State of Disunion
Sleepwalking Toward a Post Democracy America
The GOP is demolishing our guardrails and doing all they can to end democracy as we know it—and eventually, they'll succeed. And those of us on the margins stand to lose everything.
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There has been a dawning realization among some of the center-left that the GOP fully intends to end democracy in the U.S. and assume permanent control of the government. Even neoconservatives like Robert Kagan have come to this same conclusion. The GOP is telegraphing their punches clearly: They’re forcing out any Republicans who would oppose a soft coup; Trump will run in 2024; he will win the nomination, and, if he doesn’t win the Electoral College outright, he will declare the election fraudulent the morning after. Whereupon states with GOP governors and legislatures will overturn the state election results and send alternate slates of electors, forcing a constitutional crisis, the GOP is likely to win.
The fact that it has taken this long for people to recognize the real danger here is something of testament to how omnipresent and blinding the myth of American exceptionalism is, resulting in “it can’t happen here” becoming cultural dogma. In reality, John Eastman wrote a memorandum proposing this exact method to overturn the election in 2020, which Trump latched onto, and was the raison d’être for the January 6th assault on the capitol, where the insurrectionists were trying to force Vice-President Pence to carry out part of the plan.
John Eastman isn’t just some random Republican lawyer. He was a professor of law. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He founded the anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage. And he served as chairman of the Federalist Society’s Federalism & Separation of Powers practice group, and as a board member of the Claremont Institute—a powerful conservative think tank providing support to the GOPs efforts to enact a competitive authoritarian coup.
Claremont president Ryan Williams declared in an interview with The Atlantic that “the mission of the Claremont Institute is to save Western civilization.” Their plan to save “Western civilization” requires that conservatives “effect a realignment of our politics and take control of all three branches of government for a generation or two.”
Ultimately, Claremont believes that Western civilization is at stake because the U.S. is controlled by people who aren’t really American. “Most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” This is in great part because they (wrongly) think: “The Founders were pretty unanimous, with Washington leading the way, that the Constitution is really only fit for a Christian people”
The narrative is clear: Conservatives believe that they need to seize permanent control and re-center their brand of Christianity as the basis for government, culture, and law. They do not believe that more than 50% of America matters, because they are not “real Americans.” Their vision for government is one in which more than half the country is systematically disenfranchised and forced to live in a society in which they have little say.
The greatest irony of Williams’s Atlantic article is that he says he fears a civil war, but fails to acknowledge his plan for overthrowing democracy and instituting a theocratic authoritarian government as the likely cause. In the same way that some Republicans shrug off slavery as a “necessary evil,” modern conservatives see the destruction of democracy and disenfranchisement of most Americans as vaguely regrettable, but necessary to save “Western civilization.”
None of this is particularly speculative; it’s simply a restatement of what the GOP has done, has said it will do, and is visibly working toward by ensuring loyalists control election results. However, few people have addressed is what life in a post-democracy America will look like. The truth is that for the vast majority of people at an individual level, change will come slowly, and everyday life will remain “boring and tolerable” for most people. For those who are members of extreme outgroups (immigrants, trans people, atheists, Black people, and Muslims), it’s going to be much, much, worse.
Modern competitive authoritarian states like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary still have elections, even though the results are basically baked in ahead of time. They aren’t totalitarian like China or North Korea. There are no secret police, no gulags full of tens of thousands of political prisoners, there’s no Big Brother, and the ruling party doesn’t particularly care if Joe Schmoe doesn’t like Dear Leader. There aren’t massive Soviet-style food shortages. Buying a car or a pair of blue jeans is as simple as anywhere else in Europe. There aren’t agents wandering around randomly demanding “papers please,” unless you look or sound like an immigrant.
However, none of this actually is indicative of a healthy society. Far from it: The ruling parties in these states are parasitic organisms gradually weakening their host nations until they are nothing more than withered husks. Crony capitalism, corruption, and graft are bleeding the public coffers dry, while those close to the leader of the party grow fantastically rich. Religious freedom is a joke: You can choose any you like as long as it’s one of those recognized by the government.
Schools and academia are forbidden from teaching anything that the ruling party dislikes. Same-sex marriage is forbidden, and trans people are stripped of legal recognition. Abortion, while theoretically legal, is basically impossible to obtain for anyone but the rich who can leave the country if they need one. Courts are filled with partisans, and the legal system applies the law differently depending on who is accused of a crime. Regulatory and enforcement mechanisms within the government, like the EPA or the Department of Justice, become a tool of the ruling party to intimidate oligarchs who forget their place, or politicians who threaten the position of the incumbent party.
