Trump Is Failing His Dictatorship Test

After impeachment, the president has been passing most of the checkpoints on the way to authoritarianism.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during an event to unveil changes to the National Environmental Policy Act at the White House in Washington on Jan. 9.
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during an event to unveil changes to the National Environmental Policy Act at the White House in Washington on Jan. 9. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I wrote up a list of the “10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator.” I wasn’t saying Trump was in fact an aspiring autocrat; it was merely a list of warning signs to keep track of as his presidency preceded. In 2017, I offered an updated assessment and concluded that the danger of creeping autocracy was pretty serious.

Now that Trump has been acquitted by a Republican-controlled Senate that couldn’t even be bothered to interview any witnesses with personal knowledge of his possible high crimes and misdemeanors, it seems appropriate to revisit my list once again. Spoiler alert: There are some flashing red lights on the dashboard.

1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media.

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I wrote up a list of the “10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator.” I wasn’t saying Trump was in fact an aspiring autocrat; it was merely a list of warning signs to keep track of as his presidency preceded. In 2017, I offered an updated assessment and concluded that the danger of creeping autocracy was pretty serious.

Now that Trump has been acquitted by a Republican-controlled Senate that couldn’t even be bothered to interview any witnesses with personal knowledge of his possible high crimes and misdemeanors, it seems appropriate to revisit my list once again. Spoiler alert: There are some flashing red lights on the dashboard.


1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media.


This aspect of Trump’s behavior has been a constant feature of his presidency, and it shows no signs of easing up. On the contrary, the White House’s contempt for the press has gradually extended to other parts of the executive branch, most notably in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s childish tantrum against NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly and his subsequent decision to exclude NPR from the secretary’s press pool on his recent trip to Ukraine, an all-too-obvious attempt at payback. Trump has continued his own efforts to degrade and intimidate the press, repeatedly referring to the media and journalists as “enemies of the people.” Formal press briefings have become an endangered species across the administration, and there’s no sign that any of this is letting up.

Not surprisingly, other U.S. politicians are beginning to adopt the Trump playbook, and foreign governments are using Trump’s behavior to legitimate their own attacks on journalists. For anyone who understands that a healthy democracy requires well-informed citizens and therefore also requires a vigorous and independent press, this is deeply troubling.

partial check

2. Building an official pro-Trump media network.


Back in 2016, there were rumors that Trump was thinking of starting a media company of his own if he had lost the election. And last October, Trump told a crowd at an event in Florida that “we ought to start our own network and put some real news out there.” But to date, there’s no sign he has actually tried to do so, and floating ideas like this is just another way of undermining the legitimate news organizations that still exist. And with Fox News, Sinclair, and other far-right networks firmly in his camp, with millions of Twitter followers, and the bully pulpit of the presidency itself, creating his own media company isn’t really necessary. Giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a vicious blowhard like Rush Limbaugh is just icing a cake that’s already well-baked.

Flashing Red Light

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


Trump has railed against the so-called Deep State ever since he became president, for one simple reason: He objects to any institution that might serve as a check on his own actions. That’s not how presidents behave; it’s what dictators do. Look what happened last year: Following well-established legal procedures, patriotic civil service members brought a case of questionable presidential conduct to light, beginning with the whistleblower’s report about Trump’s attempt to get the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. This revelation led to Trump’s impeachment, where we learned that he had relieved the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, because she objected to Trump’s politically motivated machinations in that country.

Since his acquittal by Senate Republicans, Trump has launched a vicious campaign of payback. He fired former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland (whom Trump had appointed) because Sondland reluctantly gave damaging testimony to the House impeachment inquiry. He fired National Security Council staffer (and Purple Heart recipient) Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and then suggested Vindman ought to be disciplined further by the U.S. Army. In proper mafialike fashion, his vengeance also extended to Vindman’s twin brother (also a serving Army officer), even though the latter wasn’t involved in any of these machinations. And let’s not forget his personal interference in the military’s disciplinary proceedings against former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was accused of serious war crimes by numerous other SEALs and convicted by the military justice system for lesser offenses.

The unifying purpose behind all of these actions is obvious. What matters to Trump is not someone’s expertise, professionalism, loyalty to the country, or dedication to the Constitution. What matters to Trump is whether members of the foreign service, the civil service, or the military are personally loyal to him. That’s the demand he made of former FBI Director James Comey, and when he didn’t get it, Comey was fired, too. Right out of the dictator’s playbook.

partial check

4. Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents.


As far as we know, Trump has not gone as far as some previous presidents (e.g., Richard Nixon) in using the FBI or CIA to investigate his political adversaries. As I noted in my last assessment of Trump’s dictatorial tendencies, this is no doubt because his own relations with some of these agencies have been problematic; it’s doubtful he trusts these agencies to do his bidding (yet).

