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The Authoritarian Checklist – Annapolis update, June 2018

June 28th, 2018, 7:24pm by Sam Wang

I’ve left this topic alone for some time, but we must revisit it. In January 2017, shortly after the Inauguration, I provided a ten-item checklist of actions that would be signs of authoritarianism. I provided this in advance of any actions that could happen. The list was updated in May 2017.

Since that time, many actions have been repeated; some people may have become desensitized. Strikingly, it appears that President Trump still has levels of support above 80% from voters in his own party. Truly, the Republican Party, once the party of Eisenhower or Reagan, has become the party of Trump.

In 2017 I said that the judiciary acted as an institutional check on executive power. That is now in question, now that the Supreme Court has upheld the Muslim ban in the Trump v. Hawaii decision. And the President appears ready to appoint a second member of the Supreme Court while he is under investigation.

In this updated version of the checklist, we are at a score of five out of ten. For these five items, I have not documented repeated instances of the action. Feel free to lay out the evidence for your favorite offense in comments. The shootings in Annapolis may qualify as a sixth item, incitement of violence against individuals. As events unfold, I will update this post.

Finally, I leave out the degree of competence with which each action was done. The current Administration seems particularly maladroit. But it is also setting a tone that may to persist until a more competent officeholder holds power.

The Authoritarian Checklist, 2018

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition. This one’s obvious. Russia over G-7 and NATO, North Korea over the U.S. foreign policy establishment. YES
  2. Detention of journalists. Hasn’t happened systematically.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House. This has not happened – access seems okay. However, it is not clear what good that access does for the public; the river of lies is something to behold.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government. The writing was on the wall with “Lock her up!” The link goes to a frank falsification, the claim of widespread voter fraud. YES
  5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution. It began with prosecuting leakers rather than the leaked offense. Immigrants and their children, who are citizens, have been targeted after they spoke out. YES
  6. Use of a terrorist incident or an international incident to take away civil liberties. Not yet.
  7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters. Muslims and Hispanics. YES
  8. Removal of civil service employees for insufficient loyalty or membership in a suspect group (e.g. LGBT, Muslim, and other groups). (2/16: also the intelligence community). And now, the firing of FBI director James Comey…though really, this is more in the category of obstruction of justice. YES
  9. Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations. Trump repeatedly refers to the press as corrupt and lying. His most vocal supporters echo these sentiments. And now, five people have been killed in a newsroom in Annapolis. We’ll see what the motives were, but it’s not looking great at the moment. Then there is the attacking of women officeholders, especially African-Americans. PROBABLE
  10. Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court. Looked like it was going to happen, and certainly he’s fulminated about disbanding an appeals court, but in the end, it didn’t happen. Plus, judging from the ruling on the Muslim ban, it seems clear that the Supreme Court is potentially not that much of a check. Hard to score this one as a yes, but in a sense it’s less necessary now.


Tags: President · U.S. Institutions

12 Comments so far ↓

  • Kimberly Dick

    I would suggest that the “zero tolerance” policy for asylum seekers counts for (6), because even though there has been no international or terrorist incident, the administration frequently talks about them as if there was (witness the MS-13 comparisons, among other things).

    There has also been a broader crackdown on immigrants, up to and including naturalized citizens, using similar justifications based upon an imaginary crisis.

  • 538 Refugee

    I posted a link in the last thread. Trump wanted to and discussed jailing journalists. He just hasn’t been able to yet. So, not for lack of wanting/trying.

  • LondonYoung

    Beware of exhausting credibility too early.
    Your stated standard is 1934 Germany.
    In 1933 Germany, large numbers of elected members of the parliament were being excluded from participating in the government, 10’s of thousand of citizens were being jailed without charges – let alone trial, the regular federal army was being used to kill citizens domestically, etc…

    I don’t think “loss of press access” is really 1933 Germany, let alone 1934 Germany.

    Someone once said “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”.

