I honestly could not finish reading Mr. Sullivan's essay, fascinating and insightful though it may be (in places). It kept me alternating between nodding along, nodding off, waking from my snooze to read a little more, and grimacing in disbelief. It gave the muscles in my neck and face a workout.
Sometimes I found myself agreeing with a premise but not the conclusion drawn from it; other times, agreeing with a thesis statement but finding the explanation dodgy on factual grounds. Rather than go into detail, I'll let you pick through it and decide for yourself.
The important take-away from the essay is not, repeat not, repeat again notnotnotnotnot, that the US will certainly lapse into authoritarian tyranny as a direct or indirect result of expanding democracy too broadly. I don't envision such a collapse, even if presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump becomes our next president. Instead, it is to understand that conditions are ripe for our democracy to self-destruct.
I also get that a Trump tyranny will lead to a popular uprising, which will lead to an authoritarian crackdown, which may lead to ever more nastiness in the uprising's tactics, one side or the other winning and being not at all gracious about it. Why? Why against Trump and not against Dubya Bush? It's all a matter of distinguishing between overt and covert tyranny.
Let's bring in Plato's most famous student Aristotle. Plato was all about ideals, and Aristotle was all about forms. The way things should be versus the way things are, or at least the way things appear. (I'm way oversimplifying, but please just go with it for now.) As long as America has the ideals and the forms of democracy, the majority of us will conclude that we still have functioning elements of democracy and be satisfied with it. Meanwhile, a substantial minority will see through the fiction and complain about it.
Dubya and his crew were smart enough to make a show of respecting those forms and ideals, despite his "no dictatorship unless I'm the dictator" witticism. If Trump is elected, and his neo-brownshirts begin overtly attacking progressive activists, I reckon that citizens and immigrants will turn of the tube and take to the streets in sufficient numbers.
I'd like to explore this further, but I've already complained about the length of Sullivan's essay. Here is something to remember, however: History is cyclical, not strictly linear. Our society and polity oscillate from left to right, between progress and stasis, because it is built that way. Progressives perceive injustices that must be rectified and agitate to get government to fix them; conservatives apply the brakes to halt the perceived excesses of progress. Rinse and repeat. Through this lurching and stumbling, with each cycle, the people gain new rights or liberties. It's that Arc of the Moral Universe, identified by Theodore Parker and Dr. M.L. King, bending toward justice.
It doesn't just happen this way in representative democracies. Sometimes the cycles are rapid, sometimes agonizingly slow. But who would have thought just a few years ago that Burma/Myanmar would loosen its stranglehold on its people? Sometimes even totalitarians recognize that totalitarianism is not cost-effective, that it invites societal paralysis, that it kills what makes life worth enduring.