The courts favor legal theories and laws that are neutral on their face but have immensely disparate impacts on disfavored groups. A perfect example of this in American history is the grandfather clause, wherein a man could only vote if his ancestor had been a voter before 1867, thus excluding almost all Black Americans. More recently, this sort of legal logic was deployed in Obergefell, where defenders of laws preventing same-sex marriage argued that gays already had the same right to marry people of the opposite sex as everyone else. The result is a legal system that only really works for corporations, and the people aligned with the ruling party.
Protests happen, but do absolutely no good, because the ruling party doesn’t care—they’re not going to lose an election over it. Frequently, if the protests are led by minorities that the government uses as a scapegoat for society’s ills (e.g., LGBT people, BLM, immigrants, Roma), government supporters (often off-duty officers and agents) will beat the protesters, and the police will step aside. LGBT people are almost universally targeted with “Section 28” or “No Promo Homo” laws that ban materials depicting them positively, or even at all.
Churches favored by the government receive vast outlays of public funds and tax-free donations, while those that oppose the government lose their recognition, don’t have access to public funds, and are targeted by tax-collection agencies with investigations. The government monitors churches for their opposition, and threatens those who harbor dissident pastors or priests.
While not a perfect representation of where America is headed after a GOP takeover, Hungary is probably the best analogy. Notable conservatives like FOX’s Tucker Carlson and writer Rod Dreher are the biggest cheerleaders promoting Hungary as the ideal model for the U.S.. Victor Orban and his Fidesz Party have embraced the notion that “illiberal democracy” is what’s best for the country in order to create a conservative Christian bulwark against modernity, which is what most appeals to the American Right. They conveniently leave out the corruption, graft, brain drain as educated people flee the country, and Orban’s instituting a mandatory COVID vaccination policy—though I suspect they would regard these all as an acceptable price to pay for ending “wokeness” and filling church coffers.
So, in practice, what does this mean for most Americans after the GOP takes power for “a generation or two”?
We will see plenty of blatant government corruption, wherein those close to the president make money hand over fist. Corporations that more or less go along with things will be rewarded with lax oversight, lower taxes, and cushy government contracts. Those that don’t will get cut off, the way Trump tried to do to Amazon. Wealth inequality will continue to balloon, the middle class will shrink further, and the U.S. will enter something even worse than the first Gilded Age, because now you can’t fire the people in government. Government jobs are doled out to unqualified loyalists, and rank-and-file members of the federal workforce face being purged if they are suspected of disloyalty to the regime.
Schools and universities will be threatened with losing their federal funding if they teach anything “objectionable.” This includes LGBT materials, or anything to do with race that doesn’t push the narrative that all of America’s racial troubles are in the past. We’re already seeing this in Texas, where if a teacher has a book on the Holocaust, they’re now required to present “the other side.” Colleges that teach gender studies or anything resembling discussions on systemic racism will also be at severe risk of losing federal funding. The GOP will work hard to push states to require pseudo-history like that of the 1776 Commission be taught to promote “patriotic education.”
They believe prayer in schools is a panacea for everything, and will eventually succeed at overturning Engel v. Vitale. This leads to a further weakening of the separation between church and state, as religious schools that can’t be bothered with civil rights laws become entitled to public funds. The Supreme Court is already on the verge of making it a constitutional requirement that they receive funding.
At the same time, government policy under the GOP will become even more hostile to Black people and focused on crime and punishment. Police forces are likely to be given carte blanche to use excessive, lethal force. The prison industrial complex will flourish as the feedback loop between lobbyists and GOP politicians goes unchecked. The attitude of the government is law and order, and these people deserved it. Or, as Ryan Williams of the Claremont Institute opined, we just need to accept that “the high incarceration rate of Black Americans is due to their much higher propensity to commit violent crime.”
LGBT students are going to be in a world of hurt. It’s likely that GOP will withhold funding from schools that are inclusive of trans students and threaten them with charges of violating the civil rights of cisgender student. This means bathroom and sports bans, as well as teaching anything about LGBT people. Religious freedom will be expanded to allow teachers and administrators to proselytize to LGBT students, as well as deliberately misgender trans students. Federal enforcement of civil rights for LGBT people will effectively cease but will aggressively go after anyone who tries to prevent anti-LGBT discrimination in schools.
