Credit Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty
Over Thanksgiving, I read up on some history: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Berlusconi, Putin—“Strong Men 101.” I’d been meaning to do this for a while, and my resolve was strengthened after coming across an article on the risks of democratic erosion by Jeff Colgan, a political scientist at Brown University, who warned, “In light of Donald Trump’s illiberal tendencies, we have to take seriously the (unlikely) possibility that democracy and rule of law could weaken in the United States.” To help guard against this possibility, Colgan offered up ten “warning signs of democratic breakdown.” They included attacks and restrictions on the press, vilification of foreigners and minorities, the intimidation of legislators, and the use of crises to justify emergency security measures.
Colgan isn’t the only one worried. If my Twitter and Facebook feeds are anything to go by, many Americans and non-Americans are convinced that Trump’s victory heralds the imposition of Putinesque authoritarianism, and maybe even full-blown fascism. Such concerns are understandable. During the Presidential campaign, Trump casually incited violence; promised to “lock up” his Democratic opponent; refused to release his tax returns; gave a dystopian Convention speech in which he promised to restore “order”; proposed banning Muslims from entering the country and reinstituting the use of torture on terrorism suspects; and vilified his opponents and critics. And what of today? Trump is surrounding himself with sycophants, ranting on Twitter about how he really won the popular vote (he did not), and boasting that the federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to him.
Bad as it is, this doesn’t mean that Trump is Hitler, Mussolini, or even Putin. He’s Trump; but that, in itself, presents a real danger. Everything about him suggests that when he enters the White House he will continue gleefully transgressing democratic norms, berating his opponents, throwing out blatant falsehoods, and seeking to exploit his position for personal gain. That’s what he does. If anything, the isolation and pressures of the Oval Office might further warp his ego and exaggerate his dictatorial tendencies. Surrounded by yes-men, he could well be tempted to try and expand his powers, especially when things go wrong, as they inevitably do at some point in any Presidency.
The big unknown isn’t what Trump will do: his pattern of behavior is clear. It is whether the American political system will be able to deal with the unprecedented challenge his election presents, and rein him in. Especially with a single party controlling the executive and the legislative branches, there is no immediately reassuring answer to this question.
History, as always, is less a guide than a series of warnings. Fascism was built on the ruins of the First World War, the collapse of the interwar economy, and the failure of democratic political systems to come to terms with these catastrophes. Fascists were also able to exploit a widespread antipathy toward democracy in important institutions, such as the military, the government bureaucracy, and big business organizations. To some extent, Hitler and Mussolini were pushing on an open door. When the ultimate crisis arose, the German and Italian establishments persuaded themselves that they could bring the enemies of democracy into government and hem them in. Of course, once the fanatics gained control of the state apparatus, or parts of it, they used it to consolidate power and eliminate their opponents and erstwhile allies.
The United States, thank goodness, isn’t Weimar Germany or early-twentieth-century Italy. The country hasn’t been invaded, the economy has grown for seven years in a row, and the commitment to democracy is deeply rooted. All this suggests that what we know as the American system is unlikely to be felled in one blow.
The real danger, as Colgan and others have pointed out, is that we will witness a gradual uprooting of the system’s foundations. Broadly speaking, this is what we have witnessed in Russia and Turkey during the past fifteen years. When Putin was elected, in 2000, following a decade of chaos, he claimed a mandate to restore order. It was only over time that he concentrated power in his hands, harassed and imprisoned his opponents, and cracked down on many forms of dissent. Using a rationalization for repressive measures that dates back at least to the French Revolution, the Russian President cited national-security imperatives, such as the need to confront Chechen terrorism.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected President of Turkey in 2002, presents a somewhat different trajectory. In the early years of his rule, Western governments hailed him as a conservative democrat and modernizer. Gradually, though, he began to exert control over much of the military, the judiciary, and the press. Following a failed coup attempt in July of this year, he introduced a state of emergency and launched a nationwide crackdown on his opponents and his perceived opponents. Thousands of people were arrested, more than a hundred media publications were shut down, and tens of thousands of public employees were purged from government agencies.
Thankfully, the United States isn’t Russia or Turkey, either. On his first day in office, Trump is unlikely to ban protests or abolish a suspect’s Miranda rights. Other dangers loom, however, beginning with how he runs the Justice Department and other key agencies. He has said that his nominee for attorney general will be Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, a loyalist and a supporter of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Trump reportedly has not decided whether to replace James Comey as the F.B.I. director. An eagerness to assert control over the police and intelligence services is often a sign of trouble ahead. It will be up to Congress, the courts, and senior-agency staff members to resist any such efforts, but they will also need public support in their efforts.
Then there is the issue of how Trump will deal with the press, which, for all its faults, remains a bulwark of American democracy. As he showed last week during his interview with the Times, the President-elect can butter up the Fourth Estate when he wants to. But, as he demonstrated during the campaign, he is also perfectly willing to attack journalists personally, boycott shows that run segments he doesn’t like, and bar entire news organizations from covering him. Through his Twitter and Facebook accounts, he has a personal “fake news” network with enormous reach, which he can use to circumvent the mainstream media. And in Steve Bannon, his former campaign C.E.O. and now chief strategist, he has a skilled and unscrupulous propagandist.
“Trump sailed to the presidency on … lies and exaggerations, and there’s no reason to think he’ll discover a new commitment to the truth as president,” Stephen Walt, the Harvard foreign-policy realist, writes in a new article at Foreign Policy. “The American people cannot properly judge his performance without accurate and independent information, and that’s where a free and adversarial press is indispensable.” Will the press be up to the challenge? The early signs are mixed.
Thirdly, and most urgently, there is a question of what to do about Trump’s business empire, and the glaring set of conflicts of interest that it represents. A couple of weeks ago, I argued that kleptocracy, rather than autocracy, is the most immediate threat. Since then, a number of ethics specialists and law professors from both parties have called on Trump to sell all of his businesses and place the proceeds in a blind trust. If he doesn’t do this, some of them say, he will be in violation of the emoluments clause in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 9), which bars Presidents from taking payments of any kind from foreign states.
But who will hold Trump to account if he fails to reduce his business entanglements? Richard Painter, a former counsel in the Bush Administration, has argued that the Electoral College, which will vote on December 19th, should refuse to choose Trump if he doesn’t agree to obey the Constitution. Right now, that seems unlikely to happen, Most likely, the task of persuading, or forcing, Trump to distance himself from his business interests will fall upon the next Congress, which will convene in early January. But, of course, both legislative chambers will be under the control of the Republicans. And so far the Grand Old Party, under the guidance of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, has shown no enthusiasm for standing up to Trump, instead intimating that, with its assistance, he will make a fine President.
Which brings us back to the darkest of histories. Referring to Franz von Papen, the conservative German politician who, in January, 1933, persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Hans-Joachim Voth, an economic historian at the University of Zurich, wrote recently, “the Republican leadership sounds awfully like former Vice Chancellor von Papen and friends. They famously thought of Hitler as the ‘drummer’—a populist whose appeal was useful to them but could be controlled easily.”
By their nature, populist authoritarians aren’t easily managed. “Autocracy is coming,” Voth went on to warn. “Something somewhere between Putin and Berlusconi, if we are lucky; something worse if we are unlucky.” That view, it should be acknowledged, represents a pessimistic reading of the situation. But proving Voth wrong will fall on American democracy, the institutions that claim to embody it, and the people who say they value it.