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Our Institutions Will Not Save Us From Republican Authoritarianism

If the GOP wins in 2022 and 2024, here’s how it’ll capture Congress, the courts, and the executive branch to make America into Hungary.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Immediately following the 2016 election, Masha Gessen published their seminal article “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Their first three rules were: Believe the autocrat, do not be taken in by small signs of normality, and your institutions will not save you. People who exist in the center and center-left have consistently failed at adhering to the first two: Too many of them still regard Donald Trump and the GOP’s talk of single-party rule as hyperbole aimed at the base, and fail to see Joe Biden’s first two years in office as what they really are—the calm eye of the fascist storm—hoping to see them as proof that normalcy has reasserted itself.

The worst level of Pollyannaism applies to rule three, however. After states failed to overturn elections in 2020 and the court systems almost universally rejected Trump’s attempts, there has been a feeling that the guardrails of democracy held and that the danger is not imminent. For anyone paying closer attention, those guardrails have continued to weaken and are in the process of failing long before the next aspiring autocrat chooses to test them.

One of the crucial steps in destroying a democracy and reshaping a society is to capture the referees and circumscribe their power. After the attempts to overturn the election failed, rather than learning the lesson that they shouldn’t try to undermine the rule of law, the thieves surmised that they just needed better patsies to rubber-stamp their authoritarian impulses. To rush this along, the GOP has purged almost every elected leader who won’t go along with it. Two-thirds of Republican members of the House voted to overturn the 2020 election, and those who didn’t have been retiring or primaried at a terrifying rate.

We can already see the system cracking and breaking everywhere under the pressure of a corrupted judiciary and institutions packed with unqualified partisan hacks. The most obvious example of this is the criminal investigations into former President Trump. Although Trump was effectively caught red-handed attempting to hold onto top-secret documents, Aileen Cannon, a Trump-appointed district judge, issued a series of bizarre rulings that does everything possible to shield him from prosecution.  Similarly, judges in Texas have been refusing to uphold subpoenas from Georgia prosecutors over Trump’s interference in the election there.

In Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, Republican legislators have repeatedly submitted gerrymandered maps that courts have found violate state or federal law. The solution they found was not to draw maps that are legal but instead to keep submitting illegal maps and waiting for the courts to rule that it’s too close to the election to do anything about it. The result: Republicans pick up an extra five to seven seats in the House in a cycle where control of Congress will likely come down to just a few seats. If Republicans take the House, they are promising to use it to create a circus of subpoenas and impeachment hearings against Hunter Biden, Merrick Garland, and President Biden, while shutting down federal investigations of President Trump.

It’s not just the courts and the legislatures that are being corrupted as institutions: Virtually anywhere appointees are put in place by Republicans, there’s potential for institutional capture and replacing sound policy with extreme ideology. Perhaps there’s no better example of this than the Florida Medical Board, which Governor Ron DeSantis has loaded with religious zealots and anti-vaxxers (to be fair, there’s a lot of overlap there). As a result, the board is about to produce a “standard of care” for all trans people of any age that prevents any affirming care based on deeply disingenuous and flawed interpretation of the literature. Similarly, the board is recommending against 18 to 39-year-old men getting the Covid booster based on an anonymous, small-sample, non–peer reviewed paper. It seems only a matter of time before corrupted state medical boards also ban the use of hormonal birth control and IUDs, using the same tactics, under the threat of revoking medical licenses.

Ultimately, the corruption and capture of our institutions by people who are acting out of partisanship and ideology will be the end not only of our democracy but of competent nonpartisan governance. Next term, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Moore v. Harper, under which it will decide if state and federal courts have any jurisdiction over federal elections. At its heart, it is a test of the “independent state legislature theory,” which argues that state legislatures are the final arbiter on everything related to elections, including declaring who the winner is. Should North Carolina succeed in its arguments, it means that the gerrymandered legislatures of North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania will always ensure their electoral college votes go to the GOP.

Republican candidates for state offices responsible for elections are also promising to overturn elections in favor of their party and will likely be successful if the independent state legislature theory is upheld at the Supreme Court. Arizona Republican secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem says he doesn’t believe Democrats can win elections fairly, and he is promising to refuse to certify the 2024 election if Biden wins. Similarly, Republican secretary of state nominee Jim Marchant in Nevada is promising to make Donald Trump president again in 2024, regardless of the official vote tally. Both Finchem and Marchant have a lead in the polls.

But it gets worse from there.

Should Trump and the GOP take power again in 2024, they are promising to capture and corrupt every other institutional guardrail they can by gutting them of institutionalists and replacing them with Trump loyalists and partisan hacks. This includes the military, the Justice Department, Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and the FBI. The potential for abuse is staggering. Imagine an FBI and a DOJ that are used extensively as weapons to investigate, harass, and jail political enemies. Or a Defense Department willing to use troops to put down anti-Trump protests with overwhelming violence. Or an intelligence community that produces an unending stream of pro-Russian pronouncements? The potential for abuse is endless.

And unfortunately, we are almost at a point of no return to prevent this. After the 2022 election, this future could be baked in. Once the United States falls down the same gravity well into competitive authoritarianism that Hungary and Russia have gone down, there’s almost certainly no coming back from it in my lifetime. Whatever institutions might save us from this are crumbling fast, being deliberately undermined, and won’t survive another four years under Trump.