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The “Banana Republic” Fallacy

Following the rule of law does not turn a country into a “banana republic.” Bending the law because you’re afraid of a populist strongman does.
August 29, 2022
The “Banana Republic” Fallacy
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

The FBI’s operation to retrieve classified documents from Mar-a-Lago has prompted many conservatives to express concern that America is becoming a “banana republic.”

We’ve seen this call from “respectable” Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, to banana Senator Marco Rubio, to banana blog the Federalist.

But the United States is not a banana republic for three simple reasons.

(1) A banana republic does not have an independent judiciary.

(2) In a banana republic, political opponents are prosecuted without cause—the machinery of law enforcement does not deliberate over seeking a warrant from an independent judge, whom the head of the government cannot coerce.

(3) In a banana republic, demagogic leaders of popular fronts get away with criminality because political leaders are worried that the regime’s institutions are so weak that the demagogue could spark a revolution.

Here are some of the arguments the conservative intelligentsia made between 2016 and 2021 as they cast about for reasons why their support for Donald Trump would not endanger the country.

The courts will stop him.

The institutions have held.

The party will curb his excesses.

He can insult the Mexican (he is American, not Mexican) judge, so what? There is an independent judiciary.

Look! Trump’s own judges (meaning, judges appointed by Trump, though Trump sure wishes he owned them) have stopped him.

And my personal favorite:

Trump didn’t break any laws by asking the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Stop calling America a banana republic!

So the Conservatism Inc. line during the Trump era was, “Don’t worry. America isn’t a banana republic. Whatever the . . . irregularities . . . of this period may be, things are fine and so as long as we get our tax cuts and judges, it’ll be worth it. Things will go back to normal after this vulgar man retires.”

Maybe this was sober analysis. Maybe it was wishcasting. But whatever the case, the republic held, and the closest we got to becoming an actual banana republic was January 6, 2021. But, as those same conservatives explained in their later attempts to minimize the attempted coup, even this putsch failed. The institutions held.

But let’s return to that third marker of a banana republic:

In a banana republic, demagogic leaders of popular fronts get away with criminality because political leaders are worried that the regime’s institutions are so weak that the demagogue could spark a revolution.

The Athenians faced Cleon, who was killed in battle before solidifying his power but created the demagogic lane of politics for Alcibiades and Peisander. The Italians had to deal with Benito Mussolini. The Germans had Adolf Hitler. In each of these cases, the existing regime was a democracy which invited a demagogue into government because they thought that their democratic systems could not withstand the popular assault from without. Instead, the ruling democrats believed that the only way to preserve the institutions would be to bring the demagogues inside them.

After doing so, all three ceased to be democracies.

Thrasybulus, the leader of the democracy movement in Athens, which didn’t have any institutions outside The First Man and The People, personally brought Alcibiades back from exile to Athens because he thought that it was his only choice at a time of duress.

In Italy, only half a century old, the king faced a Mussolini threatening to march into the parliament to seize power, so the king volunteered to give Mussolini that power and ousted the liberal prime minister.

Paul von Hindenburg, the president of the 15-year old Weimar Republic, invited Hitler to form a government, thinking that giving the Nazis two ministerial positions meant that they would be sidelined in the government.

All three bets were wrong.

In each case, the democrats feared that their institutions were too weak to hold under the assaults of the demagogues from the outside. So they attempted to give them power in the hope that it would stop the anti-democratic assaults. But the task of undermining democracy didn’t end when the anti-democrats were given power. They didn’t become responsible stakeholders of liberal democracy any more than China became a responsible stakeholder of liberal world order after its accession to the World Trade Organization. It only picked up steam. And that is because all three were close to being banana republics. (Or, in Italy’s case, a banana kingdom.)

If the United States’s institutions are strong enough to resist Donald Trump and his movement, as conservatives have insisted for many years, then America is, by definition, not a banana republic.

And as such, then prosecuting a former politician with cause for crimes he might have committed is a sign of political health, not institutional weakness. More than that: Letting powerful people go without consequences for their misdeeds purely because you fear the power of their populist movement is anti-democratic. It’s exactly the kind of weakness that both exposes banana republic status and exacerbates it.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted only two years after his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was released from prison. Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, remains under indictment as the Israelis go to the polls to vote for a new government in November. Two years after losing the presidential election in France, the government began the prosecution of Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s sentenced to house arrest awaiting appeal. All of these law enforcement operations by the political rivals of these leaders, and I have yet to hear someone call Israel or France banana republics—because they aren’t.

There are prudential reasons not to prosecute Donald Trump. After all, Abraham Lincoln issued an amnesty against the treasonous rebels so as to forge a social reconciliation. Those arguments are perfectly merited.

That prosecuting Trump would make America into a banana republic is not.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.