ideas—were turned against democracy itself.

The intellectual architect of Vladimir Putin’s world, Alexander Dugin, heralded the election of Trump as evidence that “the American people themselves have started the revolution against precisely the aspect of the US which we hated.” Trump is simply delivering on his promises to dismantle the foundational pieces of American life. 

For instance, Trump has vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to go after the Bidens, a very-Soviet move to weaponize the justice system against former foes as just desserts for Trump’s current legal woes. Where his lawyers checked his impulses the first time, his allies are plotting a more political framework than a legal one if given a second try. The makeup of his fantasy-league Cabinet puts loyalty over competence. Thousands of federal workers who predated him would have to pass loyalty tests to keep their positions. His deputies would spend untold hours prosecuting or suing journalists who are critical of their actions. He’s even floated the idea of executing his one-time top military adviser, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley. 

Globally, this has been the trend in recent decades. Freedom House, a think tank dedicated to countering autocracy, reports that 80% of the world’s population lives under systems that are considered not free or only partially so. On the world stage, freedom is in its 17th year of net decline, with press freedoms facing legitimate threats in at least 157 countries. Which, sadly, makes Trump’s declaration that he would punish U.S. journalists for reporting less of an outlier. 

Anyone objectively looking at Washington right now understands why, for those simply glancing at the headlines in particular, Trump’s threats may not seem much worse than the status quo. This Congress is on track to be the least-effective legislature since the Great Depression. An embarrassing 22 pieces of legislation got across the finish line this year, and some of those were as benign as creating a coin for the Marine Corps’ birthday and renaming V.A. clinics in New Mexico and Michigan. The House left town without any real progress on must-pass spending bills and will return in January with less than two weeks to get its act together. (If history is any guide, this will not go well.)

Americans aren’t hiding their retreat toward autocracy. In October, the Public Religion Research Institute published damning polling that indicated roughly four-in-10 Americans thought the country was so far afield from normal that it was time for a leader who would break the rules to fix the system. Among Republicans, the number almost reached half. The same think tank also found a surge in support for resorting to political violence; in March 2021, pollsters found 15% of Americans agreed that violence was merited, a number that rose to 23% this year. Among Republicans, that number reaches 33%.

Americans know Trump is a threat to the way things are typically done. CNN’s polling finds about a one-third of them said they thought Trump respects the rule of law. (Most respondents agreed Biden did.) But The Washington Post’s Phil Bump notes that the survey found a 14-point delta between those who thought Trump would follow the rules and those who were willing to vote for him, even in holding his contempt of rules. They just don’t care.

Take South Carolina. CNN’s polling there found 67% of likely Republican primary voters there say that, even if Trump did try to steal the 2020 election, it doesn’t matter. In CNN’s national polling, the verdict was similar.

Autocracy can have an appeal. It brushes past the pesky system of legal checks, ethical concerns, and inefficient experts. No one can credibly say Trump didn’t shake up Washington during his four years here. Given another four to work with—and now knowing how to replace the establishment-minded pests with Yes Men—he could wreak far more havoc. But, should America make the pivot toward an autocratic Trump regime, it will have been because democracy made it possible—not despite it. In a Chicago Council of Global Affairs poll last year, only 60% of Americans said democracy is the best form of government. A separate Morning Consult poll from a year earlier identified more than a quarter of Americans carrying right-wing authoritarian bents.

Maybe Trumpism is a symptom of what Americans believe in their cores. A second Trump term may just be a manifestation of why democracy doesn’t always run on autopilot or in a direct line. And, in those cases, true believers in democracy have to accept the results—and who we are.

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