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Overreach, the Achilles Heel of Autocrats

It Has Happened Here and Everywhere

It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating the democratic wave sweeping Europe in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It seems like yesterday that we hailed the Arab Spring and its potential for democratization across the Middle East. It seems like yesterday that we scoffed at the absolute authority of tin pot dictators who presided over impoverished populations in the Third World. We in the US thought all those events were far away; it couldn’t happen in established democracies like ours.

Until it did, with a president who has systematically dismantled regulations that protect and promote human rights, pigeonholed scientists and other experts who defy his beliefs, trampled the Constitution, and practiced in-your-face corruption. Evidently believing he can act with impunity, Donald Trump has invited interference from three countries to assist his election and reelection. His arrogance, lawlessness, and sense of invulnerability seem to have no bounds.

Through all this, we Americans have been overconfident and all too accommodating, as though Trump’s war on democracy would inevitably be halted. In fact, “it” has happened here, and not just here: in Brazil, Britain, Hungary, Egypt, and Turkey. Democracies of one sort or another are in peril, autocrats are in power, and established authoritarian regimes (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia) look to some like the wave of the future. We’re living the Orwellian nightmare: institutions that check executive authority are being systematically undermined, national leaders are claiming popular support for rule by decree, social well-being is an increasingly irrelevant objective, and international norms such as consensus, community, conservation, and human rights are being haughtily dismissed. Unaccountable government is increasingly the norm.

This nightmare, especially coming amidst a climate crisis, is a recipe for global disruption and war, not to mention a disgracefully widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else. In times of great uncertainty, fascism with a human face has new opportunities to take root. People become desperate about the future, suspicious of “the other” and eager for strongman rule. Democracy drops in importance; “stability and order” rise to the top. “Ordinary,” a character in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale says, is “what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”

Overreach

What is the key to toppling autocrats? Relentless criticism does not seem to move the needle, but their blind ambition and ineptitude may. Look at the damaging mistakes authoritarian leaders have made lately: Donald Trump’s Ukraine and China solicitations, Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang repression, Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit, Jair Bolsonaro’s Amazonia fires, and Vladimir Putin’s cronyism. Their major errors of judgment and mishandling of events have produced dramatic displays of resistance in Hong Kong, London, even Moscow, as well as stoked worldwide criticism in the other cases. To be sure, crackdowns on political opponents by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have succeeded so far, Chinese financial power has silenced many foreign critics, and Trump has been able to cow his party’s leaders and fool his supporters. But overreach often is what eventually does dictators in.

The 2020 election in the US may be a last chance to restore democracy and reestablish the nation as a beacon of hope. If we miss our chance, America will descend deeper into authoritarianism and become unrecognizable to those of us who remember what it meant to live in civil society. Impeachment of Trump will happen, is necessary, and demonstrates to people living under authoritarianism that accountability and transparency are fundamental to a democracy. But only a solid triumph at the ballot box will do the job of removing a serial abuser of power.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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