The end of Roe v. Wade likely signals the end of health care for trans people. First will be trans youth (where red states are already passing bans), then for adults. Parents who support their transgender children will not only be in danger of losing them to child protective services, but to felony charges in most red states.
Outgroup minorities will be targeted with even more blatant and extreme fearmongering and scapegoating by both conservative media and the GOP politicians. We can see these narratives already: Trans people are the center of the moral rot consuming the country, and a threat to women and children. Black people are intellectually inferior, violent criminals, and welfare queens who deserve nothing from the body politic other than a prison cell and crumbling schools. Immigrants are drug mules, destroying Western culture, replacing white people, and spreading disease. All of this will get turned up to 11, and the GOP-led government will act on it.
Similarly, the federal courts are likely to vastly expand Religious Freedom Restoration Act claims, and the legal interpretation of freedom of religion (so long as that religion is conservative). Thus, corporations and state governments are likely to become powerless to stop anti-LGBT harassment and discrimination in the workplace, so long as these actions are couched in religious beliefs. The result is that even the workplace won’t be safe for openly LGBT people, and fits with the GOP plan for crowd-sourcing intimidation, while claiming that it doesn’t condone it. Or worse, using it to urge people to remain in the closet.
Trans people will be banned from the military nearly immediately, and after the courts uphold it, they will try to bring back “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The architect of the abortion ban in Texas has declared in recent court filings that SCOTUS should reconsider landmark cases such as Obergefell and Lawrence v. Texas, allowing states to ban same-sex marriage and criminalize homosexuality again. As the Supreme Court shifts even further right, they are likely to find that there is a broad religious right to refuse service not just to LGBT people, but to anyone who isn’t a co-religionist.
We can expect that they will overturn Windsor as well, ending federal recognition of new same-sex marriages. According to sources I have spoken with, the Trump administration wanted to end federal recognition of transgender people, but Barr did not think it would hold up in court (yet).
Roe v. Wade is certain to be overturned, leading to soaring poverty, child neglect, and rising maternal and infant mortality in a country that’s already near the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The GOP, and Alliance Defending Freedom will certainly pursue novel laws and legal theories to ban abortion even in blue states, using things like personhood laws at conception and the felony murder rule to hold doctors in blue states at risk. This likely results in abortion no longer being available in most of the U.S. within a decade.
Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird, and Carey v. Population Services International, which established a right to birth control, are also in danger. Griswold is particularly hated by conservatives, not just for helping establish a right to privacy and enabling Roe v. Wade, but for giving women control over reproduction, and allowing women to have sex for reasons other than procreation. They would dearly love to make birth control very hard to obtain for two reasons: to raise birth rates among whites, to combat their fears of “replacement”; and, to limit what they see as “slutty” behavior.
Protests will happen early on in the regime, but peter out quickly without accomplishing anything, as happened in Belarus. Lethal assaults on protesters with vehicles or assault rifles will go unpunished, and defended by the GOP as a righteous reaction by “real Americans” to opposition branded as socialist, communists, or “woke.” Violent nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys and Three Percenters will play a prominent role in intimidating and suppressing public opposition, playing an informal role similar to the Sturmabteilung. Over time, this form of anti-protest stochastic terror is likely to be successful.
People who don’t attend protests won’t feel any of this, of course.
Although major media outlets have already lost almost any ability, or willingness, to stop pretending that both sides are the same, a petty, vain, and vengeful autocrat like Trump desperately wanted to shut them down. In this, Hungary provides a primer on how to end freedom of the press. Today, the Fidesz Party effectively controls 90% of the media in Hungary after forcing anti-Orban outlets to sell to the government or his cronies. These outlets can publish anti-Orban and Fidesz articles any time they like, they just choose not to. Similarly, such a scheme would likely pass constitutional muster. The GOP has already begun efforts similar to these with the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Worker’s rights will suffer greatly under long term GOP rule. In Hungary, it became legal for companies to demand up to 400 hours of overtime a year, and then refuse to pay employees for up to three years. While thousands protested what they described as “slave labor,” it of course did no good. In the U.S., we’re already seeing a desire to return to “company housing” and ending minimum wage laws (which don’t pay a living wage already). Legal protections for workers will be undercut by SCOTUS, while government watchdogs like OSHA, EPA, OPM, and EEOC will either be gutted, or reduced to selective enforcement of the law (i.e., only pursuing religious discrimination claims, and then mostly for conservative Christians). We saw this happening under the first Trump administration, and it will only grow worse over time.
