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The U.S. Elections and the perils of the Illiberal Democracy

“In cauda venenum”

(Latin phrase traucibile as “The poison [is] in the tail”)

Protest groups have gathered outside vote counting centres across the US

Welcome back my friends,

This week, it was impossible not to deal in some way with the American elections of 2020, and as far as I am concerned I would like to do it in a particular way, exactly as this election was, which, I’m afraid, did not end here. On this blog we have dealt very often with those political systems called “Illiberal Democracies” or “Hybrid Systems”: a classification used to define those countries in which there is an authoritarian politics that for one reason or another enjoys strong popular support. We generally find this system in the countries that were part of the Soviet Bloc, but also in other realities around the world.

But this time it’s different: today we see this phenomenon at work even in completely different realities, with an important history of democracy behind it. This article aims to be a reflection on their development and on some of the factors that lead to the development of Illiberal models also in the West.

I decided to follow these elections closely for a “personal” matter: I wanted to verify as closely as possible what was happening in the United States, and, in the three days of counting required before Joe Biden was officially declared the winner, something I, and maybe nobody else, did not ever expected, happened.

Outgoing President Donald Trump announced he would give a speech, and, in unified networks, declared that the elections were rigged. Pandemonium has broken out. The television stations were even forced to interrupt the live broadcast, not being able to cross-question the president on his serious statements, and obviously fearing that there was an exaggerated reaction among the Republican electorate.

In a few minutes the word “Fraud” was on the lips of half the world, American and foreigner, for or against President Trump. Never expected such a thing, even from Trump. And it is even stranger, if I think of my country, Italy: here politicians and political parties declare electoral fraud before, during and after the elections, even if they win elections, not to mention all the times that somebody yelled for an ongoing coup d’état, obviously withouth any reason, and, needless to say, without any proof.

During the night (for us, in GMT +01) then, I came across this very good article by Professor Zeynep Tufekci published by the newspaper “The Atlantic”. In her article, Professor Tufekci highlights the “anomalies” of the Trump presidency (in the American context): its over-the-top TV star attitude, the compulsive use of social networks and the ever more striking promises, never realized. In addition, let us not forget, to far more dangerous ideas, such as his heavy abuse of presidential prerogatives, together with the diffusion of an idea of ​​State based on the concept of “herrenvolk democracy”, or rather on its ethnic-religious characterization (in this case, WASP), which should have “priority” over minorities, especially in matters concerning access to the welfare state and, in turn, to institutions.

In the article, a comparison is then made with other leaders who the professor considers somewhat similar to Trump: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. The warning that is thrown through this brief comparative analysis is that a more capable, future politician, without Trump’s grotesque excesses, might be able to inherit his legacy but without discredit, carrying out identical policies but with a “public figure” which is more institutional.

And it is at this point that the question finds me both in agreement and in disagreement.

Let me explain: the warning that Professor Tufekci launches is sacrosanct, since one of the main problem of the “Trump phenomenon” lies in the identification with the person. Those who support him, identify themselves with him, rather than in a political project or view. And the silence (or, worse, the support) that in recent days many Republican leaders have given in response to his narcissistic delirious is eloquent, it shows us how they do not know how to turn back, once supported all the abuses committed in recent years, and above all how to behave with their’s own electorate, which from now on will hardly accept someone more “moderate”.

Furthermore, this is not just a problem of a political side: Biden will have, for the next four years, to deal with more than 70 million voters who consider him a President detestable at best, and abusive in the worst. At the time I write, Trump has not yet conceded him the victory, despite his lawyers being turned down in every court they appeal to.

This involves two things: first It puts us in front of the “personalization” that this electoral campaign has had (I can only vote for Him vs I whould vote for everyone except Him), and the fact that the former President has decided (he or whoever for him) to launch his latest poisoned “tail shot”, creating a very dangerous climate of institutional delegitimation. These two factors, together, are the keys that open the doors to Illiberal Democracy.

Where is my disagreement, then?

It is in the models taken for example, which, in my opinion, are strongly decontextualized and fail to give an idea of ​​what can happen within a democratic system. Don’t take it as an academic habit: understanding “where” your country is going can really make the difference. And don’t take it as some kind of “prediction” either, because it’s happening right now, in the meantime you’re reading.

The countries cited as an example, rather than having intelligent politicians who win elections, all have in common a historically undemocratic background. Putin, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan were not necessarily “better” or “luckier” than Trump: they were instead able to exploit that illiberal streak already present in their society (even in those who opposed them) to take power. But on the contrary, the United States discovered this vein recently, or at least it became evident when someone went to dig to get it out. With it, however, also a strong opposition movement emerged, which in the end managed to prevail.

Unfortunately it is my opinion that the problems have only just begun.