Instead, Trump has used his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and a bunch of other sleazy types—most notably the Ukrainian American businessman Lev Parnas—for similar purposes. These stalwart patriots were also behind the removal of Yovanovitch, whom they deemed insufficiently loyal to the president himself. Compliant Attorney-General William Barr recently announced that the Justice Department will look into whatever so-called evidence Giuliani has dug up, which means that Giuliani’s efforts to aid Trump’s reelection campaign are now part of the official U.S. government agenda. Why do I suspect that the department won’t conclude that Giuliani’s got nothing until after the election in November?

The good news—such as it is—is that Trump hasn’t been able to mobilize the full investigative powers of the U.S. surveillance state on his own behalf. The bad news is that he has still found a way to get his henchmen to look for dirt on anyone he chooses.


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


This problem didn’t begin with Trump; to some degree it is baked into the present U.S. political system. All presidents take actions favoring groups that have supported them and are more likely to enact policies that harm the interests of those who opposed them. In an electoral democracy where interest groups play a substantial role and where money talks as loudly as it does in America, some degree of favoritism is to be expected.

That said, Trump has taken this institutionalized corruption to a new level. He or his appointees have repeatedly intervened to revise regulations so as to benefit political donors or act in ways that benefit Trump’s own companies. It’s hard to keep track of all the conflicts of interest—simply because there are so many. As Adam Serwer of the Atlantic warns, “The myriad Trump scandals can obscure the fact that they’re all elements of one massive tale of corruption.”

This phenomenon undermines democracy in several ways. First, those who benefit from it become co-opted and more likely to support whoever is dishing out benefits no matter how badly he or she is governing. Second, policies that are good for these fat cats may not be good for the country as a whole, which means that ordinary people will suffer. Third, and most importantly, when such behavior becomes commonplace, we begin to see it as normal, we cease to be outraged, and people conclude that the only way to succeed is to become corrupt ourselves.

Flashing Red Light

6. Stacking the Supreme Court.


Do I really need to spell this one out? Trump has now appointed two Supreme Court justices, both of whom hold expansive views about executive power and one of whom—Brett Kavanaugh—was an extremely divisive appointment on other grounds. He got to do this because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell established norms and refused to even schedule a hearing on Obama-era nominee Merrick Garland, in effect holding a Supreme Court seat open until a Republican could fill it. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has continued its long-standing effort to pack the rest of the judiciary with sympathetic jurists. This strategy makes good sense for a minority party: When you know that most voters favor Democrats, you have to do whatever it takes to retain control over the other branches of government.

Why does this matter for the issue of democracy versus dictatorship? For many reasons but especially because we have an election coming up. Although Democrats are doing a pretty good job of undermining their own chances, at this point one cannot rule out a tightly contested election where the result comes down to narrow outcomes in a couple of key states. What if we have a replay of Florida in 2000, with Trump on the losing end, and he refuses to acknowledge defeat or leave the White House? What if the outcome goes to a Supreme Court that is now heavily stacked in his favor? Even if that scenario is avoided, a judiciary that is consciously selected to favor one side in an increasingly polarized country, and which is increasingly unwilling to block executive actions that violate the Constitution, is a textbook definition of a failing democracy.

Flashing Red Light

7. Enforcing the law for only one side.


Even before he became president, Trump thought the law was merely a weapon to be used against one’s opponents and not a critical linchpin of a civilized order. Just look at his deeply litigious business career or the “lock her up” chants he used to direct against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

Becoming president didn’t temper these instincts; on the contrary, it has made them worse. Trump clearly believes he is above the law, and opportunistic publicity hounds like Alan Dershowitz have been willing to invent dubious rationales to justify that position. Trump has repeatedly criticized judges with whom he disagrees, in one case provoking a rare rebuke from conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Emboldened by his acquittal by the Republican-dominated Senate, Trump intervened this week in the legal case of longtime ally Roger Stone, with the assistance of Attorney General Barr. Stone was convicted of the serious charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress, and federal prosecutors recommended that he be given a seven-to-nine-year sentence. Barr overruled the government prosecutors, however, leading all four to resign from the case (and one to resign entirely from the department).

But Trump didn’t stop there. He took to Twitter to accuse the sentencing judge of being biased, which led the normally compliant Barr to tell an interviewer that Trump’s repeated tweets were making it “impossible” to do his job. Barr denied that the White House had told him to overrule the lead prosecutors, but that denial means little, as Barr surely knew that Trump thought Stone was innocent and wanted him let off easy. Very importantly, Barr didn’t say Trump’s interference was inappropriate—only that the public nature of his comments made it hard for the Justice Department not to look like the obedient lap dog it has become under this president and this attorney general.

