As the 2016 presidential elections neared, a growing chorus of critics accused Trump of possessing traits of a burgeoning authoritarian. What was dismissed as alarmist political rhetoric has proven to be a dark prophecy.
Clues of Trump’s authoritarian disposition came to light during the presidential campaign when he used his bully pulpit to engage in demagoguery soaked in race bating. While Muslims were the most frequent targets of his divisive rhetoric, he also perpetuated negative stereotypes of women and racial minorities. As a result, Trump’s supporters were emboldened to attack African Americans, Muslims, women, and Latinos at campaign rallies.
Rather than unite the country, Trump’s rhetoric validated the Alt-Right’s mantra that to be a white nationalist is to be an American patriot.
Despite his regressive, anti-pluralist stances, Trump was given a pass; because after all, it is an American tradition for the gloves to come off during elections. But once candidates win office, they are expected to transform into more responsible representatives.
Trump the president, however, has proven to be worse than Trump the candidate.
Upon taking office, he issued an executive order excluding millions of people from entering the country based solely on their religious identity, including Syrian refugees seeking refuge from persecution. This was the work of his top White House advisors Mike Flynn, Steven Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka who brazenly impose their far-right agenda on American policy. When then Acting Attorney General Sally Yates – who had not been consulted on the executive order in contravention of standard procedure - refused to enforce what was effectively a Muslim ban on constitutional grounds, Trump immediately fired her.
When the courts stayed Trump’s executive order, he attacked federal judges and challenged the legitimacy of their rulings. His reckless disregard for the role of courts as a check on the executive plants seeds of doubt in the minds of his populist base about the legitimacy of the judiciary. Over the long run, faithlessness in our justice system can have devastating effects. Rather than resolve disputes peacefully in courts they trust, people take justice into their own hands through vigilantism - a common problem in nations without rule of law.
When the media criticized his policies, Trump vilified media outlets by name, accused them of publishing fake news, and retaliated by excluding journalists from White House briefings. Rather than accept that with freedom of the press comes critical coverage of political leadership, Trump took the criticism as a personal affront.
The personalization of politics is another trait commonly found in authoritarians. Disagreement is seen as a threat to power, which then triggers retaliation against political opponents and civil society. To shield themselves from criticism, authoritarians hire those who are loyal over those who are competent; starting with members of their family. Hence the hiring of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law as senior advisors despite their lack of subject matter expertise or political experience.
Once Trump is viewed through the prism of authoritarianism, his request for FBI director James Comey to pledge his loyalty is unsurprising. Nor is it unusual for Trump to coerce his top security officials to drop investigations into the Trump campaign’s suspicious relationship with another authoritarian ruling Russia. And what does an authoritarian figure do when his FBI director refuses to shut down the investigation? He swiftly eliminates him.
Fortunately, in contrast to other authoritarian leaders, Trump is surrounded by robust institutions that will not allow him to destroy our liberal democracy so easily. This is why Comey and Yates were fired instead of hauled off to jail under trumped up charges. This is also why the judiciary was able to rebuke the unconstitutional ban on Muslims.
The latest challenge to Trump’s authoritarianism came when Congress appointed the former FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Bush appointee, to serve as special counsel for the investigation into Trump’s role, if any, with Russian interference in the US presidential elections. True to form, Trump turned to Twitter to portray himself as a victim of a politicized witch hunt. Rather than instruct the tens of millions of in his populist base to respect the rule of law, he is intentionally undermining it.
If the past is indicative of the future, Trump is likely to take every opportunity to weaken the legitimacy of the investigation. In his trademark combative and impulsive style, he will fire, attack, and defame those who are not undyingly loyal to him. In the process, he will destabilize the institutions that shield us from his authoritarian administration.
To be sure, the United States is a long way from becoming an authoritarian state. But this is more due to the strength of our institutions, civil society, and courts than the behavior of our current president.
The past 100 days have put the American people on notice that an aspiring dictator has occupied the White House.
Whether we preserve the institutions and rule of law that “make America great” will determine whether the country will remain a liberal democracy or change course toward authoritarianism - a course that may be irreversible if left unchecked.
Sahar F. Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She previously served as a Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She is the author of Military Electoral Authoritarianism in Egypt.