10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator

Just because the United States is a democracy now, it doesn’t mean it will stay that way.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visits the model of the Oval Office at the Gerald Ford Presidential Musuem in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on September 30, 2016.  / AFP / Jewel SAMAD        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visits the model of the Oval Office at the Gerald Ford Presidential Musuem in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on September 30, 2016. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

There are good reasons to worry about how Donald Trump will handle foreign policy, but there are also reasons to think he won’t be any worse than some other administrations. The neoconservatives who dominated foreign-policy making in George W. Bush’s administration had lots of prior experience, God knows, and look at all the harm they did. My fears about Trump’s foreign policy have always been two-fold: that he might pursue a more sensible grand strategy but do it incompetently, thereby weakening America’s international position, or that he will eventually get co-opted by the foreign-policy establishment and repeat the Blob’s most familiar mistakes. Based on some of his early appointments — like Islamaphobe Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security advisor — we might even get the worst of both worlds: unrealistic goals pursued ineptly.

But if you live in the United States, what you should really worry about is the threat that Trump may pose to America’s constitutional order. His lengthy business career suggests he is a vindictive man who will go to extreme lengths to punish his opponents and will break a promise in a heartbeat and without remorse. The 2016 campaign confirmed that he has little respect for existing norms and rules — he refused to release his tax returns, lied repeatedly, claimed the electoral and political systems were “rigged” against him, threatened to jail his opponent if he won, among other such violations — and revealed his deep contempt for both his opponents and supporters. Nor does he regret any of the revolting things he did or said during the campaign, because, as he told the Wall Street Journal afterward, “I won.” For Trump, it seems, the ends really do justify the means.

To make matters worse, plenty of people in Trump’s camp appear to believe America is now under siege from a coalition of liberal elites, people of color, immigrants of all sorts, and shadowy foreign influences. They also understand demography is not on their side: The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections (Bush in 2004 was the exception), and the percentage of older white Americans that forms the GOP base will continue to decline. This situation will tempt some of them to use any and all means to hang on to power, justified by their (mistaken) belief that the country must be “saved” from all these alleged enemies.

Add to this mix Trump’s expressed admiration for “strong” leaders like Vladimir Putin, along with the penumbra of extremist advisors he has surrounded himself with, most notably white nationalist Steve Bannon, and you have a recipe for undermining democracy over time. Trump’s personal obsession with “winning” and his deep fear of humiliation make me wonder how he will react when his approval ratings sink, the bond market rebels, or when he isn’t able to deliver on his promises. Every president has faced sharp swings in popularity — this was true of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both Bushes, Barack Obama, and even Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Trump will be no exception. But when his approval ratings tank and even a Republican-controlled Congress refuses to give him everything he wants, will he trim the sails and adjust — as normal presidents do — or will he double down, lash out, and look for ways to insulate himself?

Public accountability is inherent to America’s constitutional system, but that doesn’t mean Trump won’t try to escape it. It’s not as if he doesn’t have role models for this sort of operation. In Russia, Putin has won a series of elections and retains high approval ratings, largely because he has eliminated, intimidated, or marginalized anyone who might challenge his control while feeding the Russian people a steady diet of pro-Kremlin propaganda. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done the same thing in Turkey, in part by exploiting rural conservatism but also by strangling the press and seizing every opportunity to arrest, threaten, coerce, or eliminate opponents and critics. You can see similar formulas at work in Hungary and in Poland, albeit to a lesser extent, and in the recently ended reign of Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who kept getting elected in Italy despite an abysmal record as prime minister and his own checkered history as a sexual predator.

These fears may strike many of you as alarmist, and it’s entirely possible that Trump will uphold his oath to defend the Constitution and stay within legal lines. But given his past conduct, expressed attitudes, and bomb-throwing advisors, I think there are valid reasons to think the constitutional order that has prevailed in the United States for more than two centuries could be in jeopardy. And that should worry all Americans. The constitutional reality never lived up to the Founding Fathers’ hopes and ideals, of course, but the system has had a self-correcting quality that has served the nation well. Equally important, the Constitution has helped the United States avoid the self-destructive excesses and extreme injustices that are common in authoritarian countries.

