March of Authoritarianism

Heather Cox Richardson

The Washington Post editorial board today wrote that “the battle for democracy will be fought—and won” by “explaining to the world why freedom matters to everyone, every day.” So, on an evening when our power has finally been restored, but too late for me to do a deep dive on anything, let’s see what that might look like from today’s news: 

For years now, the U.S. right wing has admired Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has overturned his nation’s democracy. Orbán claims that democracy weakens a nation because it allows immigration—which he calls “a poison” to a nation and says “poses a public security and terror risk”—and requires equal rights for women and LGBTQ+ individuals. The U.S. right wing claims to admire Orbán for what they see as a defense of traditional society.

But the logical evolution of Orbán’s “illiberal” society became clear last week, when the Hungarian parliament approved a new law designed to punish Hungarians who oppose the government. A new “sovereignty protection office” will intimidate and punish those who do not share the views of the ruling party, claiming that they are working for western governments and entities. The U.S. ambassador in Budapest, David Pressman, explained: “This new state body has unfettered powers to interrogate Hungarians, demand their private documents, and utilize the services of Hungary’s intelligence apparatus—all without any judicial oversight or judicial recourse for its targets.”

The U.S. State Department said yesterday: “This new law is inconsistent with our shared values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”

Also today, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), who has said that immigration is such a national crisis that House Republicans will not pass a bill providing supplemental funding for Ukraine to help it fight off Russia’s invasion without significant changes to the nation’s border policy, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to make those changes himself through executive action.

Biden has asked Congress for new legislation to address migration at the border since his first week in office, but Trump and his loyalists have demanded extreme measures that Democrats have, in the past, refused. With Republican refusal to fund Ukraine, Biden has said he is eager enough to get funding to Ukraine that he is willing to negotiate, but Johnson sent the House home until January 9 without a deal. 

Now it seems Republicans don’t want their own names on any such deal, likely recognizing that such an outcome would take away an issue they hope to exploit  in 2024. They want Biden’s name alone on any new policies or, failing that, to be able to blame him for not taking unilateral action.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre today reminded reporters that the White House has been negotiating with senators to come up with a bipartisan deal despite the absence of House members, and that Biden has been negotiating with the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to address the border situation. 

In the next few days, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall will all travel to Mexico to meet with President López Obrador to discuss border challenges, all in the spirit of the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration for Migration and Protection, an agreement between 21 Caribbean and Latin American nations, including the United States, to strengthen international frameworks to make migration safe, orderly, and humane. 

Also today, Craig Mauger of The Detroit News reported that on November 17, 2020, on a phone call with Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, Trump personally pressured two Republican members of the Wayne County, Michigan, Board of Canvassers not to sign the papers certifying the 2020 presidential election in order to overturn the election’s lawful results.

Trump told Monica Palmer and William Hartmann that they would look “terrible” if they signed the documents. “We’ve got to fight for our country,” Trump said. “We can’t let these people take our country away from us.” McDaniel, too, urged the pair not to sign and promised, “We will get you attorneys.” 

Palmer and Hartmann did not sign the papers, and the next day they tried to take back their votes in favor of certifying, filing legal affidavits saying “intense bullying and coercion” had led them to vote as they did. 

Lawyer Chris Thomas, Michigan’s elections director for more than 30 years, told Mauger it was unfortunate that Republican leaders offered to give the two legal protection for not doing their jobs. “Offering something of value to a public official to not perform a required duty may raise legal issues for a person doing so,” Thomas noted. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance pointed out that “[o]ffering an official something of value (services of a lawyer) in exchange for withholding official action (certifying the Wayne County vote) sounds like a classic case of bribery under Michigan State law.”

Trump is currently facing four criminal counts for his attempt to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election. His attempts to stop Michigan from certifying Biden’s victory are part of those charges. 

After the story dropped, Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, wrote that for her, “the absolute lowest moment in the post election battle we endured to protect Michigan’s accurate and legitimate election results in 2020 was not when armed protestors stormed my home. It was the night of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting.” 

Benson said the board knew about the pressure not to certify and were prepared to fight in the courts, but also knew that such a delay would “create enough doubt and uncertainty to enable the Trump campaign to push Pennsylvania, which was certifying the next week, to delay as well. And we knew other dominos would fall after that. How could we overcome the pressure of the then–President of the United States on local and state officials? Were the facts and law not enough?”

“Well,” she wrote, “then something I’ll never forget happened.

“Hundreds—hundreds (!)—of citizens showed up to the meeting of the Wayne County Canvassing Board to remind them of their duty under the law to ensure their votes counted. Their voices mattered. Their votes mattered.

“In my view that turned the tide. Citizens and election officials in Wayne County and statewide didn’t flinch, stood firm, and demanded their votes be certified as required under the law.

“And in the end, the Wayne County Canvassing board fulfilled their legal duty, followed the law and certified the election.

“What started as the lowest moment of the post election melee became the most inspiring. 

“The voters won. Facts and the rule of law carried the day. 

“Democracy prevailed.” 

Finally, tonight, former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has filed for bankruptcy less than a week after a jury awarded election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss more than $145 million for defaming them by accusing them of election fraud as part of his attempt to overthrow the country’s democratic system.

The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that “the world’s democracies should create a system to fight back that can speak plainly and consistently about the inherent advantages of democratic systems, while admitting the imperfections, and use creative ways to illuminate the flaws and depredations of authoritarian regimes.”

To be honest, it doesn’t seem that hard.

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