“As president and as a citizen, I will continue to follow our constitution,” Bolsonaro declared instead, authorizing the handover to Lula. And with this gesture, democracy in Brazil, at least for the time being, was preserved and even strengthened.
Now go back to America, after some bitter and ugly mandates that, as of this morning, still leave power suspended in Congress and in several states. The biggest question yet to be answered is this: Come the 2024 presidential election, will the US be able to reaffirm its values like Brazil just did?
May or may not. And if that ambiguity doesn’t scare you, you haven’t been paying attention. According to the count, between 253 and 291 of the MAGA Republicans at the federal and state polls yesterday in the USA have become supporters of Donald Trump in one way or another yesterday by spreading the big lie that the election 2020 presidential tickets were stolen. Many feign indifference to the violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, denying—despite abundant evidence—that it was an attempted coup. Having gained popularity in Trump’s wedges, most will support The Donald in his expected rematch against President Joe Biden in two years.
How will these elections be? In 2020, Trump and his minions orchestrated a sustained effort, documented with devastating precision by the January 6 Congressional Committee, to use lies, intimidation, fraud and violence to overturn a legitimate election. If this putsch attempt failed, it was because enough officials across the country, and specifically enough Republicans, resisted and stood up for the truth.
Next time, maybe not. “Anyone who denies the results of one election is also saying they’re going to deny the results of another election,” says Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian and author of “On Tyranny.” And with this pre-programmed tension, America may by 2024 be headed for what can euphemistically be called a constitutional crisis, but what in reality might look like a low-grade civil war.
This nightmare is not yet inevitable. But a look at history suggests it’s plausible. Republics were founded all the time, and the trends in the United States and elsewhere have been troubling enough to spark an explosion of research into “How Democracies Die.” The short answer is that its demise need not be spectacular and abrupt, like Chile’s in 1973. More often than not, freedom fails like marriages, businesses and dams proverbially do: first gradually, then suddenly .
My favorite case studies are Republican Rome and Weimar Germany. Both shared with the United States today many of the telltale characteristics of institutional decline. The first was the repeated breaking of taboos, especially the one against political violence.
In the Roman Republic, it began with the assassination of the two Gracchi brothers in 133 BC and 121 BC. In Weimar, it began with the serial murders of centrist and left-wing politicians by right-wing thugs in the early 1920s. In the US, the taboo was broken at the latest with the looting of the Capitol in 2021. The other day, a man broke into the house of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, with the intention of a kneecap; in his absence, she was content to take her hammer to her husband’s head. What’s next?
Parallel to this erosion of taboo and decorum is a cynical abandonment of truth as standard. The term “big lie” actually comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. When we can no longer agree on the facts – and worse, when we can no longer stipulate that the truth exists at all – we can no longer respect the judgments of the courts, nor the legitimacy of any institution.
In this context, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Apocryphally attributed to the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, this quote describes Republican Rome, Weimar, and the US, among other places today. Then, as now, enough people, in the elite and the electorate, accommodate unscrupulous Caesar wannabes until it’s too late. One excuse for the apathy on November 8 was that the election was not really about democracy, but about “bread and butter issues” like inflation.
And so the citizens of sunset democracies enter tyranny. A detail that has always seemed curious to me is that neither Hitler nor Octavius—better known as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome—never bothered to annul the constitutions of the republics they destroyed. Hitler simply ignored the Weimar constitution, which was officially discarded only after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Octavius, meanwhile, carefully preserved the republican set design, with its Senate, consuls, praetors and tribunes . It’s just that everyone knew it was just for show. It is entirely conceivable that the undertakers of the American republic have “We the People” tattooed on their arms.
But we are not at that point yet. Sometimes in history, good people stop doing nothing and start doing something. They rise above partisan loyalty or resist the sedation of apathy—or the seduction of power—and heed the call of duty. Bolsonaro and many Brazilians did. Americans, regardless of party, can do it too.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
Borgen shows US and UK how to do democracy right – Andreas Kluth
The Race to Disunity: Are the Brexiteers or the Republicans Ahead?: Martin Ivens
Jan. 6 Panel Proves Again That Trump Must Be Accountable: Timothy L. O’Brien
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. Former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
More stories like this one are available at bloomberg.com/opinion