To repeat: I am not saying this dark scenario of subverted democracy is likely, only that it is far from impossible. Democracy has broken down in plenty of other countries, and there is no reason to think the United States is completely immune from this danger. For a good rundown of the political science literature on this topic, check out this useful list by Jeff Colgan of Brown University. The good news is that the United States doesn’t suffer from some of the traits that make democratic breakdowns more likely: It isn’t poor, its political institutions have been around for a long time, and it is not in the middle of a deep economic crisis. The bad news is that the United States has a presidential system (which appears to be more prone to this problem than parliamentary orders) and also one where executive authority has grown steadily over time. And we’ve never had a president remotely like this one.

Given what is at stake, one of the most important things we can all do is remain alert for evidence that Trump and those around him are moving in an authoritarian direction. For those who love America and its Constitution more than they love any particular political party or any particular politician, I offer as a public service my top 10 warning signs that American democracy is at risk.

1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media. 

As George Orwell emphasized so powerfully in 1984, autocrats survive by controlling information. A free, energetic, vigilant, and adversarial press has long been understood to be an essential guarantee of democratic freedoms, because without it, the people in whose name leaders serve will be denied the information they need to assess what the politicians are doing. Trump sailed to the presidency on a The Top of lies and exaggerations, and there’s no reason to think he’ll discover a new commitment to the truth as president. The American people cannot properly judge his performance without accurate and independent information, and that’s where a free and adversarial press is indispensable. If the Trump administration begins to enact policies designed to restrict freedom of the press, or just intimidate media organizations from offering critical coverage, it will be a huge (or if you prefer, yuge) warning sign.

What sort of steps do I have in mind? For starters, Trump has already proposed “opening up” libel laws so that public figures can sue the press more easily. This step would force publishers and editors to worry about costly and damaging lawsuits even if they eventually win them, and it would be bound to have a chilling effect on their coverage. Or he could try to use the regulatory power of the Federal Communications Commission to harass media organizations that were consistently critical. He could go even further than Obama did in pursuing government whistleblowers and leakers and in prosecuting journalists who use confidential sources. His administration could deny access to entire news organizations like the New York Times if they were too critical of Trump’s policies or just too accurate in documenting his failures. Just because the First Amendment guarantees free speech doesn’t mean some parts of the media can’t be stampeded into pulling punches or once again indulging in “false equivalence.”

2. Building an official pro-Trump media network. 

A second warning sign is a corollary of the first: While trying to suppress critical media outlets, Trump could also use the presidency to bolster media that offer him consistent support. Or he could even try to create an official government news agency that would disseminate a steady diet of pro-Trump coverage. As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group told a Harvard Kennedy School audience this month, if Putin can have an outlet like RT, why wouldn’t Trump want something similar for himself? In Trump’s ideal world, Americans would get their news from some combination of Breitbart, Fox News, and the president’s own Twitter feed, which would keep the public bamboozled and go a long way toward insulating him from the consequences of his own mistakes. Congress would probably refuse to fund a public broadcaster that was reliably in Trump’s pocket, but if it did, look out.

3. Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies. 

One of the obstacles to a democratic breakdown is the government bureaucracy, whose permanent members are insulated from political pressure by existing civil service protections that make it hard to fire senior officials without cause. But one can imagine the Trump administration asking Congress to weaken those protections, portraying this step as a blow against “big government” and a way to improve government efficiency. I’ll bet the Wall Street Journal op-ed page would be quick to endorse this idea, on the grounds that firing a few senior bureaucrats would encourage the rest to work harder and better. But if the president or his lieutenants can gut government agencies more or less at will, the fear of being fired will lead many experienced public servants to keep their heads down and kowtow to whatever the president wants, no matter how ill-advised or illegal it might be. And when you consider that Trump seems to be appointing loyalists to top posts even when they lack the obvious qualifications (Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has never worked in the federal government), this possibility gets scarier still.

