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In impeachment hearings, lessons on the erosion of American democracy

Editor's Note: (Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.)

(CNN) Is America becoming a 21st-century-style authoritarian state? The impeachment hearings of the last weeks would seem to provide an easy answer: no. The very fact that such an inquiry can be held, and broadcast on national television, is a sign that our democracy is working and that our institutions are holding.

Yet the impeachment hearings also showed how degraded our political culture has become and how much progress President Donald Trump has made in implementing the authoritarian playbook that he began to write for America during his campaign.

First, the hearings revealed just how much Trump's cult of personality has tied subordinates to him, and how much of his playbook operates on keeping them in thrall to his singular threat: show loyalty, no matter what I say or do, or else.

A healthy democracy is founded on tolerance of differences of opinion, but is grounded in a shared body of norms. Autocratic governments, in contrast, need to change our opinion about what violates norms and constitutes crime and corruption.

Trump and the GOP, in de facto partnership with Fox News, are creating an alternate reality for followers in which facts are what the President needs them to be. This is a hallmark of authoritarianism.

Impeachment hearing testimony by the US Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and others has implicated the President in directing what appears to amount to extortion of Ukraine to investigate his political opponents. The GOP has fallen into step defending Trump, however, seeming to espouse the principle that the President can do just about anything without consequence.

In such a climate, the very idea that "rule of law should prevail," as former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, said in her opening statement, becomes partisan and negatively associated in some Trump supporters' minds.

Indeed, when Ambassador Yovanovitch displayed unwillingness to trample democratic and diplomatic norms, Trump ousted her, and told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, "She's going to go through some things," according to the transcript of their July 25 phone call.

Second, such thuggishness brings us to another key point of these impeachment hearings: Trump's authoritarian playbook is, in part, Vladimir Putin's authoritarian playbook, and it aims not just at making people believe in alternate truths, but at "eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all," as foreign policy consultant Molly McKew warned in 2017.

Russia expert and former National Security Council member Fiona Hill's testimony sounded the alarm on just this point. She told the committee and the nation that America is "being torn apart" by the erosion of a shared idea of truth.

Hill told members of Congress that she refuses "to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative," referring to the efforts of Russian security services (and Trump associates, like his lawyer Rudy Giuliani) to label Ukraine as the source of interference in the 2016 election.

In her 2012 book, "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," written with Russia specialist Clifford G. Gaddy, Hill examines Putin's success in spreading distrust among political elites (the divide-and-rule strategy many autocrats use) and in bonding them to him through illegal activity by creating a system of "mutually assured incrimination to ensure loyalty."

In other words, the more crooks the system creates, the safer the chief conspirator, who can use blackmail or other exposure techniques against them -- as well as the threat of violence -- becomes.

This is a dark world, and it's one the impeachment inquiry shows is fast descending on American politics, as the testimony and experience of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, in particular, suggests.

The son of a father who fled Ukraine to escape the brutalities of the USSR, Vindman started his appearance by recognizing that "my simple act of appearing here today ... would not be tolerated in many places around the world," and that in Russia "offering public testimony involving the President" would cost him his life. He continued with words directed to his father: "Do not worry, I will be fine telling the truth."

That day, the Army had to consider relocating his family because of the death threats he received. Trump has not issued any statement condemning the threats.

Putin has had 20 years to develop a system of rule founded on corruption and the suppression of democracy. With the GOP's complicity, Trump could be just getting started.

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