Signs in downtown Belfast on January 10, where Black Lives Matter and anti-mask protesters have held weekly rallies (Photos: Ethan Andrews)
Signs in downtown Belfast on January 10, where Black Lives Matter and anti-mask protesters have held weekly rallies (Photos: Ethan Andrews)
Sometime in the early aughts, maybe 2003, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for a protest against the Iraq War. As the march passed the White House, I remember looking up a side driveway to the building where the president lives and works and thinking that instead of walking around on the street, wouldn’t it be more effective to take our big peaceful crowd up there and have a word with the folks in charge?

That was my dumb idea. I didn’t say it out loud or act on the feeling. But if someone else had, I can’t say for sure that in the righteous fervor of the moment I wouldn’t have followed along to see how it played out. After all, I thought, we were peaceful demonstrators. It’s not like they would shoot us.

Pretty quickly I realized that, of course, they probably would shoot us, or roll tanks over us, or do whatever was necessary to stop our zombie invasion. That’s what I figured anyway. But even if it had worked, in whatever way I envisioned at the time, then what?

In the days after Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol, I talked to five political scientists affiliated with the University of Maine. Two of them independently sent me a notice published by the Center for Systemic Peace, a nonprofit that studies political violence and through its Polity Project ranks governments according to how much they embody democracy or autocracy:

“NOTE: The USA has dropped below the “democracy threshold” (+6) on the POLITY scale in 2020 and and is now considered an anocracy,” meaning the government has elements of democracy and autocracy.

The change stripped the U.S. of the distinction of being the longest-running democracy in the world. And while America’s new ranking of +5 is a long way from the -10 of a hereditary monarchy, the center warned that “further degradation of democratic authority in the USA will trigger an Adverse Regime Change event.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit, the research division of The Economist magazine, made a similar call in 2017, labeling the U.S. a flawed democracy.

The UMaine political scientists took it as a serious development but one that has unfolded in a predictable way.

“When we look at how democracies die, and how democracy ends, one of the big things that we look at in political science is institutional strength,” Kristin Vekasi, an associate professor of political science at UMaine’s School of Policy and International Affairs, told me. “We only know the institutions are strong if, when they’re challenged, they survive. And they only work so much as people believe that they work, and then behave as if they’re real.”

Vekasi said political scientists largely saw last year’s impeachment trial as a failure of an institution, because a check on abuse of political power was overlooked in favor of partisanship and political gain. President Trump’s casting doubt on the electoral process and inciting his loyalists to interfere with the final count by Congress was a less ambiguous step toward authoritarianism. But Americans have been somewhat slow to process the changes, Vekasi said, because we’ve set ourselves up to miss or minimize the cues:

“Unfortunately, the way we’ve studied, the United States has been studying in isolation from other countries, rather than in direct comparison. Really, it’s just one more country.”

Venezuela, which Vekasi called an “extreme example” of what could happen here, was a full democracy in the 1970s with a constitution, democratic elections and regular transfers of power. Under President Hugo Chavez, a socialist and charismatic populist, those institutions were eroded — notably, Chavez successfully lobbied to change the mechanism for amending the country’s constitution so that only a simple majority was needed, which effectively granted total control of the constitution to the party in power. The erosion of institutions continued under Chavez’s hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro, who completed the transformation to an authoritarian government last year when he closed the National Constituent Assembly.

“That democracy has died,” Vekasi said. “There are no meaningful opportunities now for the opposition party to actually take control and to have a transfer of power.”

Similar rule changes have ensured that Vladimir Putin remains in control of Russia, Vekasi said. In both countries, the transition was not by military coup but by the slow erosion of norms and rights that serve as checks on power.

The result is what political scientists call a “competitive authoritarian regime,” which retains the institutions of democracy but consolidates power with the ruling party or leader — businesses pay favors for influence, criticism of the leadership is seen as unpatriotic.

“President Trump and the people who are his key followers have used the language of competitive authoritarianism. How do you know? [The value of an action] has less to do with policy than with loyalty to the leader.”

Much of Trump’s success has been fueled by a distrust of government, a viewpoint that political conservatives have weaponized for political gain over the last 40 years. Amy Fried, a political science professor at UMaine, finished co-authoring a book on the subject just before the election.

Trump, she said, builds on what were sometimes explicit strategies to sow distrust in government, adding new elements of populism, extremism, more overt racism and xenophobia. That wasn’t the case during the Reagan presidency — “His farewell address talks very positively about how immigrants want to come to the United States because it’s the land of freedom,” she said — and it wasn’t there in either Bush presidency.

The paradox of supporting a president who derides government leads to “situational institutionalism,” when one’s views of the role of government depend on who’s in charge.

While Fried said the right has, in recent history, been more likely to traffic in distrust of government institutions, both sides are guilty of hypocrisy.

