This year, countries with a combined population of about 4 billion – half of all the people in the world – will hold elections. That would be cause for celebration if democracy consisted only of the act of voting.

That it doesn’t will be proved in March, when Russian citizens will be asked to choose a president, knowing in advance that the winner will be Vladimir Putin. Again.

It would be easier to envisage Putin’s regime coming to an end if he cancelled the poll. Then at least he would look afraid of the people. Withdrawing the pretence of democracy would be an admission of demand for the real thing.

Tyrants don’t manipulate elections to trick their subjects into thinking they have a choice of ruler. They do it to demonstrate the futility of expecting change. It is an assertion of power by demoralisation. The choreographed rallies, puppet rivals and Potemkin village polling stations are not subtle counterfeits designed to be mistaken for the genuine article. They are deliberately crass – a sneering mimicry that rubs people’s noses in the artifice of politics. The point is to discredit the idea that elections make a difference.

Cultivating contempt for democracy is one of the most powerful propaganda weapons in a despot’s arsenal. This is something Donald Trump grasps intuitively, making his participation in this year’s White House race exceptionally dangerous.

The foundation of Trump’s bid for the presidency is the belief among his supporters that he never lost in 2020; that Joe Biden stole the last election and is now using judicial chicanery and deep-state subterfuge to thwart a restoration of the true commander-in-chief.

The truth is that Trump was defeated and then tried to obstruct the proper transfer of power by inciting insurrection. That is why he is facing multiple criminal charges and has been disbarred from even appearing on the ballot in two states (although the ban could be overturned by the supreme court).

There have been many bitter, polarised US elections before 2024. But none, not even the one that put Trump in the White House the first time, has involved a candidacy so explicitly hostile to continuity of the constitutional republic.

In 2016 it was still possible (albeit naive) to project cartoonish hyperbole on to the ravings of a celebrity demagogue. That delusion is no longer available. When Trump promises to expunge the “radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”, it is a safe bet that he intends to follow through. If returned to the White House he would use every executive lever to eliminate restraint on his power. He would requisition the justice system to entrench his position and pursue vendettas against all who crossed him. He would find no shortage of appeasers and accomplices. All those Republicans who were too cowardly to defy him on the way down are hardly going to discover courage if he is back on top, able to reward loyalty and punish dissent.

If Trump prevails against the various legal impediments to his candidacy, there will be an army of apologists ready to argue that his subsequent purge of Democrats is nothing worse than what was attempted against him. The “Biden crime family” has corrupted the courts to subvert the people’s choice, it will be said. Now they must face justice. This is how tyranny makes itself electable: it is branded as the avenging arm of freedom.

UK politics is reassuringly tepid by comparison. Rishi Sunak will not spend 2024 calling Keir Starmer a gangster and, in the likely event that the Tories lose an election this year, their leader will not pretend to have won.

But Sunak indulges the Trumpian side of British conservatism, partly from fear of stirring division in his party, but also in the patronising pursuit of some notion of earthy authenticity, a “common touch”, which the prime minister understands only as a campaign quality he conspicuously lacks.

The Tories’ most demagogic streak will soon be on display in debates over the Rwanda safety bill, and not just because the MPs who are keenest to dispatch asylum claimants to Kigali also take mischievous pleasure in affronting liberal sensibilities over immigration.

There is a more insidious provocation in the very conception of a bill to turn a government opinion (that Rwanda is a safe destination for deportations) into a legally incontrovertible fact, defying a supreme court ruling to the contrary.

That constitutional overreach will be slapped down in the House of Lords. Conservatives will then make it an argument about arrogant, unelected elites – peers and judges – foisting their pro-foreigner, woke human rights agenda on the mass of ordinary people who just want an end to the migrant Armada crossing the Channel.

That confected culture war probably won’t change the course of any subsequent election. But it will seep some populist toxin into public discourse. It will promote the idea that institutions of law and justice are inherently suspect if they do not automatically acquiesce to elected authority. That judicial subordination is a step towards the cult of untrammelled executive rule, which in turn tends towards a definition of democracy as the system for keeping an incumbent in power.

We aren’t there yet, or even close. Starmer is odds-on to be prime minister by the end of the year. The availability of regime change via the ballot box is enough to make British politics the envy of dissidents in authoritarian regimes. The ugliness of the next Westminster election will be a democratic beauty pageant next to the grotesquery on display in Russia this spring.

But there is false comfort in comparison with Putin’s pastiche polls. More relevant is the abyss into which American democrats stare in horror. It is the vortex where politics has ceased to be a stable competition conducted under a common set of rules, grounded in a mutually recognisable set of facts. It is a breakdown in civic culture and a loss of shared values so thorough that tens of millions of people would gladly elect a tyrant on a platform of spiteful retribution against the existing constitutional order.

It would be convenient if every assault on democracy announced itself upfront as a refusal to let people elect their leaders. But limiting vigilance to that kind of threat is a type of complacency. There is also the creeping corrosion of disdain for the rule of law and the practice of leaders treating election victory as a mandate to manufacture their own facts. Then the question is not whether Britain is immune, but how soon the rot can be stopped.

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