OK, let’s get this out of the way at the start: Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. He is not Vladimir Putin. Journalists will not be mysteriously murdered in dark alleys. Ballot boxes will not be stuffed.
These are the barriers to any discussion about President Trump and his nosedive into authoritarianism. We are hard-wired to associate words like “autocrat” with Hitler and Stalin, to recall images of military coups and mowed-down protestors when hearing words like “authoritarianism.”
But it’s time we break that mold. The United States is a very unique place with very unique circumstances and a very unique history. Our worst moments throughout history–slavery, Japanese Internment, the Red Scare—look unlike illiberal movements elsewhere throughout the globe, and our next is also unlikely to fit neatly into any mold.
Our uniqueness arises in large part by our robust system of democracy. The United States is unmatched in terms of its demographic diversity, sprawling media landscape, strong institutions, and long tradition of democracy. In many ways this is obviously a strength: A United States president cannot silence dissent as easily as in a country such as Russia, nor can the courts be packed as easily as they can in Turkey.
But as our Founder’s noted, our unique situation presents its own unique dangers. As our first president understood, should the United States slip into an authoritarian spiral, it will not be easily identifiable nor like anything we are used to seeing in the modern world:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
President Washington was simply restating what others, most notably Plato, had observed about robust democracies: they are very susceptible to implosion. Unlike top-down power structures like we see in Russia or Turkey, this democratic-implosion takes a different form. It occurs when the main ingredient of democracy—widespread power-sharing and difficult to manage, competing institutions—become so messy and fractured that a critical mass of individuals say “enough is enough,” and hand off their trust to a ruinous strong-man.
This illiberal slide is hard to identify, because it is still, in theory, “democratic.” The danger is not simply that a bad person is at the helm, but that enough people are willing to go along. Institutions such as courts and the media aren’t outright destroyed, but are so muddled to the point where their power is nullified and drowned out by the popularly-selected strong-man.
This is what our unique form of authoritarianism would look like. And it looks a lot like what is happening under President Trump.
In American-style authoritarianism, silencing dissent (a critical component of all authoritarian movements) could not take the form of shooting down protestors or raiding the headquarters of major media organizations. Rather, it would take the form of incessant lying, aided by cooperators in the private sector and other government institutions, to such a point that facts are so malleable that a leader effectively has the power to silence harmful views and facts.
Indeed, this is precisely what we have come to see in the Trump-era. Trump has peddled so many lies that half the country believes the media makes up stories about him. Even Trump’s most outrageous claim—the completely unsupported idea that millions of voters committed fraud in the 2016 election—is believed by 25% of the country. And his buddies at Fox News willfully ignore harmful stories, ensuring that certain facts don’t even reach a large portion of the country.
American-style authoritarianism would also hinge greatly on the weaponization of the uniquely great power vested in the president. This power does not lend itself well to sending SWAT teams to raid the headquarters of The New York Times or armies of cops to pummel protestors with rubber bullets. Rather, the president has more subtle powers that, if used improperly, can hide beneath a veil of legitimacy while sending a strong message that critics will be punished and allies will be rewarded. These unique powers allow the president to, say, selectively enforce laws against his critics, pardon loyalists, or direct agencies to mold the law in favor of allies. This abuse of the rule of law works behind the scenes, first sending a chilling message to those that regularly interact with the government (CEOs, journalists, etc.), and eventually reaching the rest of us.
The beginning of this process is already taking form. Trump’s Justice Department is blocking the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, the owner of Trump’s chief media rival, CNN. Trump’s advisers discussed using this deal as “leverage” against CNN, and the move has little legal basis. Similarly, Trump’s Federal Trade Commission has rescinded a rule to allow a vast consolidation of right-wing media, allowing the pro-Trump Sinclair to merge with Tribune and expand its reach to over 70% of American households, up from 38%. The Trump Administration is apparently a big fan of consolidation... so long as it benefits President Trump.
It doesn’t end there. Trump’s Justice Department is considering bringing charges against Hillary Clinton based on a completely bogus allegation. Trump has threatened to use anti-trust law to intimidate another rival, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of the critical Washington Post. In addition, Trump is molding his view of the law to those who are loyal to him: Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff and Trump loyalist convicted of criminal contempt, was pardoned. In contrast, after Trump was criticized by Lavar Ball, the father of a UCLA basketball player threatened with a decade in prison for shop-lifting in China, Trump said he should have “left them in jail.”
