Justin F. Thulin: Protect American democracy from demagogues and authoritarian leaders

Donald Trump led an attempted coup to overthrown our elected government.

(Patrick Semansky | AP file photo) In this July 21, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles as he addresses delegates during the final day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president with a dark convention speech that painted a dystopic portrait of an America in decline. And he offered a singular solution. His message was “I alone can fix it.”

Donald Trump is a prototypical demagogue.

Wikipedia says, “A demagogue is a political leader in a democracy who gains popularity by arousing the common people against elites (recall “I love the poorly educated” and how Trump shuns expertise, most notably in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic) especially through oratory that whips up the passions of a crowd (think of the large Trump rallies, including the one on Jan. 6 leading to the storming of the Capitol), appealing to emotion by scapegoating out-groups (such as African-Americans, immigrants and Muslims), exaggerating dangers to stoke fears (remember the “dangerous” caravan of immigrants at our southern border which Trump dispatched our troops to combat, and how he exaggerated the threat supposedly posed by Black Lives Matter protests to our cities), lying for emotional effect (multiple times every day), or other rhetoric that tends to drown out reasoned deliberation and encourage fanatical popularity.”

“Demagogues overturn established norms of political conduct, or promise or threaten to do so (Trump is the first president to decline to peacefully turn over power should he lose the election, and he floated publicly the idea of serving more than two terms as president on multiple occasions) … A demagogue is a man whose lust for power without recourse to principle (which defines Trump) leads him to seek to become a master of the masses … by exciting the passions of the mob against the moderate, thoughtful customs of the aristocratic elites of their times … Many demagogues elected to high executive office have unraveled constitutional limits on executive power (Trump has been impeached twice, among other transgressions) and tried to convert their democracy into a dictatorship...”

Sound familiar? It should. Demagogues have arisen in democracies from Athens to the present day. Modern demagogues include Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and, in America, Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy. Donald Trump is just the latest incarnation to pose an existential threat to a democracy.

When apologists try to downplay Trump’s latest provocation of the masses that resulted in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers counted the electoral votes, don’t be fooled. This was not a peaceful protest that got out of hand. This was an attempted coup to derail our Constitutional process and intimidate our duly elected leaders through violence.

As Fiona Hill, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, who has studied authoritarian regimes for over 30 years, and knows a coup when she sees one said, “The storming of the Capitol building on January 6 was the culmination of a series of actions and events taken or instigated by Trump so he could retain the presidency that together amount to an attempt at a self-coup. This was not a one-off or brief episode. Trump declared ‘election fraud’ immediately on November 4 even while the votes were still being counted. He sought to recount and rerun the election so that he, not Joe Biden, was the winner.”

There is a standard coup “checklist” that analysts use to evaluate coups. To successfully usurp or hold power, one needs to control six things: the military and paramilitary units, communications, the judiciary, government institutions, the legislature and mobilize popular support.

Trump’s coup failed because he failed to sufficiently control all six. Specifically, he failed to gain the support of the military, the judiciary and local election officials. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

In a June 1 press conference, Trump threatened the exceptional move of unilaterally sending in U.S. troops to put down unrest in cities around the country if their mayors or governors were not able quickly to restore law and order. The law is that if states want to use troops to quell protests, they use their local national guard, and the president is constitutionally expected to refrain from using federal military forces in domestic law enforcement unless requested by a state governor.

Former military leaders were acutely aware of the possibility that Trump might ask the military to intervene in the election on his behalf. On Jan. 3, just three days before the joint session of the United States Congress to count the electoral votes and the attack on the Capitol, all 10 living former defense secretaries took the unprecedented step of writing an article in the Washington Post titled: “Involving the military in election disputes would cross into dangerous territory.”

They began: “As former secretaries of defense, we hold a common view of the solemn obligations of the U.S. armed forces and the Defense Department. Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party.”

They then warned, “As senior Defense Department leaders have noted ‘there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.’ Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

On Jan. 13, all eight of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military, knowing that the danger to our democracy had not passed, reminded service members again of their oath to the Constitution and warned against “violence, sedition and insurrection.” They reminded members of the military that “any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our tradition, values, and oath; it is against the law.”

Trump has tried to pack the federal judiciary with loyalists. In conjunction with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump has appointed 220 federal judges — the second most of any president up to this point in his Presidency, 53 United States Court of Appeals appointees — second most of any president, and a record three Supreme Court justices.

