On the same day that 77 percent of Tennessee Republicans were voting in the primary to send Donald Trump back to the White House, two leading US historians addressed an anxious audience at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

They spoke on March 5 against the specter of support for the candidate recently held liable for sexual assault and financial fraud, facing trial for stealing national defense secrets, paying off a porn star to mislead voters, praising and refusing to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the invasion of Ukraine and the murder of Alexei Navalny, and intimidating state officials racketeer-style to change the results of an election he lost.

In their addresses, presidential biographer John Meacham and Iron Curtain chronicler Anne Applebaum focused less on assessing past world events than on forecasting the future of US democracy – and the consequences for Ukraine.

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History is in the balance now that US political divisions have enabled a minority to successfully shut off US aid to Ukraine, while recent intelligence reports establish that Russian intelligence and pro-Trump politicians and pundits at the very least share a disinformation echo chamber. There is evidence of more direct connections between fake news generated by Russian intelligence and the Trump supporters who repeat it.

Applebaum was in Poland in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and when people living under Soviet domination “decided what they wanted was freedom.” That supposed end of history now stands in striking contrast to the number of Americans who have been conditioned by disinformation to be fine with Putin authoritarianism overrunning Ukraine, and even taking hold in the US.

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Trump spoke for nearly two hours, in his first rally since being shot, giving a speech that rambled from the 2020 election and praise for North Korean and Chinese dictators to “criminal” immigrants.

Meacham tried to put it in perspective, that 35 percent of Americans, the equivalent of MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) supporters today, still viewed Senator Joe McCarthy favorably even after he had been disgraced as a red-baiting demagogue who found a Russian Commie behind every tree. How strange that the conservative right now favors Russia and blocks aid to Ukrainians fighting to be free from revived Soviet tyranny.

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A wider historical perspective reveals a larger problem, though, that Americans surfing the wave of the 1960s Freedom Riders have never gone through cycles of revolution, monarchical restoration and descent of democracies into despotism that Europeans have lived through for centuries.

According to Meacham, it has created a doldrum of complacency – that democracy is simply effortless – which must be defeated, especially now that one party seems to be perfecting rules changes that will allow it to stay in power permanently, as foreshadowed by the Heritage Society’s Project 2025. This plan would remove the check of a professional civil service ushered in by Republican Teddy Roosevelt and replace it with a system of loyalty to the leader in which Trump is Richard Nixon’s heir, if not Putin’s.

Slide towards authoritarianism

According to Applebaum, Putin is likewise testing us in Ukraine, throwing down a gauntlet against our post-1945 expectations: Putin does not believe in secure borders, an end to genocides, freedom and self-determination, and Putin is betting we don’t believe it either and won’t defend it.

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Whilst Putin is challenging the role of the US as the world’s security guarantor by brazenly kidnapping children in Ukraine, a former president is pulling strings from offstage to block the policy of the current president to aid Ukraine. Applebaum and Meacham discussed the chilling comments she heard at the recent Munich Security conference, that if this revision of American alliances and philosophy prevails, Europe may have to face a tri-partite axis of authoritarianism – consisting of Russia, China, and the US.

Americans may not understand how much the game has changed, but if a US Supreme Court packed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (now disparaged and run out of town as not Trumpy enough) reaches a shocking conclusion that Trump is immune for any crimes he committed in office – just as Putin is inherently immune for sending FSB or Spetsnaz forces to murder his political enemies and investigative journalists – we will know US dreams of steady-state democracy have passed us by.

Ironically, this program on the fractured American body politic and slide towards fascism was conducted under the auspices of Vanderbilt’s Project on Unity and American Democracy

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Hard-pressed by the audience for some good news for the future of American democracy, both seemed to believe that depends on the American electorate rejecting an American Orban, Erdogan or Putin.

Avoiding the fate of Orban’s Hungary depends on Americans rejecting the neutering of democracy in the November election. Based on Tuesday’s vote, there is a long row to hoe in Tennessee. In one more ironic twist, maybe Ukraine can show Americans the way to resist.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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