Karyn Sporer, a criminologist at UMaine and principal investigator with the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center, said we tend to justify criminal behavior, and even extremism by others, if it aligns with our objectives, and we do it the same way that common criminals do for themselves. “I stole bread to feed my family, that kind of thing,” she said. After the riot at the Capitol, Sporer saw a flood of comments by right-leaning commentators comparing it to violent moments in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — a circular argument that Sporer said attempts to redirect the blame: “You’re condemning the condemners, and there’s no critical reasoning in that.”

Beyond the psychology of justification, she said, violence by the left and right aren’t on the same level.“The reality is that we do policing differently depending on who the offenders are. That’s a known thing in the criminology field. It has been since the ’70s. There’s just no way around it. And comparing and contrasting these two very different social movements, you can see the formal institutions responding very differently.”

To bring the warring ideologies closer together, Sporer said, is probably going to take someone articulate who has a social platform, who is perceived as neutral and who people trust, or can develop trust. “You can talk to academics all you want, and we’re, like, We’ll just show the data. And that sounds great. But you can’t show data the same way to every single person.”

She gave the example of Muhammad Ali cracking the door for Americans to learn about Islam. “He was so well respected, not so much through politics, but through athletics, that people listened to him. He tore down that fear. But everything is so divisive right now, I don’t even know who could do it.”

I suggested Kim Kardashian, but Sporer’s response, a sort of diplomatic recusal, suggested there might be better candidates.

Most of the academics I spoke to said pulling back from the brink is going to require accountability. But Sporer said punishing the perpetrators of the attacks comes with its own problems, because prisons are historically breeding grounds for extremism “So it’s, like, do we lock them up and have them come out in five years, angrier and with more people and more supports? Then they become sort of the poster child of, Look at Big Brother fighting against your First Amendment right to free speech.”

For that reason, Sporer said, it’s important to focus accountability on actions. “This is America. You have a right to your own belief systems, and we have free speech,” she said. “But when it becomes violent, that’s the major concern.”

On January 9, opponents of Maine Governor Janet Mills’ pandemic orders and general bypassing of the Legislature met at Calvary Chapel in Orrington to gameplan. A notice of the meeting of the group, dubbed The Swinging Gate, featured a quote from Joshua Chamberlain, the Maine-born Civil War hero and governor, that included the words “fix bayonets.” The notice was circulated on social media by Democrats and progressives, who feared it was a planning session for the next steps in the insurrection.

Dick Campbell, a veteran state representative from Orrington, read some of the comments to the group of roughly 60 people who attended the session — a gathering that resembled, in tenor and attire, a municipal town meeting — and received laughter at the presumtuous liberals. Most of the meeting was devoted to teaching the basics of government to encourage participation by conservatives and libertarians, many of whom seemed to hold a less-than-positive view of government.

The meeting wasn’t without drama. During an open comment session, Campbell said, things got somewhat hot when a man brought up a concern he had about a government department. “He [started talking about] storming the State House, and I had a really brisk dialogue with him [and said] this is not what we’re here for. I was perceived as shutting him down. But the question was, What do I do? And the answer was, Not only talk to your legislators, but each one of these department heads; the commissioners need to know what’s going on from your perspective.”

Two days later, Thomas James from Augusta was in Belfast for a demonstration against the state’s mask mandate. James, who described himself as progressive aligned with Walk Away, a movement of Democrats who didn’t vote, in protest of the string of neoliberal presidencies that preceded Trump’s, said he wasn’t deeply against masks, or vaccines, a related interest of the group, though he questioned the reasoning behind some of the requirements. Rather, he was concerned about the balance of power in the country and the recent move by tech companies to ban accounts, including some associated with Walk Away, and the high-profile moves against the Twitter alternative Parler, which has attracted conservatives with promises of unmoderated speech. James found common cause with a variety of ideologically centered groups, including MAGA, Christian groups, anti-vaccine and anti-mask and libertarians.

“Right now a lot of the MAGA people are actually being converted into being more anti-Marxist,” he said. “We’re trying to move them and giving them stepping stones to changing their group because most of them have bailed on Trump. They’re just, like, Screw this. This was a trap. He told us to come down here, and he didn’t do anything and he set us up.”

As the chaos unfolded in Washington on January 6, Vekasi, the political scientist, whose focus is on East Asian politics, watched Chinese reactions online:

“Chinese social media and official state media was just going nuts with glee over what they were seeing — image after image of what we all were looking at, but they were saying, Look, see, aren’t you happy to live here? Look at the chaos and terror that is democracy.”

She attributed much of it to the messaging from the Chinese government, which has hammered the message to its citizens that democracy is disruptive and messy.

“And they’re not wrong,” she said. “But I’d still rather be here.”