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Fareed Zakaria's Special Report: The Fight To Save American Democracy. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired January 10, 2022 - 21:00   ET




FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Do you remember Ronald Reagan's description of American democracy a shining city on a hill.


RONALD REAGAN, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT: After 200 years, two centuries, she's still standing strong and true on the granite ridge. And her glow is held steady, no matter what store and she's still a beacon. Still a magnet for all who must have freedom.


ZAKARIA: Good evening, I'm Fareed Zakaria. The light of American democracy shining into the darkest corners of the world. It wasn't just rhetoric. It was real. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union collapsed. Democracy flowered. Now, 30 years later, American democracy is in trouble.

Abraham Lincoln warned us this country's destruction will not come from abroad, but instead will spring up amongst us. He was right of course. The danger is here at home. Republican versus Democrat, American versus America. The ascendance of old fears and ugly prejudice. Across the world we see the same divisions. Democracy everywhere is under attack.

But remember, America has been here before. America has vanquished demagogues before. So how do we do it now? For answers I turned to the smartest experts I could find. Our story begins with two of them. A former Republican, an advisor to presidents on foreign policy, and a Harvard professor who has studied democracy for decades. Listen closely as they describe what could happen in 2020 for the next presidential election.


ROBERT KAGAN, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT ADVISOR: I am having a hard time seeing how we avoid the train wreck that is now visibly before us.

STEVEN LEVITSKY, HARVARD PROFESSOR OF GOVERNMENT: I think most of us still have not gotten our heads around the very real prospect that we could have stolen election.

KAGAN: I think Trump will easily take the nomination. I don't think any Republican who has any chance would dare to run against.

LEVITSKY: We know it's going to be a very close election. It's an election that almost certainly a small handful of states very close to contested states will decide.

KAGAN: Trump doesn't win, at least according to whatever objective count of the vote you may have a contested 2024 election, which is not settled.

LEVITSKY: Republicans declare that they think the election was stolen, or that something was wrong.

KAGAN: State legislatures in various states challenged the vote in the state as it was counted.

LEVITSKY: And there's intense protest, maybe violence contestation over the election, because we don't know for sure who won.

KAGAN: Everybody is accusing everybody else of lying and subverting the election. There'll be calls for the military to deal with insurrections.

LEVITSKY: At that point, it's possible that no candidate would win a majority to the election will be thrown into the House.

KAGAN: Supreme Court could make a decision one way or the other. But I doubt that either side will accept the decision. And the possibility of violence is very high. Does President Biden declare a national emergency and send in the troops? Do the states use their National Guard?

LEVITSKY: We could plausibly constitutionally have a stolen election.

KAGAN: We're at that point in a situation of chaos, and it's hard to know how to get out of it.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): This is not a crazy scare scenario. There's a good chance this could happen. From the moment Donald Trump came down that escalator, he made a seemingly endless number of bizarre and provocative statements. But perhaps the most dangerous was this.

DONALD TRUMP, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT: This system is rigged. We're competing in a rigged election. This is a rigged election.


ZAKARIA: Constantly repeating it became just another Trump punchline.

TRUMP: It's a rigged election.

ZAKARIA: In reality it was a shot at the heart of democracy, the free and fair election. CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: I want to ask you here on this stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely -- sir -- that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?

TRUMP: I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I look at it at the time.

WALLACE: Are you saying you're not prepared now to that --

TRUMP: What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time, I'll keep you in suspense.

LEVITSKY: Repeated statements that he might not accept the results of an election that he lost, just really unthinkable in the United States.

ZAKARIA: Professor Steven Levitsky was worried.

LEVITSKY: That's something that precedes democratic breakdown in our lifetimes, you really have not seen in American democracy.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The astounding, upset victory.

ZAKARIA: Levitsky and fellow Professor Daniel Ziblatt began writing a book called "How Democracies Die." And when Trump won, they published their concerns in the New York Times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were a month after the election and the New York Times is seriously going to put the front of Sunday review that the future of democracy is threatened.

ZAKARIA: The warnings met with skepticism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does anybody around this table or does anybody in the New York Times really believe that our constitutional republics future survival is now at risk? Because a reality TV show guy got elected?

LEVITSKY: There were a lot of people who viewed our book as overly alarmist. And I think in retrospect, we were actually insufficiently alarmist.

ZAKARIA: In fact, the alarms began going off just four days into the Trump presidency.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If true, this would be the biggest presidential election story in history.

ZAKARIA: Trump alleged that 3 million people had voted illegally in 2016.

