Authoritarian Government Watch – Update

May 11, 2017 by Sam Wang

On January 28th, I came up with 10 events that, if they happened, would constitute evidence of an authoritarian government. Now it’s the fourth month. As the Administration becomes engulfed by the growing Russia scandal and possible obstruction of justice by Trump himself, how are they coming along on the authoritarian front?

Actually…not that bad. At the one-month mark, I estimated that the Administration had committed or attempted six out of ten of the acts. This week’s news, in which Trump fired FBI director James Comey for investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, has cemented #1 and #8. However, on the good side, some other items have subsided somewhat. Overall, I’d score things at five out of ten and holding.

What’s going on? It appears that the pattern of malevolence tempered by incompetence has held back the worst offenses. And the judiciary has held up well as an institutional check on executive power.

This pattern extends not only to authoritarianism, but other domains as well. It’s been tough for the Administration to make progress in domestic policy, perhaps due to Trump’s lack of knowledge or attention span. A recent interview reveals the depth of this ignorance, as dissected by Matt Yglesias. In complete contrast to Trump’s budget request, the federal budget deal was a bipartisan agreement: virtually no cuts to EPA, increases in military spending and biomedical research, and preservation of pretty much everything else. The passage of an AHCA bill out of the House was an unexpected victory, but I have a feeling that the expanding Trump/Russia scandal is going to slow that down.

Still, the list below is worth keeping in mind. One international incident, one domestic emergency, and it’s quite possible that the roaring parade of scandal might be forgotten by our brilliant television media.

The Authoritarian Checklist, 2017

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition. This one’s obvious. YES
  2. Detention of journalists. Hasn’t happened systematically…though there might have been a recent instance.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House. Subsided. Access seems okay, but the river of lies is something to behold.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the governmentYES
  5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retributionYES
  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 supportersYES
  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.
  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…not yet.


ArcticStones says:

Perhaps you may deem this tangential, but wasn’t a journalist recently arrested for daring to ask a question of Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services?
And if Kris Kobach is going to be vice-chair of a Commission on Election Integrity (sic), shouldn’t Democrats demand Merrick Garland be appointed new FBI Director or Special Prosecutor?

538 Refugee says:

That incident came to mind for me also. At first it seemed as if the secret service was responsible. Later it appeared to be state officials so this may not be clear cut. At minimum it seems the press may have been put on notice and may therefore have a chilling effect. Of course, it may become a badge of honor amongst the press corps to push this boundary now.
His haranguing of the press and wanting to make it easier to sue them seems to at least be an earnest effort to bring about 2 & 9 on this list.
Was bringing the whole senate in for a briefing on North Korea a prelude to 6?

Sam Wang says:

That one seems borderline to me, but obviously it bears watching.

Mike Maltz says:

I’d rather see Patrick Fitzgerald, who successfully prosecuted one R governor and one D governor, appointed special prosecutor than give Trump another high-level judicial appointment.

Amitabh Lath says:

Even one confirmed item on this list is a serious issue, five is terrifying. The fact that this particular incarnation of authoritarianism is incompetent, illogical and impetuous is no solace. The next one could be less incoherent and more focused.
And the next one might not be a Republican. There are “burn the whole edifice down” populists on either end of the spectrum.
The question is what do centrists do. It’s a squishy ill-defined label but basically people who believe in institutions, flawed as they may be. Right now, the most interesting thing now is how the Lance, Frelinghuysen etc. Republicans respond.

Sam Wang says:

Yes, those are exactly the members of Congress who are most important to communicate with. Don’t think of them as passive – think of them as people who might listen to their constituents. They are near you, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

Matt McIrvin says:

I really worry about how mentally prepared we are for #6. As appalled as most of the news media are by Trump most of the time, a lot of them seem to harbor a deep need to see him make that mythical pivot and turn into a leader they can trust. To the extent that they keep announcing it when he does something like read a speech with complete sentences without soiling his pants.
At some point, some shit is going to hit the fan. It might hit the fan in such a way that Trump can use it to score jingo points, like 9/11. A lot depends on what the rest of us do then.

538 Refugee says:

It seems as though Rod Rosenstein made a bold statement when he appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel. On many levels. We don’t know what he knows at this point but I wonder if he wants to be on the ‘right side of history’? You would certainly think that Mueller would get the full support of the FBI.

Perry says:

Bold? Indeed!
I’m reading it as kind of payback for being thrown under the bus.
We are about to be witnessing a serious case of paranoia going forward.

538 Refugee says:

#2 looks to be inching forward.
“Not only did they get in between me and O’Rielly but they put their shoulders together and simultaneously backed me up into the wall and pinned me to the wall for about 10 seconds just as I started to say, “Commissioner O’Rielly, I have a question,” Donnelly said Friday.
Donnelly said he was stopped long enough to allow O’Rielly to walk away.
Given Trump’s call for Comey to arrest journalists and calling them an enemy, does ‘jail’ need to be the criteria here?

Susan Caba says:

Yes, and shutting American press out of Tillerson’s briefing in Saudi Arabia shows they are leaning that way, too.

538 Refugee says:

Does body slamming reporters count?
You think Trump’s ties to the WWE is starting to come into play?
Donald Trump bodyslams, beats and shaves Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania XXIII

Michael B. says:

Well, number 6 isn’t from a lack of trying, especially with yet another attempt at a travel ban (“it’s not a travel ban, that’s not what we call it” + “call it what it is, a travel ban” = ???), ostensibly due to what happened in the UK…

538 Refugee says:

Was I the only one that saw King Lear in this ‘cabinet meeting’?
“Once Trump finished touting his administration’s accomplishments, he turned to several of his newly-minted Cabinet secretaries like Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Each of those Cabinet secretaries lavished praise on Trump, which he accepted without comment but with a broad smile.
At first, I thought Trump was just going to have the new members of the Cabinet spend a few minutes praising him. NOPE! It soon became clear that Trump planned to have every Cabinet member speak. And when I say “speak” what I really mean is “praise Trump for his accomplishments, his foresight, his just being awesome.”
To thee and thine hereditary ever
Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
Than that conferr’d on Goneril. Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Alas. We lack a
Nothing, my lord.

KRavi says:

Even the Never Trump crowd saw a different narrative that is more along the lines of “Much Ado About Nothing” instead of King Lear:
To a gloomy eye all obscure things are demons!

Jay Sheckley says:

RE: the river of lies mentioned, I’ve wondered whether voters who backed Potus 45 are not only more at ease with being lied to, but also more willing to lie… to pollsters for example.

538 Refugee says:

#2 is not for lack of desire.
Trump’s suggestion was that “it may involve putting reporters in jail.”
“‘They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk,’” Comey recalled Trump saying. Comey then wrote “I laughed as I walked to the door Reince Priebus had opened.”

John Hebert says:

Obama was an authoritarian by several of your definitions.
Detention of journalists.
Obama is one up on Trump.
Loss of press access to the White House.
Looks like Obama beat Trump here too.

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