10 Ways Trump Is Becoming a Dictator, Election Edition

The closer the president gets to election day, the bigger the threat he poses to U.S. democracy.

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump votes at his local polling station in New York's primary on April 19, 2016 in New York City.
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump votes at his local polling station in New York's primary on April 19, 2016 in New York City.
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump votes at his local polling station in New York's primary on April 19, 2016 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Even before U.S. President Donald Trump took the oath of office in 2017, serious observers were worried about the fragility of the United States’ democratic order and Trump’s all-too-obvious dictatorial proclivities.

Even before U.S. President Donald Trump took the oath of office in 2017, serious observers were worried about the fragility of the United States’ democratic order and Trump’s all-too-obvious dictatorial proclivities.

It was partly his evident narcissism and contempt for the truth, but also his willingness to run roughshod over long-standing norms, his long record of fraud and shady business dealings, and his evident admiration for dictators in other countries. Trump’s arrival helped make books such as How Democracies Die and On Tyranny bestsellers, while journalists and political scientists (including yours truly) began compiling lists of “warning signs” of creeping authoritarianism.

Looking back, I was too optimistic. I was pretty sure Trump would be terrible at managing both domestic and foreign policy—and on that score I was correct—but I believed his age, short attention span, lack of knowledge, and other liabilities would limit his ability to consolidate power. Unlike some optimists, I didn’t expect him to grow into the responsibilities of the office, but I believed the system of checks and balances built into our constitutional order would rein him in sufficiently to protect the core features of U.S. democracy. How wrong I was.

I knew that would-be authoritarians rarely have a change of heart and become committed to personal accountability, the rule of law, or fair-minded elections. What I failed to anticipate was that Trump’s authoritarian ambitions would get worse the longer he sat in the Oval Office, and that his ability to pursue them would increase once he had the chance to replace anyone with integrity and a genuine commitment to their oath to defend the Constitution with lackeys, opportunists, and power-hungry ideologues.

As I’ve noted before, Trump now has every incentive to do whatever he can to remain in power, if only to keep himself and his family out of jail and to avoid losing the ill-gotten gains of a lifetime of legally questionable business deals, not to mention the millions of dollars’ worth of self-dealing he’s indulged in as president. I’ve updated my original top 10 warning signs on two previous occasions—but with the election roughly two months away, it seemed an appropriate moment to do one more assessment.

Spoiler alert: If you cherish the core values of the U.S. Constitution (however imperfectly we have achieved them), and you want to live in a country where the rule of law still applies and the voice of the people can still be heard clearly, you have ample reason to be worried. Very worried.

Here’s the list.

1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media.

This tactic has been a central feature of Trump’s presidency from the beginning, whether in the form of his constant tweets about “fake news” and his none-too-veiled attempts to threaten the owners of media outlets he dislikes (such as CNN or the Washington Post). As he reportedly admitted to CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, Trump has attacked the press quite deliberately. “He said, ‘You know why I do it?’” she later told PBS. “‘I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’”

Such efforts continue to this day. In May, for example, Trump signed an executive order that could eventually allow the government to oversee political speech on the Internet, a move that came the same week Twitter had marked two of his erroneous tweets with a “fact-checking” label. But that’s not all.

The administration has also increased prosecutions involving journalists’ use of classified information, searched their electronic devices, and monitored reporters’ movements, and Trump’s reelection campaign has sued the New York Times, CNN, and other news organizations for libel.  Trump’s repeated descriptions of the press as “the Enemy of the People” may have inspired followers to threaten news organizations on their own, and encouraged the arrests and attacks on journalists covering recent demonstrations in several U.S. cities. As Chris Wallace of the normally pro-Trump network Fox News recently put it, “President Trump is engaged in the most direct sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history.”

2. Building an official pro-Trump media network.

Earlier reports that Trump (or one of his sons) was going to start his own media company proved unfounded. But as I noted in my earlier reassessments, the president hardly needs his own news company when he has Fox News almost entirely in his camp, when Fox anchor Sean Hannity is said to be a close personal advisor, and when the even more whackadoodle One America News Network is reliably in his corner. Trump can also count on radio host Rush Limbaugh (to whom he gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom last year) to echo whatever new falsehood the president chooses to tweet (such as telling his listeners the coronavirus was “the common cold, folks” and just a left-wing conspiracy to bring Trump down). Who needs Pravda when you’ve got Limbaugh?

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

The president may be commander in chief and head of the executive branch, but soldiers and civil servants swear an oath to the Constitution, not an individual. Ignoring that principle, Trump has tried to get government officials to express their “loyalty” to him personally, and led cabinet meetings where appointees sing his praises in cringeworthy fashion. He replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions with William Barr after Sessions showed a certain degree of integrity, and Barr’s extreme commitment to the principle of executive authority and resulting willingness to protect the president and even to lie on his behalf make former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s loyalty to his brother John and former Attorney General John F. Mitchell’s fealty to former President Richard Nixon seem rather quaint. In any case, it’s a pretty small step from believing in a president’s total authority over the executive branch to the view that he’s should be beyond the rule of law entirely. Which would be just fine with Trump.