And here is where the example of Italy comes in handy: despite the complete diversity of political systems (and their “scale”), Italy has had, and have (over time always to a lesser extent, unfortunately) a democratic spirit in its own way, and, although not as strong as in the US, it has withstood tremendous blows for decades, and now is on the verge of collapse. The United States is experiencing a phenomenon similar to the one that, for about twenty years, has gripped my country. Yes, I’m talking about Silvio Berlusconi and his legacy. Maybe you’ve heard of him (just in comparison to Trump) or maybe not.

In that case, a small summary may be useful to better understand why we are in this situation now. Berlusconi came to power with slogans that today would be called “anti-enstablishment”: he represented the outsider who challenged a sclerotic political system overwhelmed by corruption scandals. For twenty years he was, for better or for worse, the undisputed protagonist of our national politics, regardless of whether in power or not. Not unlike Trump, he treated “public affairs” as his property, he appeared as a showman, a histrionic television entertainer, a testimonial who had to sell a product, which was none other than his Party. He has never hidden his sympathies towards illiberal regimes (one above all, Vladimir Putin, but also, Muhammar Gaddafi) and his acquiescence towards the extreme right, of any kind, and he himself has always governed on the edge of the institutional context, pushing the powers of the state to clash on each other for personal pourpose.

For its part, the opposition merely said to its constituents “we are not Berlusconi” and little else. Surrendering on income and only managing to bring together coalitions and coarse and quarrelsome governments, without a vision other than to send the Black Man away and restore “national prestige”. It will be precisely in those years that an increasingly illiberal feeling will begin to manifest itself even in the opposite field: anything was lawful in order to strike Him.

For two decades the country was clearly split in two, and all attention was focused on the figure of Berlusconi.

When, at the end of 2011, he was forced to resign for bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy in the context of the European Debt Crisis, we all (myself included) thought it was truly over. We were wrong. The drastic measures necessary to stem the economic problems he created throught the years allowed him to return to the fore one last time: conspiracy theories about “foreign interference” or a “White Golpe” orchestrated to make him resign became part of the mainstream debate (in fact they already were, but not to an extent so marked) and thanks to the promise to bring everything back as before (i.e. Make Italy Great Again) he was one step away from winning the elections again. Neither Berlusconi nor his party managed to regain the hegemonic role of the past, but the climate of constant confrontation remained, and this cancer had metastasized in Italian society.

But the worst was yet to come.

In fact, Berlusconi was out of the political game, but was quickly replaced by far more aggressive and undemocratic heirs. The personalization of politics and the de-legitimization of any institution had opened the doors to unscrupulous individuals, ready to do anything to enter the vacuum of power. Much more virulent and demagogic than their worthy predecessor, it took them just over 5 years to conquer the whole country, whit the help of new technologies and a more viral “marketing”, based on fake news (the good, old, lies) and conspiracy theories.

Even the most traditional media, such as newspapers and televisions, have done nothing but continue with the same behavior as before, but with new subjects who represented the “novelty of the day”, contributing with an “idiotic equanimity” putting intellegible debate and conspiratorial nonsense on the same level, when they did not directly leave these subjects free to speak, and to spread their “ideas” without any contradictory.

To date, they have a majority in parliament and in the country, while the democratic opposition has dwindled to a flicker.

Now the United States is facing a similar problem: a pathologically narcissistic President, after losing regular elections, has decided to poison the wells by claiming that there has been electoral fraud. Now 70 million of its supporters are more or less convinced that the System is rigged, empathizing with a character who presents himself as the victim of an unfair world, just like them. An explosive mixture, of which, observing what surrounds me every day, I can already anticipate the results.

In a Democracy, Society creates Institutions, in a Dictatorship, Institutions create Society. In an Illiberal Democracy, Society is viewed split into “Us and Them” and the institutions were used to increase the level of confrontation, necessary to strengthen the Parties involved and their respective electorates. Be aware that the real war begins now: if Americans (not just the President, or the politicians) fail to cut off the climate of perennial confrontation and delegitimization, together with the personalization of politics, they will not find themselves with another “more institutional Trump”, but with 70 million Trumps, narcissists, bullies and prone to victimization, and at that point it will become difficult to hope that they will simply go away.

In conclusion, the question is not whether or not the GOP is organizing itself to field the next Trump, and who he may be, the question is whether or not they can do otherwise. The other question is what can be done now to prevent the same situation from happening again, and thats a matter for all the american civil society. If the sole purpose of this election was to beat Trump, then in four years we will see another, and then another, until the phenomenon infects all politics in a game in which electors become mere “supporters” and democratic competition will have no purpose other than victory itself.

Paraphrasing Giorgio Gaber, a famous Italian songwriter: “Don’t be afraid of Trump himself, but be afraid of the Trump in yourself”.

I hope you found it interesting these few lines, and have made you understand what I mean (it would take the books, but at the moment we lack). Also a heartfelt thanks to all those who followed and commented with me during the election days, and to Professor Tufekci for the inspiration.

Stay Vigilant. Toghether.