  • LondonYoung

    And, I will also make a small point about item 4.
    There are many laws that require high government officials to keep permanent records of all their correspondence in the public domain. We have often heard how Trump is violating the law for using twitter, which is not a government recorded outlet. State department regulations very clearly require the secretary of state to use .gov email for all official work.

    Almost nobody disputes that Secy Clinton failed to follow these laws and regulations by setting up her own email server – and deleting large amounts of data with no oversight after she was caught. While her offenses likely do not rise to the level of requiring jail time, the charge that she broke the law and violated her department’s regulations is undoubtedly true. It is, in no way, a “made up charge”.

  • LondonYoung

    I saw that there isn’t loss of press access.
    I just don’t think that is a “1934 Germany” test.
    It is more like a 1941 US test.

  • LondonYoung

    Let’s take a look at your point #5.

    The president of the US conducted confidential phone calls with foreign leaders. Someone with access to the content of these confidential calls released that information to the press. The president referred the issue to the justice department for investigation.

    You are now calling this use of government power to target individual citizens akin to 1934 Nazi Germany.

    • Sam Wang

      None of these acts serve the goal of meeting a real foreign threat. 1934 Nazi Germany might have more parallels for us today than pre-World-War-II America.

    • LondonYoung

      Let’s look at another part of point #5.
      There are approximately 11 million people in the U.S. who have entered illegally. These people are generally unable to obtain high income jobs (say as university professors or investment bankers) but they do compete in the market for unskilled labor. A lot of citizens who compete with them for these jobs view their presence as a foreign policy failure and voted for Trump. Whether or not lower class wages really suffer I don’t know – but if the Trumpers think it is a real foreign policy threat they aren’t being unreasonable. Imagine what would happen to physician’s wages if we allowed foreign trained physician open access to practice in the U.S.

    • Pechmerle

      I think we would do better to leave comparisons to Nazi Germany 1934 entirely aside. A reason is that people tend to forget that as of February 1933 – instantly upon the occurrence of the Reichstag fire – Hitler (with von Hindenburg’s blessing as President) ruled by emergency decree. And he continued to operate under that emergency decree right down to 1945. Virtually all constitutional protections were immediately suspended under that decree, never to return until after the defeat in war.

      Within a month of Feb. 1933, Goring as Prussian police commissioner had rounded up over 10,000 members of the German Communist Party (until then a legal organization). Concentration camps were immediately organized, and in their earliest years held primarily communists, socialists, gypsies (Roma), uncooperative people as such Jehovah’s witnesses, etc. It was not until later that Jews were targeted for incarceration in the camps.

      Similarly not comparable is Stalin’s Soviet Union, in which even the “Old Bolsheviks” who helped make the revolution were put on trial as Trotskyites and saboteurs by 1936-38 (their main crime was to have opposed the crash program for agricultural collectivization, which through its speed, disorganized implementation, and forced extraction of grain from the peasants resulted in millions of deaths in 1930-34 alone).

      A somewhat better comparison is Mussolini’s Italy, which did progress by stages to more and more control. And indeed that is where Sam’s checklist first began, with an essay by Umberto Eco.

      The more important point to me is the series of steps being taken moving away from American institutions and norms. An early, pre-Trump one, for example was McConnell’s refusal to even bring up the Garland nomination for a vote. That was a violation of the norms of our system of checks and balances going back to the earliest days of the Republic.

      The authoritarianism watch is a good concept, but I think over-reliance on foreign comparisons can be an unhelpful distraction.

    • LondonYoung

      Sam needs to add “vote up” buttons to the blog ;-)

  • 538 Refugee

    The “New Yorker” weighs in.

    “In dictatorial states, a failure to applaud the Leader has often been a matter of treason. Last February, following the State of the Union address, President Trump flew to Blue Ash, Ohio, for a rally and accused the Democrats in Congress of that very crime. Their crime was a failure to stand and applaud sufficiently for the President of the United States.”

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