And recently these efforts have taken an even more serious turn. Trump has been replacing experienced officials with unqualified loyalists—such as appointing former Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as acting director of national intelligence—and pressuring the Navy to reverse a decision to reinstate the commander of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. The use of tear gas and federal personnel to clear demonstrators from Lafayette Square in Washington so that Trump could stage a photo-op, and the presence of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in his entourage (a misjudgment for which Milley later apologized), is yet another case where Trump tried to turn nonpartisan institutions into part of his posse.

Finally, the recent campaign to curtail or remove independent inspectors general—at the departments of State, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, and in the intelligence services—smacks either of political payback (e.g., in the case of the inspector general who forwarded the whistleblower report alleging that Trump had attempted to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden by withholding U.S. aid) or a desire to protect top officials from independent scrutiny. Either way, it’s another sign that Trump thinks government agencies are working for him, and not for the U.S. taxpayer.

4, Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents.

I don’t know if Trump is using the FBI, CIA, or other surveillance capabilities to spy on the Biden campaign or to monitor other political opponents. But we do know that the federal government has conducted surveillance of people protesting the administration’s immigration policies, and Trump has threatened to declare the loose and leaderless antifa movement a terrorist organization, which could allow domestic security agencies to conduct more far-reaching surveillance on anti-Trump protests. Trump and his allies are certainly not above using government institutions to advance the president’s personal political fortunes, and sometimes they’re not even coy about it. Thus, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told a local radio station that his baseless Senate investigation into Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine would “help Donald Trump win reelection.”  

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

 At this point, it is hardly headline news to report that the Trump administration is deeply corrupt, and that Trump and his family have been using high office to enrich themselves in various ways.  At times these tangled relations are almost comical, as when the Trump Organization asked the Trump administration for a break on the lease payments it owes on the building containing the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Other examples are more serious, however: According to a recent Brookings Institution study, the administration’s response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic has been marred by inadequate oversight and clear signs of corruption. “There have been reports that 27 clients of Trump-connected lobbyists have received up to $10.5 billion of [government coronavirus-related] spending; that beneficiaries have also included multiple entities linked to the family of Jared Kushner and other Trump associates and political allies; that up to $273 million was awarded to more than 100 companies that are owned or operated by major donors to Trump’s election efforts; that unnecessary blanket ethics waivers have been applied to potential administration conflicts of interest; and that many other transactions meriting further investigation have occurred,” according to the study.

Meanwhile, organizations that Trump regards as unfriendly run the risk of being singled out for harsh treatment. Just last week, Barr decided to speed up an antitrust effort against Google, a move said to be “in keeping with [Barr’s] willingness to override the recommendations of career lawyers in cases that are of keen interest to President Trump, who has accused Google of bias against him.”

6. Stacking the Supreme Court.

 A president’s ability to stack the Supreme Court depends on whether openings occur and whether the Senate is compliant. Trump doesn’t have to worry about the Senate, which allowed him to appoint two new justices during his first term. He hasn’t gone any further, but only because he hasn’t had another opportunity since the controversial appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In the meantime, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are doing a fine job of packing the lower courts, including some candidates with decidedly dodgy qualifications. And if you think this is just matter of abortion rights or gun control, think again. If the 2020 election is a nail-biter, lower-court decisions on potential electoral irregularities could matter a lot. Indeed, several recent decisions (in Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, and Alabama) have opened the door to precisely the type of voter suppression that would benefit Trump. As other democratically  elected autocrats know full well, checks and balances and the rule of law are no obstacle once the judiciary has been transformed from watchdog to lap dog.

7. Enforcing the law for only one side.

 One could devote a whole column to this warning sign alone. While railing against threats from immigrants, protesters, and the extremely dangerous, traitorous, menacing, yet sleepy Biden, Trump has largely turned a blind eye to far more serious criminals. Although right-wing terrorist groups and white supremacists are responsible for far more U.S. deaths than left-wing protesters or foreign terrorist groups, Trump has repeatedly signaled his sympathy for the former in various ways. Most recently, he has defended right-wing vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who allegedly shot two people to death during an altercation in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

At the same time, Trump is happy to give clemency to his own criminal associates, such as convicted felon Roger Stone, and Barr ordered the Justice Department to drop charges against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn—who had already pleaded guilty to them—a highly unusual move that prompted 2,000 former Department of Justice employees to sign an open letter warning that Barr had once again “assaulted the rule of law.”