TRUMP: You have people that are registered who are dead? Who are illegals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're pronounced president of the United States. When you say -- TRUMP: Of course, I want the voting process to be legitimate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But what I'm asking, when you say in your opinion, millions of illegal votes, that is something that is extremely fundamental to our functioning democracy, a fair and free election. What you have presented so far has been debunked. It's been called false.

TRUMP: Take a look at the Pew report.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I call the author of The Pew report last night, and he told me that they found no evidence of voter fraud.

TRUMP: Really? Then why did they write the report?

ZAKARIA: And so began the dangerous erosion of faith in the American election process.

SEAN SPICER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He believes what he believes based on the information he's provided. Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does that mean for democracy, though?

SPICER: Thanks Jen (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does that believe -- if he does believe that, what is does that mean for democracy?

SPICER: It means that I've answered your question.


ZAKARIA: It would become the defining question of the Trump presidency.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the President a threat to our democracy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, is this still a democracy?

ZAKARIA: That growing fear did not exist for the many who watched pro Trump news channels.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: The people in charge rigged the game.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: The media has been lying to you.

ZAKARIA: Most Trump loyalists believe only what Trump tells them.

TRUMP: Don't believe the crap you see from these people. The fake news.

ZAKARIA: Even when the facts overwhelmingly contradict those views.

KAGAN: Trump has captured the Republican Party.

ZAKARIA: So much so that for Trump's people, the party itself is no longer important.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't even think it's the Republican Party anymore. I think this is just Trump.

ZAKARIA: This fanatical loyalty, says Robert Kagan, may actually be destroying the system, the founding fathers created to protect democracy.

KAGAN: The checks and balances, they set up were really checks and balances between and among the different branches. They didn't anticipate that people in Congress, for instance, would be more loyal to the Republican Party, then to the interest institutional interests of Congress.

ZAKARIA (on camera): This is very important. What you're saying is that party partisanship has become so great, that basically, it's broken. The checks and balances system.

KAGAN: I would say that there was, let's say, a flaw or a trap door in the system that the founders didn't anticipate, that they didn't prepare for. I really do think it took a unique kind of individual with particular personal qualities to really exploit this gap or this weakness in our constitutional protections.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The damage done became starkly clear on January 6, 2021.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Anarchy. It really is anarchy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the United States of America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am in tears today to see this scene. This is not an American scene.


ZAKARIA: Now, loyalty to Trump remains for many stronger than truth. 71 percent of Republicans still say Trump won the 2020 election. But the heart of the crisis goes still deeper. Tens of millions of Americans no longer have faith in democracy itself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pretty much everybody knows the government is corrupt.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't trust the government. I don't trust CDC. I don't trust none of them.

ANNE APPLEBAUM, AUTHOR, "TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY": The tragedy of America is not Trump. Trump is a side story, really. The tragedy is that 70 million people voted for Trump.

ZAKARIA: It is all hauntingly familiar to Anne Applebaum. She reports on autocratic leaders from Hungary to Turkey to Poland.

APPLEBAUM: One of the strangest things for me in my career has been the sudden realization that these are exactly the kinds of things that you see very often in other parts of the world.

ZAKARIA: The number of countries where democracy is failing, or autocracy growing is now the highest it has been since the end of the Cold War. One reason why --

APPLEBAUM: During the Cold War, the United States presented itself as the leader of the Democratic camp.

REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

APPLEBAUM: And that was something that bound together Democrats and Republicans, it was something that a lot of Americans felt proud of.

ZAKARIA: The global superpower promoted democracy abroad, and proudly embraced it at home. But can America still be Ronald Reagan's shining city on a hill.

JON MEACHAM, AUTHOR, "THE SOUL OF AMERICA": There's nothing inevitable about American democracy. This is a fragile, fallible, complicated experiment.

ZAKARIA: That experiment has faltered before. It's almost failed, only to return triumphant. To understand how that happened, we need to go back almost a century ago.

MEACHAM: It was an existential crisis.

ZAKARIA: The early 1930s, The Great Depression is battering a nearly broken country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Depression there and failures of the nation.

ZAKARIA: The jobs are gone. Farms are foreclosing. There are riots in the streets fights over scraps of food. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has just been elected.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT: This great Nation will endure as it has endured.

ZAKARIA: But few can see any hope. A desperate America is fertile ground for a demagogue.

FATHER CHARLES COUGHLIN, "THE RADIO PRIEST: We're too where that sham (ph) battle of politicians and now we're on our own.

