IN the pit of my stomach I have this persistent feeling that some kind of global political showdown is coming. What do I mean by this? Well, to put it as simply as possible, I mean a showdown between authoritarian-ism and those who oppose it.

At the very least it might merely take place country by country, then again it could mean a recalibration of the existing world order as we know it.

If such a thought sounds incredibly alarmist or fanciful then just pause for a moment and consider this. Had someone told you a year or so ago that the entire world would be plunged into a state of suspended paralysis, you would probably have scoffed at that idea too.

If they had also told you that the same pandemic would in parts of the world leave behind a global recession, mass unemployment, devastated healthcare systems, heightened surveillance as well greater state powers, you could have been forgiven for calling such predictions off the wall.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, authoritarianism was in the ascendancy across the world as populist leaders began to take and consolidate their power. It’s almost two years ago now that Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote of what he described as “trial runs for fascism”.

As O’Toole saw it, this was all about getting people used to things that they might initially find repugnant. Things like demagoguery, racism, propaganda and “alternative facts”. Ultimately, too, these trial runs for fascism would also help to inure people to acts of savagery, often dehumanising “outsiders” in the process. All these toxic ingredients are, after all, what help fascism grow.

Then came the pandemic. While some despots dismissed it, others saw it as something of a godsend. In places like China, Iran and Hungary it allowed the state to tighten its grip. In others, instead of addressing people’s needs, authoritarian states pushed for anti-terror laws that equated the pandemic and political activism as “terror threats”.

It’s probably no coincidence that the pandemic started in China, a country where the government has little trust in its people, suppresses the free flow of information and prevents its officials – including health professionals – from speaking the truth.

As Madeleine Albright, the former first female Secretary of State in US history, pointed out recently, it’s equally no coincidence, too, that many of the countries that have dealt effectively with the virus are strong democracies. Countries like Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan and Finland, all countries coincidentally as it happens, headed by women.

In Albright’s own homeland, the United States, it has been an altogether different story. For some time now Donald Trump’s authoritarian leadership has made for growing discontent. Add to this the onslaught of the pandemic and the outrage over the death of George Floyd in a country already rightly angered by institutionalised racism, and the blue touch paper was lit.

In a nation where there are now more than 100,000 people dead from the virus, more than 40 million unemployed, Trump will not be making America great again any time soon.

Perhaps Americans are indeed – as Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, commented this week – in the Gotterdammerung now, the final phase of the Trump era.

He will, of course, not go down without a fight; autocrats rarely do. Trump has long invoked an us-versus-them mentality that condones harsh, even military-style crackdowns on opponents or those citizens who take to the streets in protest against him and his administration.

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FOR that reason alone the forthcoming US presidential election takes on a renewed importance, having the capacity not only to depose Trump, but also send out a worldwide message to authoritarians every- where that their days are numbered.

A defining feature of authoritar-ians, whether they are far-right wing or outright fascists, is that they do not care for discussion or dialogue. Simply by being in power they believe they can dictate reality. This past week many Americans have shown Trump’s version of reality is unacceptable. They have shown racism will not be tolerated and that justice and human rights are still things that most Americans value.

Watching events unfold in America has been a stark reminder of how the greatest threat confronting democracies around the world is not from without but from within.

We should not forget that America at its best and with proper leadership can still do more than virtually any other country to move the world in the right direction. Its presence on the world stage in true democratic voice, not the shrill pitch of Trump, is still vital in helping oppose the unconstrained power grabs of authoritarians and would-be dictators. At the same time, around the world citizens too must take responsibility themselves.

As Branko Marcetic, of the US magazine Jacobin, observed this week: “Whether it’s climate change, wealth inequality, or demilitarising the police, these problem are so myriad that they won’t be solved without a mass movement fostering the kind of ‘political revolution’ we once heard so much about.”

Perhaps the time has once again come to talk about resistance and authoritarianism and for us to be comfortable using both of these words. We must recognise their significance and implications. Previous generations did so, whether back in the 1930s when confronting fascism or in 1968 when movements against authoritarian rule spread like wildfire around the world.

For those who value democracy, the end of the pandemic must be followed by a renewed sense of close co-operation, similar to what was seen in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War.

Given the chance of a fresh start, we cannot allow authoritarianism and contemporary populism to mobilise fear and resentment against ethnic, religious or nationality minorities, and xenophobia about foreigners and global institutions.

We are in an uneasy place in history right now, a fragile and vulnerable moment where autocrats could so easily benefit.

If a political showdown with authoritarianism is coming, then we cannot afford the luxury of saying we were not prepared.