Make no mistake: There are two legal systems in Trump’s America. One is for the president and his cronies, and the other is for suckers like you. The same way it is in other autocracies.

8. Really rigging the system. 

When someone such as David Brooks of the New York Times writes a column telling you to prepare to participate in a massive campaign of civil disobedience following the November election, you know that we’re in serious trouble. And there’s nothing subtle about it: Trump has made it abundantly clear that he will do everything in his power to rig the election in his favor. He has no choice: Unemployment is high, evictions are increasing, deficits are soaring, the trade deficits he promised to fix are still there, and his administration’s bungled response to the pandemic that Trump kept denying will have killed roughly 200,000 Americans by Election Day, even as many other countries have managed to turn the corner and move back closer to normal life. Now there’s a record to run on!

Even with the built-in advantages of the Electoral College, Trump is facing a humiliating if much-deserved defeat. As he does on the golf course, therefore, Trump is all too willing to cheat. He has called for supporters to vote twice if they can. He has tried to defund or disrupt the U.S. Postal Service, making it less capable of handling a surge of mail-in ballots, while at the same time claiming falsely that mail-in voting (which he uses himself) is rife with fraud. He and his underlings have been reluctant to say publicly that he would leave office if defeated. Uh-oh.

9. Fearmongering.

 What to do you when you’re trailing in the polls, you have no idea how to get people back to work, and you can’t get the pandemic under control? Simple: Try to scare people about something else. Just as Trump ran for office in 2016 offering wild-eyed and irresponsible claims about Muslims, Mexican “rapists,” and other foreign dangers, this time around he’s working overtime to convince voters that the United States’ cities are in flames and that angry mobs of nonwhite people are heading for the suburbs to seize homes and destroy their entire way of life. When Trump’s inaugural address in January 2017 warned of “American carnage,” what we failed to realize that he was really telling us what he intended accomplish as president.

At the same time, he is trying to convince people that Biden is somehow both too tired to be president (he isn’t) and at the same time a dangerous amalgam of Malcolm X, the Red Army Faction, and the Zodiac Killer. It’s a transparent and desperate ploy—especially given that crime rates are still at historically low levels—but Trump’s lies have worked for him before.

To be clear: Violent protests are wrong, and the destruction of property should be condemned no matter who does it. Biden gets this, of course, and has condemned violent extremism of all kinds in no uncertain terms. Trump doesn’t mind when his supporters threaten or engage in violence, and he hardly ever condemns them openly. Instead, his only hope is to sow as much division and hatred as he can between now and Nov. 3, in the hope that that might lead enough frightened people to cast a vote on his behalf or maybe to take to the streets if he loses. And that’s what’s really frightening.

10. Demonizing the opposition. 

This warning sign is a classic authoritarian move, and it’s closely related to No. 9. As his attacks on the media illustrate, it’s been a key part of Trump’s playbook throughout his political career.  In Trump’s world, one cannot imagine legitimate differences between equally patriotic and responsible Americans, the sort of honest disagreements that democratic systems exist to accommodate and reconcile. You are either with him, or you are evil, insane, crazy, nasty, a traitor, et cetera. Of course, as many have noted, the most revealing windows into Trump’s own character are the accusations he routinely levels at others.

As his political fortunes sink, this tendency is getting worse too. Case in point: His demagogic speech at Mount Rushmore on Independence Day. Along with some standard Fourth of July boilerplate about the Founding Fathers and the War of Independence, Trump used the occasion to lambaste “angry mobs” defacing “sacred memorials,” accusing opponents of trying to “unleash a wave of violent crime,” representing “totalitarianism” and “far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.” His wild accusations had little or no basis in fact, and the speech made no attempt to bring the American people together in the face of the many challenges they are facing today. But when your best hope is to convince enough voters that that other side is even worse than you are (which would be saying something), then making up scary stories is what we have to expect.

This is where we are today. After more than three and a half years in office, Trump continues to exhibit all 10 of my warning signs of democratic collapse. On several of them he’s gotten worse over time. There’s no reason whatsoever to believe that reelection would suddenly instill in this congenitally dishonest and self-centered narcissist a new commitment to the core principles of U.S. democracy. On the contrary, it will only reinforce his belief that he can get away with just about anything. How about a third term, suckers? Maybe Ivanka Trump can run in 2028 and we’ll rig that for her too. Can you honestly think of any law or norm he wouldn’t break if he thought it would be to his benefit and that he wouldn’t get stopped? Which members of today’s Republican Party would suddenly grow some vertebrae and try to stop him?

I didn’t used to be an alarmist, but when a president and his administration break some laws with impunity, there is no reason to believe they won’t break bigger ones if they think they can get away with it. But heed well what this really means. At that point, every one of us—including those who might have voted for him—becomes vulnerable to whatever they want to do. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what is at stake come November.

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

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