ZAKARIA: Father Charles Coughlin was the brightest political star in the darkness of the Depression.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He had such a soothing voice, that you forgot your rapport, you forgot there was a depression.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Father Coughlin becomes the full pledge national character.

MEACHAM: Some of this may sound familiar. But imagine a populist divisive figure using a new mass media to broadcast a message of fear and tribalism, and anxiety.

COUGHLIN: You have paid the price, democratic America

UINDENTIFIED MALE: Every handshake that adds another individual to his philosophy following.

ZAKARIA: Every Sunday night, he broadcast the 30 million people.

COUGHLIN: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

MEACHAM: Coughlin's audience is fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It must be ready to answer a million letters in a single week.

MEACHAM: It was about this anxiety that the other was coming to take what you had.

ZAKARIA: Coughlin told his followers exactly who the other was an ugly message.

COUGHLIN: We are Christian insofar as we believe in Christ principle of love your neighbor as yourself. And with that principle, I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me that he does not believe in.

ZAKARIA: Even as Hitler began his march of terror, the same brand of hate, became a potent weapon for Charles Coughlin.

COUGHLIN: Try the money changers from that tempo.


ZAKARIA: His political power surged.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senators amazed by his influence on easily what's the newspaper.

LEVITSKY: There were people calling on him to run for president.

ZAKARIA: But he did not. Instead, he made the precedent his favorite target.

COUGHLIN: While president of the United States, one step towards dictatorship.

ZAKARIA: There were other would be demagogues grasping for power, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, but Coughlin had the greatest platform.

MEACHAM: Radio was one of the great revolutionary forces, it brought this distant world into people's living rooms, suddenly these people that we only read about were in your house.

ZAKARIA: Over time, the Catholic Church tried to rein in this dangerous priest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.

ZAKARIA: Then, President Roosevelt found a way to turn the tables, using Coughlin's most boldly weapon, the radio. FDR's fireside chats, became a key part of American life.

ROOSEVELT: I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.

ZAKARIA: He used them to sell the program that would turn the country around, the New Deal.

ROOSEVELT: We are definitely rebuilding our political and economic system on the lines laid down by the New Deal.

MEACHAM: It was the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was the Works Progress Administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many thousands of such jobs as these dots the map of the United States.

ZAKARIA: Dozens of programs that put people back to work and put food back on American dinner tables.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today depression is a fading memory.

MEACHAM: Roosevelt's insistence was that the only way to save democracy was to save the people who formed that democracy.

ZAKARIA: Finally, with the ramp up to World War II, the depression was over. The hate and demagoguery that tore at democracy in the 1930s gradually faded. And so did Father Coughlin. A threat from abroad, revived patriotism and national unity. And so did Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He used the tools of democracy to help save democracy.

Just ahead, while America was rising from the ashes of the depression, in Germany, democracy was losing to a fanatical madman. How did it win here, but lose there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The German Republic was dead.

ZAKARIA: A story with a twist that has haunting echoes to the current American crisis.



ZAKARIA: A film industry that rivaled Hollywood, groundbreaking expressionist art and more Nobel Prize winners than any other nation, including a physicist named Albert Einstein.

This was Germany in the 1920s. The thriving and sophisticated Weimar Republic. It was a proud and advanced democracy with a state of the art constitution, women's suffrage and 100 years ago, a strong gay rights movement. But in a few short years, all of it was gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His opponent is Adolf Hitler.

ZAKARIA: Adolf Hitler came to power.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that's crucial presidential campaign, every vote counts.

ZAKARIA: By killing democracy from within. He was enabled crucially by Germany's conservative establishment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On Hindenburg installed Hitler as its leader.

ZAKARIA: That tried to use him, underestimated him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hitler assumed dictatorial powers.

ZAKARIA: And eventually was destroyed by him.

BENJAMIN CARTER HETT, AUTHOR, THE NAZI MENACE": The responsibility of the conservative elites is massive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The German Republic was dead.

ZAKARIA: Hitler's rise is the most deadly example of a chilling pattern.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mussolini hailed by his compatriots as the genius of Italy.

ZAKARIA: Political insiders willingly giving power to a charismatic strong man. And the scholars who wrote How Democracies Die, worry.

TRUMP: The time for action has come.

ZAKARIA: Now this pattern may be repeating itself in America.

TRUMP: I alone can fix it.