Indeed, in just the first year of his presidency, Trump has changed or outright ignored the law to favor his allies, while mending or weaponizing the law to target and intimidate his critics.
But even creating your own facts, intimidating your critics, and rewarding your allies might not be enough, especially in such a well-educated, wealthy country like the United States. So an American-style authoritarian would need to utilize some form of another hallmark of authoritarian states: election-rigging. What would that look like?
It would not take the form of stuffing ballot boxes are murdering political opponents. Instead, it would rely on a creation of a universe of lies, a clever mechanism to target opposing votes, and cooperators in government.
Voter suppression laws—which range from Voter ID requirements to elimination of early voting days—are just that. These laws, which according to one judge target Democrat-leaning voters with “surgical precision,” are aided by Trump’s lies about the prevalence of voter fraud, and will benefit from Trump’s unprecedented opportunity to fill the courts with loyal appointees. Some studies conclude these laws swung the vote enough to completely decide the election in 2016. This tactic is the functional equivalent of election-rigging, and it is not hard to see Trump narrowly securing a second-term aided by voter suppression.
How far can Trump take this? Fortunately, Trump is not your ideal authoritarian. He is so incredibly incompetent that he is unlikely to use any of these autocratic tools to his maximum advantage. And with Robert Mueller quickly uncovering what could be the largest scandal in American political history so early in Trump’s presidency, he may never get the chance.
That said, plenty of damage has already been done, and Trump has shown a strong preference for using the law to favor himself rather than to further the ends of liberal democracy. His incompetence and potential criminal liability may be cause for optimism, but it is also a reminder that the groundwork is such that things could be, and still may get, must worse. If Trump fails at taking us totally down the path towards the ruins of liberty, he is showing us what it would look like in the United States.
And make no mistake, the danger stretches farther than Trump. Recall what President Washington said: illiberalism is not coded into our system—surely the Founder’s were too smart for that—but is the result of certain “disorders and miseries,” of the “alternate domination of one faction over another.” In short, what makes Trump dangerous is not just his willingness to feed his illiberal impulses, but that his rise to power coincides with a particularly opportune moment in history for an autocrat to grab power.
Trump did not happen over night, nor did he lay the groundwork for our current authoritarian slide. The advent of technology has uprooted the world economy and created echo-chambers where facts are easily hid or misrepresented. The massive shift in demographics across the globe has spurred anxiety and offered fuel to nationalist, xenophobic groups. An upswing in political partisanship and gridlock has left voters increasingly frustrated with our very form of government. Indeed, the platform President Washington described is upon us.
This is happening all across the globe. Twentieth-century democracy is being wed with 21st-century advances, and the result is just the sort of messiness and frustration that Washington warned of. People are losing faith in democracy. Polls show that while 75% of Americans born in 1930 said it is essential to live in a democracy, less than 30% of those born in 1980 say the same, and the results are consistent across the developed world. It is no surprise that nationalist, anti-democratic parties are thriving across Europe.
What Trump is offering us is a glimpse into how American-style authoritarianism works. There are no raids or murders. No coups or purges. Instead, institutions we see as legitimate—Congress, state legislatures, administrative agencies, courts—align in such a way that they fail to provide a check, and are willing to go along. Vast portions of the country see this happening in plain sight, and make their voices heard. But razor-thin majorities (or, more precisely, electoral majorities) are maintained through carefully-designed voter suppression and targeted reality distortion. The system is protected with rewards for allies and delegitimization campaigns and intimidation for critics.
The danger isn’t just that Trump—or a more competent authoritarian—can hang on to power longer than they otherwise deserve. Rather, the danger is that conditions are created that are hard to undo, and that the fruits of liberal democracy will be harder to obtain. Trump’s legitimization of lies, his crony-deals that allow right-wing media to dominate American households, his packing of courts with unqualified partisans–these are hard to undo. In turn, these conditions will allow savvy-minded people to drum-up scandals that don’t exist, to easily crush majority-support for a piece of legislation, to hide corruption.
Short of a sustained resistance, this could be our future for decades to come.
The United States is ripe for authoritarianism, and the first pages of a very dangerous chapter of history are being written. If decades from now we can look at this point as just a blip in the road, it won’t be because the long-term sustainability of our democracy wasn’t truly in danger, but because a vigorous resistance stopped Trump before it was too late.