According to Freedom House, the United States has experienced the most severe ten-year period of decline in political rights and civil liberties of any free country around the world. Where once the United States ranked at roughly the same level as Germany or Great Britain, it now keeps company with flawed systems like Croatia and Italy, and trails behind such new democracies as Taiwan and Estonia.
America may have had the world’s most dynamic political system, but today it suffers from deficits arising from expressions of its political DNA, including those driven by racial inequality. Other problems are of more recent vintage, but still predate the Trump presidency. This is painfully the case with the steady deterioration of our electoral system, highlighted by voter suppression laws, pinpoint gerrymandering, foreign and domestic manipulation, and the massive amount of money spent on elections.
Then there are those problems that Trump himself created or made worse: corruption at high levels, a consistent stream of lies and misinformation, blatant politicization of the justice system, migrant children ripped from their parents, nonstop condemnation of the media, data falsification, census manipulation, vendettas against whistleblowers, gross mishandling of the pandemic, tax scandals, and on and on. Just within the last week, he sank to new lows with his unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transfer of power or to repudiate white nationalists.
Until now, those distressed by Trump’s hostility to the laws, customs, and individuals that stand in his way have been consoled by the likelihood of reelection failure. The polls continue to vindicate their optimism, but by narrowing margins.
If Trump should somehow eke out a victory—or steal one—America would confront the likelihood that the president’s war against democratic standards, a campaign that has gained impetus over the past year, will be prosecuted with renewed vigor. Trump has already made clear that he regards the liberal institutions that check executive power as obstacles to be dispensed with and those who defend them as enemies to be sidelined or crushed.
In this, Trump can look to ready-made templates that have guided the actions of some of his favorite strongmen: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan. These men have built virtual one-party, or one-person, states through methods that are technically legal, fortified by near-total media and judicial domination, and sustained by a mafia-like economy in which the leader, his family, his cronies, and his oligarch supporters control the commanding heights.
There are obvious differences between American conditions and Russia, Hungary, and Turkey. In those countries, democracy was new, fragile, and weak—barely even tried in the case of Russia—and thus easy prey for ambitious demagogues. Putin, Orbán, and Erdoğan all have finely-tuned political antennas, a reservoir of patience, and impressive self-discipline. The transformation to autocracy in these countries did not occur overnight. In each case, it took years to bring each country’s liberal—or semi-liberal—institutions to heel and neutralize the political opposition.
Another difference is that most modern autocrats come from political systems where term limits don’t exist or where, as in Russia, the term-limit tradition was weak and easily subject to “reform.” Trump has made noises about the need to abolish the two-term rule, but chances of his crossing that bridge are remote.
But Trump still has an agenda to fulfill: immigrants to deport, walls to build, deep state enemies to identify and purge, and corrupt pockets to fill. And where Trump moved cautiously during his first three years, during the past year he has ramped up efforts to weaken or neutralize liberal institutions and place his own loyalists in key positions in traditionally nonpartisan agencies. It is no coincidence that much of this has occurred after the Senate in February declined to convict him in the impeachment process. He clearly did not learn any lessons from that experience, as some had naively hoped, but instead felt vindicated, and unrestrained.
Instead of the illiberal state that Orbán has attained in Hungary, Trump would seek enough changes in the American system to achieve something approaching permanent minority rule. The building blocks of such a system would include manipulation of the electoral system, support of a politicized judiciary, and a propaganda offensive that would paint the opposition as radical, anti-American socialists and insinuate oblique messages about the consequences of demographic change.
In a second Trump administration, the leading indicators of democratic backsliding would be:
Media Capture: In every country where strongman rule has won out, control over the media has been a sine quo non. Orbán inherited a diverse and vibrant press environment after his 2010 election. Step by step, he gained control of Hungarian news outlets until today political domination of the media is as concentrated as it is in Putin’s Russia or Maduro’s Venezuela. Soon after assuming the presidency in Russia 20 years ago, Putin took over two independent television stations, the main means by which most Russians got their news back then.
Under current conditions, gaining control of the American press would be almost impossible given our commitment to private ownership and the sacrosanct status of the First Amendment. To be sure, a national media permanently divided along polarized ideological lines is not an appealing prospect. But it ensures that no one personality or party can gain the kind of near-total domination that Putin, Orbán, and other autocrats enjoy.
