Democracies used to collapse suddenly, with tanks rolling noisily toward the presidential palace. In the 21st century, however, the process is usually subtler.
Authoritarianism is on the march across much of the world, but its advance tends to be relatively quiet and gradual, so that it’s hard to point to a single moment and say, this is the day democracy ended. You just wake up one morning and realize that it’s gone.
In their 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt documented how this process has played out in many countries, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, to Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Bit by bit the guardrails of democracy were torn down, as institutions meant to serve the public became tools of the ruling party, then were weaponized to punish and intimidate that party’s opponents. On paper these countries are still democracies; in practice they have become one-party regimes.
And the events of the past week have demonstrated how this can happen right here in America.
At first Sharpiegate, Donald Trump’s inability to admit that he misstated a weather projection by claiming that Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian, was kind of funny, even though it was also scary — it’s not reassuring when the president of the United States can’t face reality. But it stopped being any kind of joke on Friday, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement falsely backing up Trump’s claim that it had warned about an Alabama threat.
Why is this frightening? Because it shows that even the leadership of NOAA, which should be the most technical and apolitical of agencies, is now so subservient to Trump that it’s willing not just to overrule its own experts but to lie, simply to avoid a bit of presidential embarrassment.
Think about it: If even weather forecasters are expected to be apologists for Dear Leader, the corruption of our institutions is truly complete.
Which brings me to a much more important case, the Justice Department’s decision to investigate automakers for the crime of trying to act responsibly.
The story so far: As part of its jihad against environmental regulation, the Trump administration has declared its intention to roll back Obama-era rules mandating a gradual rise in fuel efficiency.
You might think that the auto industry would welcome this invitation to keep on polluting. In fact, however, automakers have already based their business plans on the assumption that fuel efficiency standards will indeed rise.
They don’t like seeing their plans upended — in part, one suspects, because they understand that the reality of climate change will eventually force the reinstatement of those rules. So they have actually opposed Trump’s deregulation, which they warn would lead to “an extended period of litigation and instability.”
And several companies have gone beyond protesting. In a remarkable rebuke to the administration, they have reached an agreement with the state of California to comply with standards nearly as restrictive as the Obama rules even if the federal government is no longer requiring them.
Now, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department is considering bringing an antitrust action against those companies, as if agreeing on environmental standards were a crime comparable to, say, price-fixing.
This would be disturbing even if it came from an administration that had previously showed some interest in actual antitrust policy. Coming from people who heretofore haven’t indicated any concerns about monopoly power, it’s clearly an attempt at weaponizing antitrust actions, turning them into a tool of intimidation.
And it’s also clear evidence that the Justice Department has been thoroughly corrupted. In less than three years it has been transformed from an agency that tries to enforce the law to an organization dedicated to punishing Trump’s opponents.
Who’s next? In at least two cases, Trump appears to have tried to use his power to punish Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, which the president considers (like this newspaper) to be an enemy. First he pushed for an increase in the post office’s package shipping rates, which would hurt Amazon’s delivery costs; then the Pentagon suddenly announced that it was re-examining the process for awarding a huge cloud-computing project that Amazon was widely expected to win.
In each case it’s hard to prove that these were efforts to weaponize government functions against domestic critics. But who are we kidding? Of course they were.
The point is that this is how the slide to autocracy happens. Modern de facto dictatorships don’t usually murder their opponents (although Trump has been fulsome in his praise for regimes that do, in fact, rely on brute force). What they do, instead, is use their control over the machinery of government to make life difficult for anyone considered disloyal, until effective opposition withers away.
And it’s happening here as we speak. If you aren’t worried about the future of American democracy, you aren’t paying attention.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.