The image of Donald Trump holding up a freshly purchased Bible in front of a boarded-up church in opposition to the Black Lives Matter protesters reminded me of two things. First, that humanists have a responsibility to protect democracy in any way possible, and second, that American democracy is closer than ever to falling apart.
Let me proceed by stating the obvious. Human lives—Black lives—should matter more than property. To the president, a man whose life is consumed by trying to attain more material wealth, this clearly isn’t the case. While our president and leaders in Congress attempt to co-opt this movement to justify taking more and more power into their own hands, this clear discrepancy in basic values should remind us as humanists that we need to be on the front lines of protecting democracy.
Many Americans believe that no matter what, our democratic system can correct itself. It’s become a bit of popular wisdom to condescendingly reassure nervous Americans that we’ve been through worse than this administration; relax, the wisdom goes, we’ll be fine. We survived the Civil War, both World Wars, Watergate, 9/11, and dozens of other crises and have come out on the other side stronger (although many minority groups have suffered greatly).
As a political science student, the mystique of American-style democracy is somewhat diminished. Among numerous studies, graphs, charts, and raw data, it becomes obvious that our system has the same vulnerabilities as any other democratic system. It’s the particular problems facing us today that are making those vulnerabilities clear. A poorly educated and misinformed electorate, rampant conspiracy theories and mistrust, widespread dissatisfaction with politics, rapid social change, extreme cultural and political polarization, and counter-majoritarian institutions—namely the US Senate and the Electoral College—have been problems for decades now. All that was needed to ignite the flame was a charismatic leader with authoritarian tendencies who could command a third of our country at will.
We might imagine an authoritarian state to look like Stalin’s Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. But the truth is that many of us, going about our normal lives, wouldn’t realize we’d gone from living under a democracy to living under authoritarianism until it was too late.
It may still seem farfetched to many that the United States could ever become an authoritarian state. Myriad examples of democratic backsliding and decline around the world—in Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Nigeria—are all cases of countries with a history of instability and a clear weakness for authoritarian leaders.
However, I would argue that the United States has a long history of affinity for authoritarians. We’ve just been lucky that none have ever reached the White House before. Huey Long was assassinated before he could reach the heights of power. Joseph McCarthy was disgraced. Barry Goldwater lost his bid for the White House. George Wallace was shot. Many, many other aspiring authoritarians never made it onto the national radar.
It’s possible that we’ve just been very, very lucky until now. It’s also important to realize that sixty-three million Americans were willing to vote for a textbook wannabe authoritarian four years ago—and that many will do so again.
So how do we, as humanists, fight authoritarianism and protect democracy?
The most obvious solution is to get involved beyond just presidential politics. Important decisions, such as redistricting and budgeting, are made at the state and local levels. Get to know local candidates and elect leaders who will fight for equitable, fair policies and defy undemocratic ones. Wonderful humanist policies like the establishment of sanctuary cities, climate change action, police reform, protection of sex workers and marijuana decriminalization can all be implemented by local officials.
Humanists should also make sure they’re aware of what dog-whistling and anti-democratic actions look like, and call them out. Donald Trump and his cronies thrive on inciting hatred and division. Advocates for democracy need to be well-informed about the racialized, exclusive, or inciting language authoritarians use to drum up anger and resentment.
If you are white, don’t talk over people of color or minority groups when they tell you they feel targeted by our president’s rhetoric. Take his words and the words of his allies in government seriously, as his supporters do. When Donald Trump announces that the 70 percent of American Jews who vote for Democrats are “disloyal” or that Black Americans have “nothing to lose” by voting for him, think about the weight of those words and how they double down on painful, alienating stereotypes. A reductive stereotype under a democratic government could lead to outright discrimination and persecution under an authoritarian one.
Read up on the warning signs of authoritarianism, for example in How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (a personal favorite recommended to me by my political science professor). Try to understand what it looks like when democracies hit the danger zone—for example, Trump threatening to send the military into protests full of American citizens is a flashing red light. Read articles that shed light on what anti-democratic policies look like on a personal level; these articles published in the New York Times and The Guardian reveal the deeply inhumane conditions of immigrants in American custody.
Keep up with world news. Stay on top of the political situation in the countries listed above and learn how their citizens are protesting and rebelling against authoritarian leaders. While these leaders may try to pretend that they have total support, a closer look reveals that there are millions of people willing to take immense personal risk to oppose their governments. The stories of activists—like these Polish feminists or anti-Duterte protestors in the Philippines—working under high-risk conditions to fight for human rights and democracy are inspiring and aspirational.
Without a doubt, these next few months will provide fruitful research paper material for political science students like me for decades to come. How will America’s first quasi-authoritarian president cope with the election? Will he try to create a national emergency to postpone or cancel it? Will he sabotage vote-by-mail ballots? Will there be a national effort to suppress voters of color or to muddle election results in key states? What will happen if he loses? Will Trump concede?
It’s not an overstatement to say that this election will define America’s path for many, many years to come. In this chaotic year, humanism can’t just be a philosophy. It must be a call to action.