Up until four years ago I assumed that democracy was not only strong, it was invincible. At least in the Anglosphere. Why wouldn’t I? During my lifetime, democracy had survived the Great Depression, the Second World War complete with Fascists and Nazis, and the Cold War against a totalitarian state. If it could survive all that, surely it could survive anything.

Today, I’m not so sure. Over the past four years, we have seen, in one of the world’s freest nations, a demagogue turn his country toward fascism.

Knowingly or instinctively he did all the right things to undermine democracy and prepare his country for authoritarian rule. He accused its democratic institutions—the press, the judiciary, the democratic process and government itself—of being corrupt and untrustworthy. The people could rely only on him for the truth. He offered Americans scapegoats, domestic and foreign, to explain their problems. They were not responsible for their reduced circumstances; they were betrayed by elites and exploited by foreigners and immigrants. He gave them easy solutions to complex problems.

And then there were the enablers. Sometimes forgotten is that Adolph Hitler didn’t become chancellor of Germany by winning an election. On the contrary, conservative politicians convinced an initially reluctant President von Hindenburg to give him the job. They knew he was a dangerously violent man but they thought his violence would be useful in dealing with their enemies on the left. They could control him, they could keep him on a leash. In fact, he ultimately put them on a leash … and worse.

Trump, too, has had his enablers. Almost all the Republican senators, in fact. They shamelessly supported him even as he undermined their country’s institutions, quite aside from constantly offending simple decency, because he has been useful to them. And then there have been his lackeys such as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, now making a clown of himself attempting to keep the defeated candidate in power.

The ultimate enablers were the Americans who voted for him—the rich who expected favours, and got them, and the working class people who saw him as a champion that understood and expressed their fears and prejudices. The latter are sometimes excused because they have been left behind by a changing America. But hard times don’t justify voting for a monster. They didn’t in Germany in the 1930s and they don’t in the U.S. today. Nobody gets a free pass on responsibility.

Supplemental to working class supporters were the heavily armed thugs standing down and standing ready, to borrow Trump’s words. Every budding fascist needs some muscle for those occasions when only intimidation will do.

And, as if the United States was some former Eastern European satellite, all this worked and Trump acceded to the presidency. If the American people hadn’t finally come to their senses, the country may have been dealing with its very own Il Duce. It has spared itself, at least temporarily. Another term for Trump and Mitch McConnell would have been on a leash. 

I, too, have been brought to my senses. I have been brought to realize that democracy may not be fragile as some are now saying, but it is well short of invincible. The demagogues are always out there, and there is a large cohort of citizens waiting to be seduced by their lies, their easy passions and their simple answers.

The lesson to be learned from the Trump phenomenon isn’t new but is rather the relearning of an old lesson. Democracy can’t be taken for granted anywhere. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price.

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