And don’t assume the military, FBI, National Guard, or the intelligence agencies would be immune to this sort of interference. Other presidents (or their appointees) have fired generals who questioned their policy objectives, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did during George W. Bush’s first administration when he removed Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who had the temerity to tell a congressional committee that the occupation of Iraq was going to need a lot more people than Rumsfeld had claimed. Other generals and admirals got the message and stayed out of Rumsfeld’s way for the rest of his disastrous tenure as defense secretary. There have also been fights in the past over control of the National Guard, but a move to assert greater federal authority over the guard would give Trump a powerful tool to use against open expressions of dissent.

Because there are precedents for the various tactics I’ve just described, some people might be inclined to give Trump a pass if he moves in this direction. That would be a serious mistake.

4. Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents. 

This step wouldn’t be entirely new either, insofar as Nixon once used the CIA to infiltrate anti-war organizations during the Vietnam War. But the government’s capacity to monitor the phones, emails, hard drives, and online activities of all Americans has expanded enormously since the 1960s. And as Edward Snowden revealed a few years ago, these activities still lack adequate oversight and have sometimes broken the law.

As far as we know, however, no one has yet tried to use these new powers of surveillance to monitor, intimidate, embarrass, deter, or destroy political opponents. I don’t know if the exposure of the indiscretions of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer or former CIA Director David Petraeus is an example of this problem or not, but it certainly demonstrates how an ambitious and unscrupulous president could use the ability to monitor political opponents to great advantage. He would need the cooperation of top officials and possibly many underlings as well, but this only requires loyal confederates at the top and compliant people below. The White House had sufficient authority, under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, to convince U.S. government employees to torture other human beings. In comparison with that, convincing some officials to monitor emails and phone calls and online searches in order to dig up damaging dirt on the president’s rivals should be child’s play.

5. Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents. 

A hallmark of corrupt quasi-democracies is the executive’s willingness to use the power of the state to reward business leaders who are loyal and to punish anyone who gets in the way. That’s how Putin controls the “oligarchs” in Russia, and it is partly how Erdogan kept amassing power and undermining opponents in Turkey. As Matthew Yglesias argues in Vox, that is also how Berlusconi operated in Italy, and it helped wreck the Italian economy and made endemic corruption even worse.

I know, I know: Corruption of this sort is already a problem here in the Land of the Free —whether in the form of congressional pork or the sweet deals former government officials arrange to become lobbyists once they leave office — so why single out Trump? The problem is that Trump’s record suggests he thinks this is the right way to do business: You reward your friends, and you stick it to your enemies every chance you get. So if the Washington Post runs a lot of critical articles about Trump, and Post owner Jeff Bezos suddenly learns federal officials are contemplating new regulations that would hurt his main business (Amazon), none of us should be all that surprised. But we should be really, really worried.

6. Stacking the Supreme Court. 

Trump will likely get the opportunity to appoint several Supreme Court justices, and the choices he makes will be revealing. Does he pick people who are personally loyal and beholden to him or opt for jurors with independent standing and stellar qualifications? Does he pick people whose views on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and campaign financing comport with his party’s, or does he go for people who have an established view on the expansiveness of executive power and are more likely to look the other way if he takes some of the other steps I’ve already mentioned? And if it’s the latter, would the Senate find the spine to say no?

7. Enforcing the law for only one side. 

Effective liberal democracies depend on the rule of law being implemented in a politically neutral fashion. That’s an ideal that no society achieves completely, and there are many ways in which the U.S. judicial system falls well short. But given the nature of Trump’s campaign and the deep divisions within the United States at present, a key litmus test for the president-elect is whether he will direct U.S. officials to enforce similar standards of conduct on both his supporters and his opponents. If anti-Trump protesters are beaten up by a band of Trump’s fans, will the latter face prosecution as readily as if the roles were reversed? Will local and federal justice agencies be as vigilant in patrolling right-wing hate speech and threats of violence as they are with similar actions that might emanate from the other side? I don’t know about you, but I do not find the nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general reassuring on this point. If Trump is quick to call out his critics but gives racists, bigots, and homophobes a free pass because they happen to like him, it would be another sign he is trying to tilt the scales of justice in his favor.

