The covers of the books How Democracies Die and How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Photo montage.

From Trump-era documents to bedside books to understand today's Latin American politics

What Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt, and Jason Stanley formulated from Trump's threat to the U.S. democracy is today a map that can help to understand Latin America's more recent political movements

Ler em portuguêsLeer en español

The shocking images of the Capitol’s invasion in early 2021 captured the eyes of the entire world. Many wondered what was happening in the world’s largest democracy, a country with no history of coups d’état and pillars that helped write many other constitutions. The lessons of this period were already on the radar of many scholars, especially three.

In How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, released in 2018 by Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale University, and in How Democracies Die, published that same year by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, one of the main goals is to explain the new conservative movement in the U.S., especially in Trump’s era. In so doing, however, the authors ended up giving us an important glimpse into Latin America.

READ ALSO: Ariel Palacios – A tropical revival of fascist and Nazi expressions in Brazil

In recent interviews, the three authors even stated that Brazil, for example, had not yet entered a moment of absolute rupture. But they left valuable advice based on common phenomena they had observed so far:

The outsider’s risk

The Economist called How Democracies Die “the most important document of the Trump era.” Perhaps nobody imagined that the book would go beyond the time frame of that government and become a reference in political science for Latin America as well.

At the core of the concept created by Levitsky and Ziblatt is the mechanism used by outsiders: elected candidates coming from outside the world of politics, elected with an anti-political discourse, and using the democratic electoral system to defeat it from within. They also marked the difference between a “classic” coup d’état and the internal corrosion of a system by these outsiders.

An example of a classic coup is that of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. According to them, in this case, the death of democracy is immediate and evident to everyone. “The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned, or shipped off into exile.”

However, when democracy is demolished from the inside, “there are no tanks in the streets.” “Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected
autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its

In history, examples of this cast of outsiders are Adolf Hitler, in Germany, Alberto Fujimori, in Peru, Benito Mussolini, in Italy, among others. They “came to power on the same path: from the inside, via elections or alliances with powerful political figures.” The idea of the elites who supported them was, at that moment, to stop the political crisis. Instead, the result is precisely the opposite: the outsider is given the keys to power, building an autocrat.

READ ALSO: Ariel Palacios – Pinochet: Bolsonaro’s idol is the author of the Chilean 9/11

An autocrat enters the front door

Another example of an outsider mentioned several times by Levitsky and Ziblatt is Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In the 1970s, the country came to be seen as a model of democracy, with two parties, one center-left, and one center-right, intermittently dominating power for decades.

In the 1980s, the utterly oil-dependent economy began to decay. In 1989, the system was already encountering disturbances in the streets. In 1992, led by Hugo Chávez, officers rebelled against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. That first attempt by Chavez failed. When arrested, he declared that he would give up on arms, earning the admiration of many Venezuelans.

In 1993, the country’s party system collapsed, and the Senator Rafael Calderas made a decision he would later regret. He broke with his party, launched himself as an independent candidate, won the presidency, and approached Hugo Chávez. The following year, Caldera practically opened the prison doors to Chávez, pardoning the military from all charges.

In one of Chávez’s first interviews, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, he would have answered a reporter where he was going: “to power.” Caldera later admitted that Chávez seemed a fleeting fad.

Outsiders enter the house of democracy through the front door, with the help of its residents, only to demolish it from the inside later.

Nobody is born a dictator

Until 1990, Alberto Fujimori was a university dean who had never even dreamed of being president. He, however, wanted to be a senator. So, to draw attention to his unknown political career, he launched himself for the presidency. To his surprise, he captivated the votes of those who, with the economic crisis and the growth of the Sendero Luminoso group, were dissatisfied with traditional politicians.

Fujimori ended up going to the second round against Nobel Prize in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa was by then a world-respected character, but he had no appeal among the Peruvian lower strata, who saw him too close to the country’s elites. That’s why, analysts say, Fujimori won the election.

READ ALSO: Gabriela Antunes – Elections in Peru: The crossroads between the unknown cowboy and the dictator’s daughter

As an inexperienced politician, when he encountered the checks and balances system of democracy to govern, he decided to demoralize Parliament instead of dialogue with it.

Two years after being elected, he was dissolving Congress and canceling the country’s Constitution under the pretext of cleaning up the policy of drug trafficking and corruption. It was the beginning of one of the most violent Latin American dictatorships, which lasted 20 years and ended with Fujimori imprisoned, serving time for crimes ranging from harm to humanity to corruption.

READ ALSO: Bolsonaro takes his denialism against COVID-19 to the UN Assembly

The demagogue’s autopsy

For Levitsky and Ziblatt, autocrats are demagogues who find fertile ground, for example, in constitutions that allow the increase of executive power during crises.

They also find allies in certain system referees, such as the military, the police, judges, or corrupt politicians. Potential enemies must be bought or weakened. With media companies, the modus operandi is the same: they are either co-opted by state money or demoralized.

They also need to change the rules of the game, subverting the narrative. Sometimes the democracy’s defense narrative is used to demolish it.

Autocrats also make use of polarization and can even make use of the demoralization of the electoral system. It happened in Mexico in 2006, when Manuel López Obrador insisted that the election had been stolen. In 2012, 71% of Mexicans already believed that the electoral system could be rigged, a dangerous breach of trust.

Divided, we fall

How Fascism Works is about undermining democracy through polarization. It’s what Stanley calls the “us and them” narrative. To explore this subject, he turns to Mussolini’s Italy, of course, unraveling classical fascism to draw parallels with today. He ends up finding common features of the Italian era re-emerging in other countries worldwide.

According to Stanley, fascist politics uses many different strategies: from the “mythic past” propaganda to victimization and the notion of “law and order” and “homeland.” But the most striking symptom of fascist politics is division, through conspiracy theories and fake news taking over reasonable debates.

It is also what Stanley calls the patriarchal state (the nation’s masculinity), constantly threatened by the advancement of the possibility of gender equality. Another polarization comes from the narrative that puts “producers” versus “parasites.” It is a metaphor for those who would be appropriating “the welfare state,” attacking those who do not receive benefits from the state. It is, in short, what he calls strategies that undermine “information spaces, obliterating reality.”

What the two books have in common

Between Levitsky and Ziblatt’s ideas and Stanley’s book, several lines cross:

  • criticism of the independent judiciary, in order to replace the people in it with government’s allies;
  • attempts to reduce the reach of institutions so that the autocrat has fewer restrictions on his power;
  • attacks on the rule of law so that existing corruption appears to be the victim of a plot by the judiciary;
  • the effort to always discard different views of the government and classify them as anti-patriotic;
  • in addition, of course, to deconstructing gender studies under the guise of an alleged Marxist conspiracy.

Additionally, fascism aims to replace the sophisticated debate of ideas with a simplistic and one-sided discourse, reject the media for questioning extravagant conspiracy theories, and give nationalist garb to irrational emotions.

Finally, in the theories developed by the authors, the country is divided into “deserving” and “undeserving,” fomenting discord. In addition, minorities are suppressed based on the discourse that they are not in line with national ideals.

In other words, among other characteristics, they aim to create a discourse in which the current government seems to be a guardian of the law, order, and family tradition, pillars on which, in this perspective, a country must be built.

Any resemblance to any known government?

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes