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Authoritarianism in 2020: Checking the checklist

June 4th, 2020, 12:47pm by Sam Wang



August 23: Re-upping this, an advance checklist of what to look for. Also, recently Ruth Ben-Ghiat reviewed how a whole political party was co-opted by an authoritarian-minded outsider. Also, the Republican Party has announced that in lieu of a platform, its position is to support whatever Donald Trump wants to do.

Updated September 6th, 2020.

In January 2017, shortly after the Inauguration, I provided a ten-item checklist of signs of authoritarianism. It seemed like a good idea to think in advance about what might happen, and lay down a marker in advance. In addition, I was concerned that the press, television media, and citizens might become desensitized to the news.

I was mocked by a few people as being hysterical. Likewise, scholars of authoritarianism such as Sarah Kendzior were also considered to be out there. But then things started coming true. And scholars of authoritarianism were proved correct: see this recent NYT report. The mitigating factors are the level of competence of some actions, and the degree to which federal officials are going along. Also, widespread protests are making it clear how hard it would be to build on such actions.

I provided a brief update to the list in May 2017, and another in August 2018. In light of recent events surrounding police and D.C.-area military response to the protests, it’s time to take stock.

Before going to the list, I want to note something striking. Even with unrest, military crackdowns, and pandemic, Donald Trump still has support from about three-fourths of self-described Republicans. His approval among all voters hasn’t fallen below a floor of about 39% (or gone above a ceiling of 43%) for nearly his entire presidency. The Republican Party, once the party of Eisenhower or Reagan, has become the party of Trump. As of today, he’s at 42.5% in the adjusted FiveThirtyEight average. As I wrote in October 2016, his base keeps him afloat.

Here’s the checklist. As of July 2020, the Administration met all 10 out of 10 checklist items.

An Authoritarian Checklist

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  2. Detention of journalists.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  6. Use of a terrorist or other incident to take away civil liberties.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  8. Removal of civil service employees for insufficient loyalty or membership in a suspect group.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  9. Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.
  10. Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court.Check mark, Segoe UI Symbol font, character code 2713 hex.

The interpretation of authoritarianism doesn’t take into account the fact that many of these actions have been taken with a low degree of competence. The Administration is particularly maladroit. At some level, teargassing D.C. protesters is about what one might expect from a mayor. But these actions are now becoming normalized. People with more competence will be ready to take up the torch, as we saw in Senator Tom Cotton’s opinion piece. No matter who wins the Presidency in 2020, that is a concerning sign for 2024 – or even the next post-election transition.

And now, the details.

The Authoritarian Checklist: 2020 status update

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition. This one’s been obvious from the start. Favoring Russia over G-7 and NATO, even in the face of interference with U.S. elections. Siding with North Korea over the U.S. foreign policy establishment. And attempting to draw Ukraine into U.S. presidential politics. Verdict: yes.
  2. Detention of journalists. This hasn’t happened systematically as a national policy. But the events of the last week suggest that it’s increased as a general phenomenon. Policemen around the nation have gone to efforts to assault and abuse reporters. They have been encouraged by repeated assertions by Trump that the press is the enemy. Detentions have occurred, but not ordered directly. In fact, the situation has deteriorated to the point that allied nations are investigating US treatment of journalists. Verdict: yes.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House. Access has been reduced substantially. Over time, more assertive reporters such as Jorge Ramos, Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins have been tossed out. When press briefings do occur, they include a veritable river of lies unlike any press events in memory. This vitiates the point of press events. Verdict: yes.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government. The writing was on the wall with the “Lock her up!” slogan of the 2016 campaign. The link here goes to an early example of a false charge, the claim of widespread voter fraud. This has become a pattern. A recent example is Trump’s leveling of random, false charges of murder against MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. Verdict: 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. Government officials have been targeted for doing their jobs (Peter Strzok), speaking their minds on matters of national importance (John Brennan, Alexander Vindman, Maria Yovanovitch), and even coronavirus researcher (Peter Daszak). Verdict: yes.
  6. Use of a terrorist or international incident to take away civil liberties. This one happened in the last week. I was wrong that it would involve terrorism. Instead, the trigger is domestic protests of the continuing wave of police killings of innocent black people. The use of military force against protesters in the District of Columbia, including the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park, is a clear First-Amendment violation of freedom of speech, assembly, and petition. (July 18: In Portland, Oregeon, U.S. Customs agents in unmarked uniforms and vehicles are tear-gassing and picking up protesters.) Verdict: yes.
  7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters. This has been a continuing theme of the Administration, thanks to the influence of Stephen Miller and other White House staff. Muslims and Hispanics have been particular targets. Hate crimes in 2019 reached a 16 year highVerdict: yes.
  8. Removal of civil service employees for insufficient loyalty or membership in a suspect group (e.g. LGBT, Muslim, and other groups). This started early, with the firing of FBI director James Comey…though really, that is more in the category of obstruction of justice. There were the firings of many members of the intelligence community. Most recently, many Inspectors General have been dismissed, an action that curbs oversight of government agencies at a time when they are handling trillions of dollars in new aid. Verdict: yes.
  9. Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations. Again, this has leapt to the forefront in the last week. For years Trump has referred to the press as corrupt and lying. His most vocal supporters echo these sentiments. In 2018, five people were killed in a newsroom in Annapolis. There were verbal attacks, often on women officeholders, especially African-Americans.  ABC news has found 54 instances where Trump served as the inspiration for violent acts. Now, Trump has encouraged police action against peaceful protesters. Verdict: yes.
  10. Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court. In principle, the judiciary acts as an institutional check on executive power. In early example of weakness, in 2017 federal agents defied a court order and denied access to permanent residents detained at Dulles Airport. Was that an isolated incident? Trump fulminated about disbanding an appeals court, but it didn’t happen. With two appointments to the Supreme Court and one out of four federal judges appointed by Trump, the courts have been to some degree captured. For example, the Supreme Court is not allowing Trump’s tax returns to be released. The most recent act of open defiance is the refusal to follow a federal court order to restore DACA. Verdict: yes.

