Commentary: A backsliding democracy and a civil war in the making.

Tennessee’s leaders have already shown an eagerness to bend to Donald Trump at the sacrifice of American democracy.

January 8, 2022 7:00 am
Photo illustration by John Partipilo.

Photo illustration by John Partipilo.

The day Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2020 presidential election, my husband asked me why I wasn’t happier: He thought I’d be in a good mood. 

When Biden had taken the oath of office, I told him, I might — just might — feel a smidge of relief. 

You couldn’t have followed politics between the time Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and Nov. 7, 2020, the day Biden clinched his win, without realizing a lot of road lay between that day and inauguration day and that anything could happen. 

Trump, if anything, had already proved himself to be a wily politician with a Teflon-like ability to evade consequences for behavior formerly thought unacceptable in American politicians. 

When, at his 2015 presidential announcement, Trump said Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers to the U.S., some thought: “There goes any Hispanic vote he might get.” But we were wrong. Trump gained support from the Hispanic and Latino community over the years.

Some of us thought his campaign would be doomed when, later in 2015 he mocked a reporter with a disability in a vulgar demonstration. Wrong again. Wrong were we, too, when a video emerged late in the 2016 campaign of him discussing his technique for grabbing women by the genitalia, using a coarse synonym for that part of the anatomy. Boys being boys! Locker room talk, said his supporters. 

Of course, that was only a sample of what was to come. 

On Jan. 6, 2021, I turned on my TV only after seeing a tweet thread from a friend, Lisa Quigley. Quigley was then serving as chief of staff to 5th District Congressman Jim Cooper. She posted video of crowds surging toward the Capitol and reported staff were first told to evacuate, then to shelter in place. 

For the first time, a European think tank that studies and supports democratic institutions has labeled the U.S. a ‘backsliding democracy’ and holds former President Donald Trump’s actions accountable for spillover into other countries. And the Tennessee legislature has already shown a willingness to slavishly adhere to Trump and Trumpism.

But I’m not writing to revisit that day. We know rioters stormed the Capitol, attacking Capitol police, threatening to hang Vice President Mike Pence after building gallows outside and breaking into the office of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, among others. 

I write because I am afraid that wasn’t the worst day yet for America in Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party and thus, about half of America. 

A report released by the International Institute for Democracy in November gives cause for worry. The organization, composed of 34 nations that work to support and strengthen democratic institutions across the world, was founded in the mid-1980s during a time of democratic change – good and ill. The 1989 crackdown in China’s Tiananmen Square was one of the latter, but Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa the former.

For the first time, the annual Global State of Democracy Report listed America as a “backsliding democracy.”  A backsliding democracy  is defined as one that has experienced significant weakening of checks on governments and civil liberties. 

“Significantly, the United States, a bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale,” says the report’s introduction. And one key finding of the report singles out that Trump’s “baseless allegations” of voter fraud don’t just hurt the U.S. — my chief concern — but have also spilled over to affect other countries. 

And the January issue of the Atlantic Monthly has a story titled “Trump’s Next Coup has Already Begun.” The gist of the story comes in the second paragraph: “The prospect of democratic collapse is not remote.”

The excellent piece by Barton Gellman is depressing, frightening and necessary to read if you care about our country. Among Gellman’s assertions are that the challenges to the 2020 election outcome and the January insurrection were mere practice for what’s to come in 2024. 

Republicans across the country, Gellman writes, have been setting in place the structures to ensure your vote literally will not count in the next presidential election unless you vote for Trump — or, in the off chance he doesn’t run, whoever he deems his successor.

Also in Gellman’s piece? Experts who have studied tyrants for years find Trump’s messages remarkably similar to those of Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian president whose platform that minorities were taking over his country led to years of bloodshed. The piece points out a fact I’d not read before: Those participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection were much more likely to come from a county in which the white population was declining. 

My final point brings us to Tennessee: GOP-led legislatures have the power to replace electors in federal elections with their own appointees who could overturn election results. There is no question that this could happen here. The Republicans in Tennessee’s General Assembly and state leadership, including Gov. Bill Lee and Attorney General Herbert Slatery, have shown a willingness to slavishly adhere to the Trump line and override the concerns of the business community – their historic constituency. 

So far, Democrats at both the state and federal levels are doing a woeful job of creating an alternative narrative to Trumpism. I have no confidence there is any apparatus being developed to counteract a seizure of the next federal election by anti-Trump forces.

So here we are, almost a year after Trump left office and Biden was inaugurated and to answer the question my husband posed on Nov. 7, 2020: No. I still don’t feel relieved. In fact, I feel worse. 

In 2022, you can expect to see me writing about this topic frequently, one of the few things I can do to raise awareness of the Civil War that surely lies ahead of us, be it armed or cold.


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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.