The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has given a man with clear authoritarian tendencies the keys to the White House. During his presidential campaign Trump repeatedly showcased a strongman leadership style in which he bullied opponents, openly praised autocrats like Vladimir Putin, stoked passions by peddling conspiracy theories, and called on the United States to embrace a nativism that scapegoats minorities, Muslims, immigrants, and outsiders.
But just how great is this danger of authoritarianism? And how would it manifest itself? After all, Americans are proud of their democracy and not likely to quickly give up on elections, courts, or the Bill of Rights. The United States has a vibrant media, civil society, academy, and party system, and there are no plans underfoot to replace the Constitution.
One way to anticipate what Trump’s no-holds-barred style may bring to the United States is to look abroad. A number of constitutional democracies from Turkey to the Philippines have recently turned towards leaders with a taste for authoritarianism. In fact, perhaps the clearest parallels of the types of tactics Trump might use come from the world’s largest democracy, India, where in the face of violence in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and sharp criticism of his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently imposed something akin to Emergency rule in the country without ever actually declaring an Emergency.
Taken together, the set of strategies used by leaders abroad like Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, or Duterte in the Philippines constitute a type of authoritarian playbook. Worryingly, Trump has already threatened to use many of these tactics. What makes these strategies so insidious is that they are generally not unconstitutional or illegal. Instead, these tactics rely on the large amounts of discretion modern constitutions give to the executive. This discretion is frequently restricted not by laws, but by a set of norms and traditions about what constitutes acceptable executive action. If a leader is willing to undercut these norms, they can effectively shrink the space of dissent. Even though these actions may do immense damage to the social fabric of democracy, since they are legal, there is little courts can do to oppose them.
Five of the most common such tactics include:
1. Politicizing the prosecution of political opponents. In countries like India, it is not uncommon for politicians in power, or their allies, to bring cases against opposition politicians. Even if a court ultimately dismisses these charges, these prosecutions drain the resources of one’s opponents and cast them under a veil of suspicion. Trump’s declared intent to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue a criminal investigation against Hillary Clinton and “lock her up” over her email server fits this pattern. It is not a stretch to imagine that Trump will use politicized investigations or prosecutions against political opponents in the future.
2. Selective application of the law to the media and civil society. In India, Narendra Modi’s government has audited civil-society organizations critical of his government for their taxes or for not complying with regulations around accepting foreign funding. Such actions keep these organizations on the defensive and undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public. Similar selective application of the law to shut down critics could also be used in the United States. Indeed, after being angered by the Washington Post’s coverage of his campaign, Trump threatened he would order the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to bring an antitrust action against Amazon in retaliation (both the Post and Amazon are owned by Jeff Bezos).
3. The use of libel laws to attack critics. Even before running for office, Trump was involved in a number of libel actions and he says he will bring litigation against the women who accused him of sexual assault during the campaign. Peter Thiel, who helped fund the lawsuit that ultimately bankrupted Gawker, is one of his primary supporters. Even if Trump ultimately loses the libel cases he brings, the threat of prolonged and expensive litigation can silence both those who wish to speak out about Trump’s less savory behavior and the media outlets that dare to report such stories.
4. Undercutting non-partisan government institutions. After a recent coup attempt earlier this year in Turkey, President Erdoğan replaced thousands of civil servants with loyalists. The Turkish example is dramatic, but leaders can also more gradually undermine the non-partisanship of the state. For instance, in June the Reserve Bank of India’s well-respected leader Raghuram Rajan was forced into resigning by the Modi government after he expressed concern over rising intolerance in the country.
In the United States, there are many non-partisan positions to which Trump might appoint loyalists or attempt to push out those who do not toe the line—this might be in the Department of Justice, FBI, Federal Reserve, or even the judiciary. Trump has already expressed a desire to “fire” the country’s top generals, which he legally could do, thereby turning the military into a partisan entity and reducing its ability to act as a check on Trump’s potentially extreme or dangerous orders.
5. Silence in the face of violence. Perhaps, however, the most powerful discretionary tool of an authoritarian-inclined leader is not any specific action, but rather his or her silence or inaction in the face of violence or intimidation undertaken in their name. In India, Modi has effectively sat on the sidelines when allies in the media like Arnab Goswami of Times Now (think Sean Hannity on steroids) have branded rights advocates and critical journalists as “anti-national,” or when Muslims have been attacked in the name of the Hindutva ideology that aided his rise to power.
In the United States, we have already seen minorities, journalists, and university spaces attacked in the name of “Making America Great Again.” The dramatic rise in hate incidents and crimes since the election has been startling in its breadth. Trump did not order these attacks, but in refusing to clearly condemn them and continuing to scapegoat minorities, he encourages more such crimes. In a constitutional democracy extreme elements of the public can frequently do far more to intimidate and wear down critics than the government itself. Authoritarian-minded leaders know this and use it to their advantage.
The above is not an exhaustive list of strategies. There are many others, including tactics that are illegal, but difficult to detect—such as leaking damaging secrets about political opponents (Trump, after all, will now have access to the most sophisticated intelligence agencies ever created).
Trump is not Modi or Erdoğan, or, as some suggest, Hitler—each of whom themselves sit on a wide spectrum of authoritarianism. Trump’s leadership will have its own pathologies that reflect the man and his context. We should not be surprised, though, to see him use any of the strategies discussed here, and should anticipate their potentially long-term effects: they may not only allow him to stay in power for far longer than four years, but could also do irreparable damage to the country’s political fabric and create an environment in which future American presidents may feel less constrained to use these tactics themselves.
We now need to find ways to defend our democratic institutions. Concerned citizens should support (financially or otherwise) civil society organizations and independent journalists, who will play a critical watchdog role in the Trump era. Meanwhile, lawyers and judges have a special responsibility to make sure they are not coopted into providing a veneer of legality and legitimacy to actions that directly undermine our constitutional order.
Significantly, we will also need strong allies within government and the bureaucracy who will put the country and its institutions above their own personal self-interest. For example, when President Richard Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor who had subpoenaed him to turn over his Oval Office tapes, his Attorney General resigned. The Attorney General’s deputy then also resigned instead of carrying out Nixon’s orders. These resignations helped shift public opinion in favor of Nixon’s impeachment.
There is a pattern to the strategies authoritarian-leaning leaders use in constitutional democracies. Americans should learn from these tactics and start preparing to respond to them.
Nick Robinson is a Robina Foundation Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School.
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