8. Really rigging the system. 

Back when he appeared likely to lose, Trump started telling audiences that the system was “rigged” and threatened not to accept the outcome if he lost. If anything, of course, the system turned out to be rigged in his favor, insofar as he lost the popular vote and benefited from a number of obvious efforts to suppress the vote in areas where support for Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, was high. Be that as it may, given the promises he has made and the demography of the electorate, Trump and the GOP have every incentive to use the next four years to try to stack the electoral deck in their favor. Look for more attempts to gerrymander safe seats for House Republicans and more efforts to prevent likely Democratic voters from getting to the polls in 2018 and 2020. Needless to say, such interference is fundamentally at odds with true democracy.

9. Fearmongering. 

Stoking public fears about safety and well-being is a classic autocratic tactic, designed to convince a frightened population to look to the Leader for protection. Trump played this card brilliantly in the campaign, warning of “Mexican rapists,” foreign governments that “steal our jobs,” “scores of recent migrants inside our borders charged with terrorism,” and so on. He also hinted that his political rivals were somehow in cahoots with these various “enemies.” A frightened population tends to think first about its own safety, and forget about fundamental liberties, and would be more likely to look the other way as a president amassed greater power.

The worst case, of course, would be an Erdogan-like attempt to use a terrorist attack or some other equally dramatic event as an excuse to declare a “state of emergency” and to assume unprecedented executive authority. Bush and Cheney used 9/11 to pass the Patriot Act, and Trump could easily try to use some future incident as a — with apologies for the pun — trumped-up excuse to further encroach on civil liberties, press freedoms, and the other institutions that are central to democracy.

10. Demonizing the opposition. 

Trying to convince people that your domestic opponents are in league with the nation’s enemies is one of the oldest tactics in politics, and it has been part of Trump’s playbook ever since he stoked the “birther” controversy over Obama’s citizenship. After he becomes president, will he continue to question his opponents’ patriotism, accuse them of supporting America’s opponents, and blame policy setbacks on dark conspiracies among Democrats, liberals, Muslims, the Islamic State, “New York financial elites,” or the other dog whistles so beloved by right-wing media outlets like Breitbart? Will he follow the suggestions of some of his supporters and demand that Americans from certain parts of the world (read: Muslims) be required to “register” with the federal government?

Again, these are the same tactics Erdogan and Putin have used in Turkey and Russia, respectively, to cement their own authority over time by initiating a vicious cycle of social hostility. When groups within a society are already somewhat suspicious of each other, extremists can trigger a spiral of increasing hostility by attacking the perceived internal enemy in the hope of provoking a harsh reaction. If the attacked minority responds defensively, or its own hotheads lash out violently, it will merely reinforce the first group’s fears and bolster a rapid polarization. Extremists on both sides will try to “outbid” their political opponents by portraying themselves as the most ardent and effective defenders of their own group. In extreme cases, such as the Balkan Wars in the 1990s or Iraq after 2003, the result is civil war. Trump would be playing with fire if he tries to stay in power by consistently sowing hatred against the “other,” but he did it in the campaign, and there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t do it again.

This list of warning signs will no doubt strike some as overly alarmist. As I said, it is possible — even likely — that Trump won’t try any of these things (or at least not very seriously) and he might face prompt and united opposition if he did. The checks and balances built into America’s democratic system may be sufficiently robust to survive a sustained challenge. Given the deep commitment to liberty that lies at the heart of the American experiment, it is also possible the American people would quickly detect any serious attempt to threaten the present order and take immediate action to stop it.

The bottom line: I am by no means predicting the collapse of democracy in the United States under a President Donald J. Trump. What I am saying is that it is not impossible, and there are some clear warning signs to watch out for. Now, as always, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Or to use a more modern formulation: If you see something, say something.

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.