The words “authoritarian regime” or “dictatorship” perhaps call to mind Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” or George Orwell’s fictional 1984. Yet some Americans may still have trouble seeing the authoritarian tactics on display today from President Donald Trump.
As the country erupts in anti-police-brutality protests, Trump’s response has been to double down on the use of state-sanctioned violence. On May 29, Twitter — concerned that one of the president’s tweets about shooting looters could incite violence — took the unprecedented step of hiding a tweet from the official White House account. By Saturday, Trump was threatening to use “the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests” to control protesters. The president followed up on this threat of force on June 1: In a chilling Rose Garden address, Trump told state governors that they “must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.” He then threatened to send in military troops — without governors’ consent — if they did not.
While the president was addressing the nation in the Rose Garden, officers were firing rubber bullets and tear gas on a crowd of peaceful protesters outside the White House. The officers had been ordered to clear Lafayette Square in preparation for Trump’s post-speech photo op.
Additionally, the president and his staff have — without evidence — complained that the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death are led by outside leftist agitators. In response, Trump and Attorney General William Barr have declared that they will treat antifa (short for anti-fascist) as a terrorist organization. This move by Barr and Trump is particularly dangerous given that antifa is not a well-defined organization, but rather a nebulous political movement of anti-fascists. Declaring antifa members “terrorists” opens the door for Barr or Trump to trample on the civil liberties of an ill-defined group of political opponents.
Moreover, as the COVID-19 death toll exceeds 100,000 in the U.S. and the infection rate is more than 1.8 million, the president’s response has only become more autocratic.
Earlier, when the death toll topped 22,000, Trump threatened to override governors’ stay-at-home orders, claiming that the federal government “has absolute power” over the states. As the death toll reached 45,000, the president threatened to suspend immigration into the United States.
As the death toll climbed above 47,000, Trump fired Rick Bright, the scientist in charge of the federal government’s effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Bright refused to support the use of hydroxychloroquine — the president’s preferred COVID-19 treatment.
As the death toll surpassed 67,000 Trump barred members of the coronavirus task force, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, from testifying before the house on its activities.
As the United States reached the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths, Trump threatened to “close down” social media companies after Twitter fact-checked the president’s claims about mail-in voting.
Despite Trump’s well-documented failures to take early or sufficient action against COVID-19, a recent polling analysis from FiveThirtyEight demonstrates that the president’s May approval rating — currently sitting at 43 percent — is roughly equivalent to what it was before the pandemic.
For some, this style of governance perhaps appears merely embarrassing when compared to that of Germany’s Adolf Hitler or Italy’s Benito Mussolini.
However, in this time of crisis, it is more imperative than ever that Americans recognize the threat Trump and his Republican colleagues pose to democracy. Americans cannot allow them to use the twin crises of COVID-19 and recent anti-police brutality protests to further consolidate power.
As a political scientist, I study how constitutional democracies can backslide into authoritarianism.
Around the fall of the Soviet Union, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the type of brutal authoritarianism associated with leaders like Joseph Stalin became much less common.
Post-Cold War governments in places as diverse as Cambodia, Kenya, Peru and Ukraine understood that they would need to pretend to be democracies if they wanted to have a favorable relationship with the world’s only remaining superpower, the United States. As a result, a new type of hybrid government was born: competitive authoritarianism.
Today, countries like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are considered by political scientists to be “competitive” because their leaders are still chosen by an election. All three countries also have constitutions.
However, these regimes also exhibit some hallmarks of traditional “authoritarian” governments. For example, Erdoğan has been criticized for jailing journalists and violating the human rights of Kurds. Likewise, Maduro ensured that his most popular political opponent was disqualified from Venezuela’s 2018 presidential race.
Rulers of competitive authoritarian regimes also frequently rig economic and political systems for their own benefit. Putin is estimated to have amassed between $60 and $200 billion in wealth since rising to power in Russia.
COVID-19 now provides authoritarian leaders around the world the opportunity to consolidate more power. Hungary’s parliament recently passed a bill that gives its autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decree and arrest anyone spreading “fake news” for the duration of the crisis.
Certainly, Trump and his Republican supporters are not Hitler or Mussolini, but they share some striking similarities with more modern autocrats like Erdoğan or Orbán.
Like other autocrats, the U.S. president has used the power of the state to harass political opponents.
On Mother’s Day, Trump unleashed a tweet storm about “Obamagate” — a right-wing conspiracy theory alleging that President Barack Obama orchestrated the Russia investigation with the sole purpose of discrediting the Trump administration. Trump further implied that investigations into the Obama administration — and presumably Joe Biden — would be forthcoming.
Trump has also habitually attacked blue state governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Washington’s Jay Inslee, claiming that they are weaponizing coronavirus against him.
An unwillingness for the American president to listen to blue state governors represents a real danger for citizens living in those states. Trump continues to support anti-lockdown protesters in blue states, and demands a general reopening of the economy. Hypocritically, he expects states to reopen without sufficient personal protective equipment and testing at the same time that the White House is using an extensive test-and-trace program on West Wing employees.
The president has also used the COVID-19 crisis as another opportunity to discredit the free press.
A Washington Post analysis of Trump’s first six weeks of COVID-19 briefings revealed that he spent over two hours attacking political opponents and the media, and attacked someone personally in 113 out of 346 questions he was asked. By comparison, he only spent a total of four and a half minutes expressing condolences for the victims of COVID-19.
Trump further suggested that The New York Times should be sued for libel for its coverage of his coronavirus response. Using defamation laws to silence political dissent is a common practice in countries like Morocco, Thailand and Burma.
The president’s constant refrain that the press is the “enemy of the people” is even more disturbing in light of reports that at least a dozen journalists were injured while covering protests last weekend. In several instances, journalists reported being harassed by police even after they had displayed their press credentials. In one chilling instance, a police officer in Louisville, Kentucky, pointed a gun filled with pepper bullets directly at a local TV reporter. A CNN crew was also arrested on air. The harassment of journalists trying to cover protests is common in authoritarian regimes and represents a serious threat to the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.
Further, like a Russian oligarch, Trump has attempted to use his office to enrich himself and his cronies. He used the power of his office to expand Trump properties overseas and benefit his son-in-law’s real estate business.
Democrats agreed to pass a $2 trillion stimulus package only after Republicans agreed to add oversight to the $500 billion the bill allocates for corporate bailouts. Senate Republicans were also forced to add a provision that businesses owned by current government employees (including Trump) could not benefit from the bailout money.
Trump then issued a signing statement to the bill essentially arguing that oversight mechanisms provided in the bill are an illegitimate encroachment on executive power and do not need to be respected by his administration.
At the end of April, Congress passed an additional $484 billion in stimulus to boost the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aimed at protecting small business.
Recently, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer raised oversight concerns when it was revealed that Trump donor and luxury hotel owner Monty Bennett received $70 million from the fund. Bennett agreed to return the money, but serious concerns remain regarding how the money from the PPP program has been allocated.
Modern authoritarianism doesn’t announce itself with death camps and killing fields. It creeps up suddenly, with constraints on the freedom of the press, attacks on opposition leaders and a slow corruption of the laws. The first step to remaining vigilant in this time of crisis is to recognize the Trump administration’s and Republicans’ actions for what they are.