Tags: President · Supreme Court · U.S. Institutions

17 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave Kliman

    Does it count if police are attacking journalists at protests? Maybe some got arrested?

  • Partha Neogy

    “His approval among all voters hasn’t fallen below a floor of about 39% (or gone above a ceiling of 43%) for his entire presidency.”

    It is almost as if his approval ratings are not about performance in office. Rather it is about signaling or sharing a secret handshake.

  • Sam Wang

    Updated #2 to reflect the detention of reporters and cameramen at protests nationwide.

  • Joe Sommer

    I don’t think you’re hysterical. But you seem to be on a hair trigger. Take #1: “Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition.” Does this describe U.S. support of Israel? Or #8: removal of civil service employees. Your citations–Comey and the IGs–do not have civil service protection. Or #4: made-up charges. To me, this means criminal charges.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Of course he is an authoritarian, let’s not quibble about specific points on a checklist. What is curious is how incompetent he is at it. On the authoritarian achievement scale with Singapore’s Lee-Kwan Yew on the right and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe on the left, he shows up below zero.

    In late 2016 I was afraid he would cut a deal with Democrats to do lots of infrastructure, DACA-for- wall, students loan deals, appease North Korea, and basically be in the high 60s approval range.

    He had the mandate to do all of that. If he had, we would be on the way to being an authoritarian state.

  • Sean

    Trump’s and others on the right assertion that “antifa” is the group behind any disobedience would fit in with point 4 I think and maybe point 6 in the future.

    Nobody can name a single antifa member because it’s not so much a real group but more of a mindset. He can label anybody he disagrees with “antifa” and since they are now a terrorist organization the retribution could be severe.

    • Michael

      Let’s not forget the busloads of anarchists driving around the country to foment violence. How dozens of anarchists packed into one vehicle managed to refrain from speaking to the driver while vehicle was in motion, stay in their seats, and refrain from sticking their arms out the window is a miracle of political discipline. Be afraid, be very afraid.

  • 538_Refugee

    On number 10. He has recently rid himself of a lot of ‘watch dogs”. When the stimulus was passed there were provisions for oversight and the administration immediately said they wouldn’t comply. Now they are refusing to make available who loans went to. They know the letter and spirit of a broadly bipartisan law and are disobeying it. Has any, even semi-plausible, excuse been given as to why they think they don’t have to comply with it?

  • 538_Refugee

    “Merkley also tweeted one video of such an arrest showing two masked, camouflaged individuals with generic “police” patches, detain a person dressed in a black outfit and place them in an unmarked van before driving away.

    Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters. These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end. pic.twitter.com/PE4YfZ9Vqd
    — Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 16, 2020″

    https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/18/us/portland-arrests-federal-authorities/index.html

    • Sam Wang

      Here’s an amazing falsehood that I had to let through, just so you can see what’s showing up out there:

      “So why do the Democratic Party send unmarked, masked, camouflaged individuals out to attack political enemies?

      Let me know when the Antifa and BLM thugs get judges to sign warrants, require probable cause, and permit representation of the people they decide to punish.”

  • Amitabh Lath

    Then there is War. Authoritarians need war against a clearly defined enemy (external and internal) as an organizing principle. So we have the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan steaming through the South China sea. And a loud defense of the Confederate flag against thugs who want to “erase our culture”.

  • Ruhrfisch

    All 10 can be checked off now – Trump administration is defying the Supreme Court over DACA:

    https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/07/daca-donald-trump-supreme-court.html

    • ArcticStones

      Sam, I too am curious as to why the Trump Regime’s openly-stated defiance against the Supreme Court and its DACA ruling doesn’t lead to you checking off your 10th and final point.

  • Gaby

    Now there’s this fracas going on with the postal service. Louis DeJoy is a Trump supporter, and campaign donor who was appointed by Trump and as we’ve seen by the latest overhauls in the way the postal service operates—hes unquestionably proving his loyalty. So many people use the USPS for so many reasons. To mess with the mail is to mess with the country.

  • Jack

    The President is not alone; interesting argument that some states are heading in that direction as well.

    Gardner, James A., Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the American States (July 18, 2020). University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020-001, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3656508 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3656508

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