Views My Own

I Study Authoritarian Despots, and Trump Is Borrowing a Lot of Their Tactics

It doesn't mean Trump is a despot or will become one. But it does mean we should worry.

by Brian Klaas
Jan 30 2017, 7:10pm

The media is constantly "condemning and providing false information again, with some truths omitted, some issues exaggerated, and some news reported without scrutiny."

That's not a quote from Trump administration talking head Kellyanne Conway on FOX News. It's a statement given by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand's military junta, in September 2014. And yet, those words have been repeated daily—almost verbatim—by the new administration, from Conway, to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and even from Donald Trump himself.

In the first ten days of his tumultuous and controversial presidency, Trump has borrowed five key aspects—willfully or not—from the playbook used by despots. His early strategies and style mimic authoritarian governance around the world—strategies I've seen firsthand in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. This does not mean that Trump is a despot or will become one. But it does mean we should worry.

First, in order to roll back democratic checks, despots must blur the lines between truth and falsehood. This makes it difficult to ascertain who to trust in times of crisis. Throughout history, this graying of truth often starts on trivial matters, particularly on issues that surround the cult of personality associated with the leader. Trump did not disappoint; his administration's first press event as president was an aggressive and angry assertion of falsehoods related to his inaugural crowd size. Like many despots, Trump is unable to accept popular narratives that challenges his standing as the man of the people.

This blurring of the truth becomes dangerous when real crises break out. If China makes a claim about the South China Sea and Trump makes the opposite claim, how can Americans—or American allies—trust the White House? After all, if Trump's team lies about an easily disproved claim where citizens can simply look at side-by-side photos, what about statements that aren't easily verifiable with photographs?

And yet, in spite of these risks, despots thrive on this uncertainty. Blurring that line between fact and falsehood dilutes critiques and ensures that citizens question the nature of truth itself.

Second, but relatedly, Trump is doing what despots do best—attacking the media for accurate reporting. At CIA headquarters, Trump called the media "among the most dishonest human beings on earth." He tweeted that the media was the "opposition party." Kellyanne Conway has suggested that journalists who "talk smack" should be fired. And perhaps most famously, Trump has called CNN and the New York Times "fake news." With some different names, these developments read a lot like the early stages of a war on the media in Turkey, where President Erdogan has relentlessly attacked journalists. Trump is not yet going nearly as far as Erdogan, who jails journalists, but the preliminary logic is the same— an attempt to undermine the credibility of those who hold power to account.

Third, Trump has repeatedly cast aspersions on the integrity of American elections, falsely claiming that 3 million people voted illegally. Remarkably, this is a reversal of a tactic often used by despots. Typically, despots rig elections and lie to say they were clean. Trump won an election that was not rigged—at least not in terms of voter fraud or the electoral process itself—and then claimed it was rigged against him. However, there is a method to his madness. In Côte d'Ivoire, I saw the violent fallout from politicized claims that foreigners illegally voted in droves. That claim was used as a pretext to disenfranchise citizens, robbing the opposition of an electoral path to victory.

Trump's administration and the people surrounding it have already suggested that they will "strengthen" voting procedures, in a way that makes it more difficult for some people to vote (most likely minorities and poorer citizens who have a harder time complying with new rules like being required to produce photo ID at the polls). Furthermore, denigrating the electoral process is an important way for despots to downplay election results that hint at any semblance of unpopularity. Trump's claim that he would have won the popular vote without illegal voting reeks of this strategy. Without that long-term goal, his attempt to undermine public confidence in his own victory makes no sense.

Fourth, and perhaps most sinister, Trump is already politicizing national security and using the "rally around the flag" effect to erode rights. Over the weekend, Trump banned immigrants, refugees, and even legal residents from seven Muslim-majority countries. Nobody from these countries has committed a major terrorist attack on the United States in the past 15 years. Indeed, countries that have produced most of the terrorists that have attacked Americans in America are exempted from the ban. But Trump's rhetoric around this policy is aimed at suggesting that anyone who opposes him is unpatriotic and opposed to the goal of American security. This tactic is as old as despotism itself, and has been used recently from Turkey to the Philippines to Tunisia to roll back democratic rights and institute draconian measures aimed at consolidating power.

Trump is currently using this tactic to allegedly protect Americans from foreign threats. But it is fair to wonder what will happen if a terrorist attack occurs from within the United States on his watch: Will American Muslims be his next target?

Furthermore, Trump is also politicizing national security decision-making in an unprecedented fashion. Steve Bannon, the Breitbart media mogul who has become Trump's chief strategist, has been added to the National Security Council. Simultaneously, the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—people with real military and national security expertise—have been downgraded and are now attending only when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed." Democracy is weakened when partisan politics is injected into national security advising.

Fifth, and finally, Trump is moving at such a rapid pace of change that normal citizens can't keep up. Policy changes are deliberately being obscured by a constant stream of tweets, executive orders, television interviews, press conferences, and outbursts. This deluge has a clear purpose, and one often used to autocrats: It forces the opposition to narrowly pick their battles. Already, Democrats wary at the threat of unqualified cabinet appointees have decided to only focus on a few choice picks to block. People like me, who care most about democratic institutions, become less concerned by major policy shifts because they seem minuscule and irrelevant by comparison to threats to democracy itself. Trump is a master of this strategy, often floating "trial balloons" of extreme policy ideas, only to walk them back and look like he's compromising. 

He combined the second and fifth strategies most recently, suggesting that he would move the White House press corps out of the White House only to capitulate—and claim credit for doing something that literally every modern president has taken as given.

To be clear, Trump is a democratically elected leader who is subject to democratic oversight and the rule of law. He is not a despot. But if American democracy were to slide toward authoritarianism, the first ten days of that process would look a lot like the ten days we just witnessed. It's time to remind ourselves that the Constitution and democratic institutions are not self-enforcing magical documents: They are only as strong as those who fight for them during times of distress.  

Dr. Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.