TRUMP: I'm pleased to be here with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

ZIBLATT: Thought that they saw an opportunity and Donald Trump and decided they need to form a kind of unholy alliance with him. We see this dynamic of conservative elites aligning themselves with demagogue outsiders throughout history.

TRUMP: It was all an illegal attempt to overturn the results of the election.

ZAKARIA: Let's be very clear. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. But Weimar his death highlights a danger for all democracies.


Specifically, the way conservative elites determined to keep the left out of power align themselves with an anti-democratic demagogue. The story in Germany began with a big lie.

After the nation was defeated in World War I, a baseless right wing conspiracy theory was born. The military had not lost in battle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Statesmen assemble to draw up the peace treaty.

ZAKARIA: But was forced to surrender by traitorous left wing politicians.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The peace made it Versailles wants a dictated peace.

LISA PINE, AUTHOR, "DEBATING GENOCIDE": It was called the dog stops are the stab in the back.

ZAKARIA: A young Adolf Hitler eagerly embraced this conspiracy theory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He blamed the man who would sign the peace.

ZAKARIA: And used it to come to national attention.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not the leader Adolf Hitler called for action.

ZAKARIA: He tried to seize power by force in a coup.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this Munich beer hall he proclaimed a national revolution.

ZAKARIA: But his beer hall putsch was a spectacular failure. Hitler went to prison, wrote "Mein Kampf," and learned a valuable lesson.

LEVITSKY: It is much, much less likely that an authoritarian will come to power by seizing it militarily. It is much more likely in fact that the numbers overwhelmingly show this that democracies die at the hands of elected Prime Ministers and elected presidents.

ZAKARIA: So Hitler and the Nazis hit the campaign trail. At first, they were a laughingstock getting less than 10 percent of the vote through 1928.


ZAKARIA: But then, came the Great Depression.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shadows over Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And an unemployment grow.

ZAKARIA: Unemployment reached 40 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hunger was added resentment, bitterness.

LEVITSKY: Severe economic crises killed democracies.

ZAKARIA: On top of a cratering economy, there was a crisis at the border. More than a million refugees. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They began the greatest mass exodus of modern time.

ZAKARIA: Including thousands and thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe came to Germany.

HETT: The border became a very loaded political issue.

ZAKARIA: As the historian Benjamin Hett points out in his recent account of Weimar, the Nazis were fundamentally opposed to globalization before it was a catchphrase.

HETT: Hitler says something which really seems to jump out at us all these years later. He talks about German companies outsourcing manufacturing operations to China.

ZAKARIA: By 1930, the Nazis won the second most seats in the legislature. That was still less than 20 percent of the Reichstag.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One man represents the age old virtually to all German.

ZAKARIA: But there was one man who could still make Hitler Germany's leader.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aging symbol of the ruling Weimar Republic.

ZAKARIA: The nation's right wing President Paul von Hindenburg.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's the only man who can keep Germany from being splintered.

ZAKARIA: A revered aristocratic war hero, he had the power to appoint a chancellor. He disdained Hitler's humble origins. But he hated Germany's left wing parties even more.

ZIBLATT: He thought this is a figure we can use to keep the socialists out of power.

ZAKARIA: Hindenburg wanted to control Hitler, offering him a cabinet post but not the chancellorship. But the furor was holding out for the top job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nazis (INAUDIBLE) are still another national election campaign.

ZAKARIA: By the end of 1932 --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now there is a new sense of urgency.

ZAKARIA: -- Hitler's all or nothing strategy was failing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hitler knows that his Nazi party is in danger.

ZAKARIA: Nazi votes were declining.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Nazis are running out of money. ZAKARIA: Campaign coffers would windling and the party was in chaos.

HETT: One of the real tragic ironies of history actually is that Hitler was put into power right at the moment where his movement looked like he was going to fall apart.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST (voice-over): A right wing insider brought the fear of back to life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One man emerges with a dangerous idea.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Former Chancellor Franz von Papen was trying to get back into power.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Convinced that he can put Hitler in his pocket.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): So he set out to convince his friend, President Hindenburg, to make Hitler chancellor if Hitler would make Papen vice chancellor. Seeing this as the best way to keep the left out of power. Hindenburg faithfully agreed. And on January 30, 1933, I hate filled demagogue --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Third Reich of Adolf Hitler is born.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- became Germany's chancellor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hitler did not seize power, it was given to him.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Everything was under control, Papen said.