The conservative government means no action on climate change or renewable energy. Despite climate change being part of what is driving people from Central America, the Republican response to people fleeing north will be ever more brutal crackdowns at the border, mistreatment of detainees, and eventually lethal force to prevent entry as the quickest solution. The Trump administration planned to deport all 700,000 Dreamers, and there were some indications they were considering the use of land mines along the U.S.–Mexico border, as his administration increasingly treated the immigration problem as one with military solutions.
Even if, by some miracle, Democrats were able to take back some part of the government, years of the GOP filling the court with partisans guarantees little they could do will survive. And that assumes that a Democratic coalition would have the will to do anything, which the current composition of the U.S. Senate demonstrates that they do not. They will still be playing on a field tilted by the GOP, meaning that any majority they have is likely to be narrow, and composed of an unruly coalition. Thus, any recapture of some part of the government will be both brief, and ineffectual. We can clearly see this phenomenon in both Hungary and Israel today.
Ryan Williams feared a civil war. At first blush, the most recent polling data suggests he might get it. While the House, Senate, and presidency are (briefly and barely) under Democratic control, 52% of Trump voters are ready to split the country apart. They also want authoritarianism: 82% agree that the U.S. needs a “powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents.” Nationwide, 41% of Democrats are ready to split the Union.
However, when you break it down by region, the results are even starker. Polling by YouGov found that in the deep red South, two-thirds of Republicans are ready to secede. In the (mostly) blue states of the Pacific Coast, 47% of Democrats are ready to leave. When both sides want to leave this looks less like a recipe for a civil war, and more like the conditions for Balkanization, where everyone tries to walk away from the situation.
So, as much as some Trump supporters want a civil war, I do not believe they will get it. The GOP will seize power in 2024, legitimately or illegitimately. The House and Senate are so innately skewed that top forecaster David Schor doesn’t see hope for a decade, even if the GOP doesn’t just turn around and declare itself the winner. The inescapable truth is that the party coming to power intends to remake America in the image of Hungary, and that should be terrifying. Not because of how people in other countries have reacted to democratic failure, but how they didn’t.
There is an emerging block of competitive authoritarian countries in Europe and Asia. None of them shows any real sign of recovery. When, not if, the U.S. falls into the gravity well of this black hole, we will pass the event horizon so quietly that we might not even know we have. People will still assume we’re a democracy, and that the next election might change things. Things will keep getting worse for the 90% slowly enough that they won’t wake up to the death spiral of the U.S economy into crony capitalism.
So what if you have to sit through prayers in school? Or there’s no more LGBT stuff in schools? Or no more trans kids? Or the history they’re teaching in class is pure patriotic propaganda? So what if they’re shooting immigrants at the border, and we’re not doing anything about climate change? So what if it’s dangerous to go to protests you weren’t going to anyway? Or that somehow the GOP keeps winning elections regardless of how people vote? You’re not an immigrant, or LGBT. The average American doesn’t follow case law closely enough to understand why things keep getting worse and worse where they work.
Unless you’re one of “those people,” the American slide into Christian authoritarianism will have limited impact on you personally. We’ve seen this over and over again in other countries. Corporations are going to be the biggest cheerleaders against Balkanization and acceptance of the status quo because stability and GOP rule is far more profitable than the chaos of a country splitting itself into various enclaves.
Blue state politicians are likely to make the calculation that stability is good for business, and secession is bad for stability. The bottom line is they want to make companies happy, and keep getting reelected. Railing at Washington for the base while sticking it out for the companies seems the most likely course of action. Polling shows Democrats are much less likely to feel strongly about seceding, likely for the reasons described above. Thus, there won’t be a strong enough popular will in blue states to drive Democratic politicians to take a stand.
Like the slowly boiled frog, for most people in a post-democracy America life will be boring and (almost) normal. For those of us who are branded the enemies of real America—trans people, trans-inclusive feminists, Black people, immigrants, and Muslims—life is going to take a very dark turn within a few years.
“This is the way the world ends /Not with a bang but a whimper.”
—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
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