If outright media capture is not a viable option, more modest goals are within Trump’s grasp. He already commands something of a party press in Fox News, Breitbart, and talk radio. In the past, the conservative media were united in their antipathy towards liberal figures like Obama. Today, the hard-right press is mobilized around the program and personality of the president. Add to this Trump’s expressed desire to establish his own loyal media empire along the lines of One America News, and you have press with a large and loyal audience in Red State America, a vast echo chamber with commentators vying for the chief’s approval.
There is another strategy that presents more cause for concern: taming the liberal press through a concerted campaign of libel and slander suits. True, the United States is unique in the legal obstacles to libel action brought by public figures. But Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have shown a fondness for smashing liberal legal traditions, and Trump has made threats of using libel as a cudgel against critics. The First Amendment notwithstanding, with the media’s standing at low ebb and some curious decisions from Trump-appointed justices, a successful drive to recalibrate America’s commitment to freedom of speech can’t be ruled out.
Voter Suppression and Electoral Chaos: The Republican Party has sought to dilute the vote of blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants for over a decade. While a minority of states have adopted voter ID laws, some of those that have are presidential battleground contests. The importance to Republican strategy of suppressing the minority vote was illustrated by the Florida law that essentially undid a referendum that restored the franchise to convicted felons after their prison term was completed. All this coincided with a bipartisan, and much overdue, movement to restore civil rights to ex-felons.
A more sinister development has been the drumbeat of presidential warnings about the rigged nature of the election. To the combination of a pandemic and an upsurge in mail balloting, the president has added the specter of undocumented immigrants voting en masse and repeated warnings of fraud all meant to sow doubts in voters’ minds and pave the way for an outcome that, in Trump’s calculations, will seem to be so tangled as to demand a Supreme Court resolution.
Rule by Law: While both parties choose ideological loyalists to the Supreme Court and the lower federal bench, only Trump has personalized the process. Trump’s branding of judges as being “Obama” or “Clinton” judges earned him a rebuke from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts—but did not stop Trump from engaging in such rhetoric. Attorney General Barr has made clear all prosecutorial decisions lie with him, not with career officials. In Hungary and more recently in Poland, domination of the judiciary has been a primary objective of illiberal parties. In Russia, “telephone justice,” in which judges receive their instructions via a call from the political authorities, is the norm in any case with even tangential political connections.
Loyalists in the Agencies: Every recent president has appointed loyalists to slots reserved for political appointees, but over the past year, Trump has moved expeditiously to weed out career government officials he deemed hostile or, more often, simply neutral. In their place, he has appointed unqualified loyalists, such as Richard Grenell, Alan Souza, John Ratcliffe. Perhaps no figure illustrates this troubling trend as much as Michael Caputo, who recently took medical leave from his position as assistant secretary of HHS for public affairs. The important feature of Caputo’s brief stint was his effort to distort or suppress the publication of crucial health indicators. The fact that he had absolutely no experience in matters of public health, not least in the midst of a pandemic, did not matter; he was a Trump loyalist. Tinkering with statistics is a phenomenon associated with countries like Venezuela under Maduro and Argentina under the Kirchners. That the United States is experiencing a similar phenomenon is beyond shocking.
Deepening Corruption: Despite his campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” corruption in the Trump administration and among its officials has taken on new heights. It has become so commonplace that Americans yawn when they hear the latest example of officials using government service for personal enrichment. We used to criticize leaders like the Aliyevs in Azerbaijan and Marcos in the Philippines for massive corruption. Now we hear about new cases of corruption in the U.S. on an almost daily basis, with the New York Times exposé on Trump’s avoidance—if not outright dereliction—of paying federal income taxes being the latest example. Equally important is the question of to whom Trump has hundreds of millions of loans due— and will that compromise Trump’s foreign or domestic policy decision-making?
Finally, watching events in Belarus where its longtime dictator Alexander Lukashenka has tried to steal an election and then launched a brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters bore eerie similarity to events at home. Trump has already demonstrated a readiness to unleash force against peaceful protesters (see June 1 in Lafayette Square). He has claimed that he could lose re-election only through massive fraud and is unwilling to pledge a peaceful transfer of power. Sadly, the phrase “that could never happen here” sounds less and less convincing.