HETT: Famously at this moment, Papen says to a friend, we have hired him. He says in six weeks, we will have pushed him so far into a corner, he will squeak.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But within weeks, Adolf Hitler made himself a dictator. And soon, he was killing off enemies and rivals, including many of the right wing insiders who had enabled his rise. Democracy in Germany was dead.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): It's lessons for America.

TRUMP: We will not take it any more.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Our sober (ph).

TRUMP: Stop the steal.

STEVEN LEVITSKY, AUTHOR, "HOW DEMOCRATIC DIE": The willingness of mainstream conservatives to back into potentially authoritarian options, because of fear of their rivals, is something that I think we're seeing playing out in the United States today.




ZAKARIA (voice-over): Since November of 2020 --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were coming after you and every mother (bleep) that stole this election with our Second Amendment.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- these are the kind of threatening phone calls local election officials have received.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You reek my (bleep) election, you (bleep) pieces.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The callers are Trump loyalists who believe in his big lie.



TRUMP: We won this election and we won it by a landslide.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We won in a landslide.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): A year into Joe Biden's precedency.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was fraud, you got to revisit.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Across the country, Donald Trump's allies are still at war to overturn the last election, forcing local election officials to revisit the 2020 vote count again and again and again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Count the legal votes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Count the legal votes.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In Wisconsin, local Republicans have conducted three separate partisan audits in an attempt to prove the Joe Biden should not be president. No widespread fraud has ever been found. The third review is still ongoing behind closed doors.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): The man Republicans have put in charge is Michael Gableman.

GABLEMAN: The Office of Special Counsel is conducting a full investigation.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): He dodged questions from CNN crews.

GABLEMAN: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can we talk to you about your investigation, sir?

GABLEMAN: Hey, have a good night.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And even called for the arrest of Madison's Democratic mayor who refuses to testify in private.

MAYOR SATYA RHODES-CONWAY, MADISON: If it comes down to it and I have to go to jail for democracy, I certainly won't be the first person to have done so.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The audit is likely to cost taxpayers close to $700,000.

JOSH KAUL, WISCONSIN ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think this is really about 2022 and 2024. I mean, this is an effort to reduce people's confidence in our election results.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Efforts like the one in Wisconsin are taking place across the country. In Maricopa County in Arizona --

KIM WYMAN, (R) WASHINGTON SECRETARY OF STATE: We've never seen a private company be able to come in and take command and control of live ballot.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In Idaho, where the Secretary of State's office recently hand recounted ballots to refute claims of vote flipping.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: After reviewing almost 10,000 ballots over three different counties, officials found a margin of error of less than 1 percent.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And in Oklahoma, state officials there opened an investigation to counter allegations of hacked voting machines. Similar cries of fraud from governors and state legislators have gone on and continue to go on in nearly 40 states


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): The fact is election fraud does occur.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Charges of widespread fraud have all been proven false.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Count the legal votes.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But the claims have succeeded in one critical way.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): They have shattered trust in the election system.

A poll published in November found that only 33 percent of Republicans said that they would trust the results of the 2024 election if their candidate didn't win. That compares to 82 percent of Democrats.

ROBERT KAGAN, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: There will be no faith whatsoever in election results.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's 70 million people that do not believe this.

KAGAN: So, I think it's much more likely that we have a full blown national crisis in 2024.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The crisis is unfolding right now with Republicans passing new laws --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shutter (ph) bill passes.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- that tighten their grip on how elections are run and who counts the votes. They have also been removing, replacing or demoting election officials who would not endorse Donald Trump's false allegations of fraud.

A dozen states enacted 17 laws last year that paved the way for future election subversion. At least 19 have passed laws that simply make it harder to vote. Republicans argue that the bills are necessary to restore what they call election integrity and will make future elections more secure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I urge your pharaoh vote for the Election Integrity Act.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But the most worrying laws give Republican state officials even more power to control local elections.

Remember, Georgia's Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who bravely refused to give in to Trump?

TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Georgia Republican stripped Raffensperger of his role as chief election officer and purged other local election officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A body of unelected officials in Atlanta, appointed by the state legislature and not us can fire our employees without a lick of input from us.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Georgia has just one target in a carefully planned effort by the GOP that could enable them to steal the next election perfectly legally.

Some new laws promise harsh punishments for election officials and poll workers for simple mistakes.

BENJAMIN GINSBERG, REPUBLICAN ELECTION LAWYER: There are a series of laws in states that have put in to criminalize election officials for doing their jobs. That has a really corrosive effect on the general public's belief in the accuracy of our election results.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In Texas, an election official can now go to jail for sending citizens unrequested vote-by-mail applications.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to have to educate our own volunteers to make sure they don't make a mistake.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In Florida, officials can be fined up to $25,000 if they allow voters to deposit ballots in drop boxes outside of official hours.

