Republican states are racing toward authoritarianism

Francis Wilkinson
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott makes good on his recent vow to pardon a man convicted of killing a legally armed Black Lives Matter protester remains to be seen. The killer had announced his homicidal intent on social media before the killing. News reports also noted that he had posted racist content online and had sought contact with underage girls, the latter of which may complicate the governor’s messaging.

Regardless of how Abbott proceeds, the governor’s urge to pardon a killer for no discernible reason other than that the killer belongs to Team Red and the victim is claimed by Team Blue tells us how deep into the authoritarian jungle the Republican Party has penetrated. It’s reminiscent of Trump’s vocal desire to pardon those convicted of crimes committed during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The practice of keeping killers and thugs out of jail, and thus employable for political dirty work, is a quintessentially authoritarian one. Without it, Argentina’s dirty war, for example, could never have been so dirty.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference on Jan. 31, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott held a meeting and news conference in preparation for the winter storm that is sweeping across portions of Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)

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Trump’s violent assault on rule of law hasn’t been replicated in any of the 50 states. There have been no attempted coups in state capitals, right-wing militia activity in Michigan notwithstanding. But in Republican-dominated states across the nation, the party is no longer ambling toward authoritarianism. Despite a functionally democratic, post-Trump calm in the White House, many states are racing toward an authoritarian future.

The legislatures of North Carolina and Wisconsin, whose rightward lurch has been underwritten by the U.S. Supreme Court’s endorsement of extreme gerrymanders, are emerging models of competitive authoritarianism where elections undermine, rather than validate, democratic choice.

War on home rule: In red-state cities that vote Democratic, Republicans have compounded racial gerrymanders and vote suppression by disempowering opponents directly. Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi and other red states have been waging war on home rule to strip city residents of the power to select their own governments and policies. Republicans have removed, or tried to remove, elected prosecutors in Philadelphia, Tampa and St. Louis, effectively seeking to nullify local election results.

Ohio Republicans are following the example of Arkansas and Missouri, where GOP legislators undermined the ballot initiative process to prevent citizens from enacting their preferred policies, including abortion policy. And from coast to coast, in Congress, statehouses and county seats, lying about the 2020 election remains a Republican rite, and a promise of future attacks on truth.

Meanwhile, the Texas Senate last month passed a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in every classroom in the state. There was a time when such a ploy would have been dismissed as unconstitutional, since it runs roughshod over religious freedom and elevates right-wing Christian preferences to the status of state religion. But with a U.S. Supreme Court majority composed of four determined conservatives and two comically partisan hatchets (one of whom is married to a coup cheerleader), White Christian nationalists may soon realize their goal of being the only Americans with religious rights that command respect.

In Kansas, Montana and Tennessee this month, Republican legislators silenced or expelled duly elected legislators — all Black or female — who collectively represent tens of thousands of Americans. Republicans now disfranchise swaths of citizenry on the grounds that GOP politicians don’t like working alongside their representatives. The GOP’s public explanation is that the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene is a stickler for decorum.

In Montana, Republicans blocked trans lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from the House floor last week, ostensibly for breaching decorum. Zephyr had asserted that legislation to ban gender-affirming care for minors would encourage suicides, leaving blood on lawmakers’ hands. The legislation was passed and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte, who was charged with assault in 2017 after he attacked a reporter who had asked him a question about health-care policy. (Gianforte initially lied about the assault but was contradicted by a witness who worked for Fox News.) Decorum is a sometime thing in Montana. So is democratic representation: The rights of Zephyr’s more than 10,000 constituents have been compromised.

In Kansas, a Democratic lawmaker was similarly silenced by Republican colleagues who didn’t like what she said about the politics of targeting trans children, including her own child.

Demonization: The Republican focus on transgender Americans isn’t just obsessive, it’s another authoritarian tic. More than 500 bills have been introduced in 49 states seeking to regulate trans health care or behavior. Yet a 2022 poll by Pew Research Center found that only 1.6% of U.S. adults say they are transgender or nonbinary. Republicans in South Dakota pushed through a ban on trans athletes in high school and college sports at a time when young trans athletes were nearly impossible to find anywhere in the state.

The relentless attacks on a tiny subpopulation are consistent with GOP bans on literature and history books on the grounds that whatever induces discomfort in the most sensitive Republican should be legally suppressed. Writing in a journal article on the advance of GOP authoritarianism, University at Buffalo School of Law professor James Gardner said: “To insult or demonize another person is, literally, depersonalizing — it proceeds by definition from the view that the insulted are not fully human, and thus need not be treated with the decency to which humans are inherently entitled.”

It's a short and well-traveled leap of logic from concluding that transgender Americans lack legitimate autonomy or full political rights to concluding the same about non-Whites, non-Christians and non-Republicans.

American democracy has been under attack from authoritarian forces in the Republican Party for most of this century. But as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other GOP officials have ratcheted up the use of state power to suppress political opposition and force academic, civic and corporate actors to genuflect at the GOP altar, democratic space in red states has been shrinking at a rapid pace. To mobilize conservatives, Republicans generate fears about everything from drag shows to Disney World. Once such threats are identified, they must be neutralized.

'Authoritarian enclaves': For those living under emerging authoritarian state regimes, the past may offer uncomfortable guidance. Opposed to equal rights, contemptuous of rule of law, state governments in Florida, Texas and elsewhere are growing reminiscent of the 20th century apartheid regimes of the American South. (It’s no coincidence that authoritarianism’s return is most aggressive in the South.) These former and future “authoritarian enclaves” are breaking free of democratic constraints, determined to exert power over citizens who reject their political and cultural dictates.

While the White House is no longer a nexus of flagrant theft and anti-democratic attacks, the authoritarian movement hasn’t stalled. It extends beyond Trump and will persist with or without him. Authoritarian executive action will no doubt return quickly to the White House if Republicans regain control. That the two leading candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are openly authoritarian in posture, rhetoric and policies confirms the dangerous direction of the GOP.

— Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.