Bottom line: In Trump’s America, there’s one set of rules if you’re one of the president’s buddies—and another set of rules for everyone else.


8. Really rigging the system


Trump eked out a narrow victory in 2016, and as noted above, a majority of the population favors the other party most of the time. Not surprisingly, voter suppression has been an important element in keeping the Republican Party in the game, which is why Trump previously backed efforts like the “voter fraud commission” headed by Kris Kobach.

Although Kobach’s effort ultimately foundered—in part because no serious scholar of U.S. voting behavior thinks the electoral rolls are filled with voters who should be ineligible—Republican efforts to make it hard for eligible citizens to actually vote continue. In November 2019, for example, Trump campaign advisor Justin Clark told a private group: “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places. … Let’s start protecting our voters. We know where they are. … Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.” Similar efforts are underway in places like Florida and Texas.

To be clear, it’s entirely possible that Trump will win legitimately in 2020 and that Republican candidates for the House and Senate will do better than they did in 2018. But rigging the game as they are trying to do is antithetical to genuine democracy and more in line with what happens in authoritarian countries.


9. Fearmongering.


Fearmongering and threat inflation have a long history in U.S. politics, and Trump is hardly the first president to try to build support for his policies by exaggerating foreign dangers. But in his case, the instrumental nature of this tactic is especially apparent. His inaugural address painted a grim (and unwarranted) picture of “American carnage,” and he continues to dwell on alleged threats from foreign refugees or immigrants, despite the abundant evidence that such groups pose little or no danger to Americans. Trump does this because it plays well with his older, predominantly white base and because it helps justify vanity projects like his border wall.

Meanwhile, he has persistently downplayed the dangers from white supremacists and right-wing terrorists (even though they are responsible for most terrorist attacks in the United States today) and taken a rather sanguine view of groups like the Islamic State, as well as of expanding Sino-Russian cooperation, the erosion of America’s strategic position in Asia, North Korea’s continued missile tests, the brain injuries suffered by U.S. soldiers, or other national security matters that might deserve a bit of presidential attention. He’s even willing to divert money from legitimate defense priorities to pay for his silly wall.

In sum, Trump views threats through a narrow personal prism: dangers he can hype to bolster his own power are good; threats that might require adjustments in U.S. policy aren’t worth discussing. And that leads us directly to the last warning sign.


10. Demonizing the opposition.


Vicious, demeaning, irresponsible, and wildly inaccurate attacks on domestic political rivals have been part of Trump’s playbook from day one. Apart from his penchant for lying, demonizing the opposition is the defining quality of his entire approach to politics. It’s partly his adolescent habit of giving his opponents demeaning nicknames or the harsh rhetoric he uses to describe his political opponents, such as calling Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff a “vicious, horrible person.” Other presidents have used such rhetoric sparingly and confined it to criminals or foreign enemies; Trump uses it against anyone who displeases him.

Revealingly, these scorched-earth attacks on opponents are not limited to members of the Democratic Party. On the contrary, they also extend to his very own hand-picked advisors, whom he defends as long as they serve his every whim and then demeans and disparages as soon as they have lost his favor. A partial list of the targets of Trumpian eruptions includes former Attorney General Jeff Sessions; former White House chief of staff John Kelly; former National Security Advisor John Bolton; Sondland, the former U.S. ambassador to the EU; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; former Defense Secretary James Mattis; and many, many more.

For someone who promised he’d appoint only “the best and most serious people,” Trump seems to have spent his first three years appointing a lot of officials who he subsequently decided were small-minded, incompetent, mean-spirited, or just “terrible.” But the point is not his administration’s historically unprecedented turnover rate; the point is that if anyone who works for him shows any sign of independence or moral backbone, it is open season on them.

If your goal as president is to inspire genuine loyalty, and to create an atmosphere where competing policy options are carefully vetted, this approach is a disaster. But if your goal is to get everyone to suck up to you, to convince qualified experts to support policies they know are misguided, and to discredit former officials who are firsthand witnesses to your malfeasance, then it makes perfect sense. Which is why dictators do it.

At this stage in Trump’s presidency, some may argue that concerns about the parlous state of American democracy are overblown. After hearing repeated warnings that Trump is a threat to the country’s constitutional order and being told over and over that “this is how democracy dies,” one might be tempted to see pessimists as Chicken Littles who keep repeating that the sky is falling. If one takes that view, then the warning signs listed above might seem alarmist. But the key point to remember is that healthy democracies don’t sicken and die overnight; they collapse gradually, from a thousand tiny cuts, each of which seems inconsequential at the time. That is what Donald Trump is doing, aided and abetted by the once proud Republican Party. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

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