In addition to the intimidation tactics --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rigged, the 2020 election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Widespread fraud --

ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- a wave of Trump supporting Stop the Steal candidates are running for office across the country. Some, would direct oversight of elections. All of it paints a grim picture of what could happen in 2024.

SECRETARY JENA GRISWOLD, (D) COLORADO SECRETARY OF STATE: It is incredibly alarming. In fact, in every swing state where we have a Secretary of State race, there is someone who has either spread the big lie or was at the insurrection running to oversee election.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): To understand how it could play out, just look at the razor thin margins in these battleground states from 2020. Narrow everywhere, three tenths of 1 percent in Georgia.

The fear now is that having passed new legislation, Republican dominated state boards could intervene and override local election authorities.

LEVITSKY: And so we could plausibly constitutionally have a stolen election.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): For many in 2020, democracy was saved at the state level by heroic officials and election workers who stood up to Trump's demands.

KAGAN: The Republican Party at every level has engaged in a full scale purge of anyone who looks like they're not completely on board with the Trump agenda.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): As these officials disappear, who will be left to stand up to defend democracy in 2024?


ZAKARIA: Let me conclude this program about American democracy by looking at Germany again.


After its hellish descent into tyranny, the country recreated itself. And today, Germany appears to be an almost preternaturally stable democracy. Angela Merkel served solidly for 16 years as chancellor, and she's been succeeded by her former finance minister, another moderate. The country's policies seem to have shifted in only marginal ways.

But behind that calm, line, more turbulent currents. As a scholar Richard Pildes notes, for decades, Germany's two main political parties on the left and right taken together usually got about 90 percent of the vote. But they got just under 50 percent in the 2021 federal election.

Pildes calls this political fragmentation, and it's happening across the Western world. France's Socialist Party, one of Europe's most successful is now a shadow of its former self. Spain has had to hold four elections in four years to arrive at a workable coalition.

In Italy ever since 2018, ushered in right wing populist. Politics has been in turmoil, saved now by a technocratic government headed by Mario Draghi. Even the Netherlands took a record 225 days to form a coalition government in 2017.

Why is this happening? Some of the reasons are familiar, an age of rapid technological change, accelerating globalization, and increasing ethnic diversity have created great anxiety. These anxieties then lead to distrust in traditional institutions, and established parties. New figures crash onto the political scene, some of whom peddle fear and offers simple solutions to get rid of all this new complexity and take the country back, back to when times were more stable, back to when the country was great in the misty often mistaken memory of some.

But why does American democracy feel more threatened than say French or Spanish democracy? America does feel especially under stress as it approaches its next presidential election. If the scenarios outlined here come true, Donald Trump runs, wins the nomination, and it's a close election, we will almost certainly face a constitutional crisis. More worrying given the changes to election procedures, we will likely face this kind of contestation after every closer election in America.

The basic legitimacy of the American electoral system has been eroded. Republicans in particular have embraced a big lie that American elections are filled with fraud.

It may be that we have exposed a flaw in the Founding Father's constitution. They believe that to create a political system, you did not need to ensure that people acted virtuously.

If men were angels, James Madison famously wrote, no government would be necessary. Ambition would be made to counteract ambition, and this system of checks and balances would preserve liberty and democracy. But can a system really work without human beings acting responsibly even virtuously? One branch of government, Congress, is supposed to check the other. But today for Republicans, party politics Trumps institutional loyalty.

The real scandal of January 6, is not what happened outside the Capitol alone, it's what happened inside when a majority of House Republicans voted to overturn the valid results of a presidential election, simply to curry favor with Donald Trump. It is that vote not the violence that almost broke the American system.

We often hear that unlike in fledgling democracies, America's institutions are strong. But as Emerson said, an institution is the Lenten shadow of one man. If people abuse them, attack them, disregard them, these storied institutions will slowly collapse. And so, all our efforts must be devoted to making people act responsibly, even virtuous. In particular, Republicans must come to realize they can and should disagree with Democrats vigorously on taxes, regulation, inflation, the environment, whatever they want, but now, they must come together with the same Democrats to preserve a credible and legitimate political system.

For all of us, this is the most important political issue right now, not your views on Iran or inflation or green subsidies. Those can wait. Let's first save American democracy.


I'm Fareed Zakaria. Thanks for watching.