For months before the election, as he trailed in polls, he complained about the certainty of impending fraud. He claimed that should he lose the election, he would challenge it all the way to the Supreme Court, where in the end “his” judges would deliver him the victory.

The Trump campaign and others filed and lost over 60 lawsuits contesting election processes, vote counting, and the vote certification process in multiple states. Nearly all the suits have been described as “frivolous” and “without merit”, and were dismissed or dropped due to lack of evidence. In the end, the judiciary upheld the rule of law, and did not kowtow to the authoritarian whims of one man.

Trump and his surrogates on numerous documented occasions have badgered, cajoled and threatened state election officials to change the vote count or not certify their state’s election. But they failed. The Washington Post reported that, in a Jan. 2 phone call: “President Trump urged the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn his defeat. Trump said, “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is more than we have. Because we won the state.”

Although Georgia has already counted its votes three times, Trump told Raffensperger, “There’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”

In a thinly veiled threat, he warned Raffensperger that he was running “a big risk” of criminal liability by failing to find voter fraud. In the end, Raffensberger and his fellow election officials in contested states did not buckle under presidential pressure.

Trump has had more success in consolidating his power over congressional legislators. He forced critics such as former Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, and Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, to retire by actively dimming their prospects for reelection. He has intimidated many congressmen and senators into remaining quiet as he continually pushed the acceptable norms of executive power by playing on their fears of losing their jobs after a Trump Twitter storm and subsequent primary challenge.

No greater evidence for this lame-duck President’s power over legislators exists than this fact: 70% of Republican congressmen voted to support objections to the certifying of electoral votes even after the attempted coup at the Capitol and despite the fact that these legislators fully understand there is absolutely no evidence of significant fraud.

Trump has also succeeded in consolidating his power over the executive branch. More moderate and experienced administration officials who served to temper Trump’s worst excesses such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, all were forced to resign.

If they resisted Trump’s anti-democratic impulses and refused to resign, officials were fired. That was the case with Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense, who refused to allow the military to be used for political purposes. It was also the case with Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, who had the temerity to declare the 2020 election the most secure in history in direct contradiction to Trump’s incessant railing how widespread fraud caused the election to have been stolen from him.

Trump replaced these men with loyalists, including Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as lackeys such as Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. These men protected Trump from governmental investigations and expanded his executive reach.

In addition, rather than making formal appointments and soliciting the Senate’s advice and consent, as the Constitution requires for top-tier officials, Trump installed temporary appointees in key posts in his administration. Trump also refused to fill crucial vacancies within the executive branch — leaving the Federal Election Commission, for example, unable to take any enforcement actions for violations of federal campaign laws in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Trump has also largely succeeded in controlling communication. Like many authoritarian leaders, Trump railed against the mainstream media as “the enemy of the people” and as the purveyors of “fake news.” He has manipulated the information on which many of our citizens rely by directly broadcasting the reality he wishes his 80 million-plus Twitter followers to believe. Trump has also skillfully cultivated right-wing media including Fox News, Newsmax and OANN, organizations that have supported and amplified his flood of disinformation. Trump’s success in communicating his often fact-free message to a large proportion of the electorate helps explain his sway over a large proportion of the electorate and Republican legislators.

Trump was impeached a second time and, this time, he should be convicted and disqualified from ever holding any public office again. To fail to hold him accountable is not an option. It would invite Trump and other anti-Democratic leaders, like Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, to attack our democracy in the future.

These past four years have revealed an American democracy that is surprisingly fragile, and capable of being exploited by political actors that not only don’t prioritize its long-term survival, but deliberately undermine it.

Donald Trump tried to steal the election and incited a mob to abet his wrongdoing. Americans must learn from this harrowing experience. We need an apolitical blue-ribbon commission of wise men and women to examine carefully every step towards authoritarianism that our system allowed, and recommend institutional remedies that fix weaknesses that have been exposed, and suggest other weaknesses that have yet to be exploited.

American political leaders from both sides of the aisle should welcome these changes and jointly work to implement them.

Remember: The current demagogue wannabe authoritarian leader is a Republican. But in the future, there is no guarantee that the next demagogue will not be a Democrat. It is in the interest of all Americans to safe-guard our hard won and treasured democracy from all demagogues.

Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.

Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.