Authoritarian Government Watch

January 28, 2017 by Sam Wang

I’ve written before on what features are shared by fascist movements, and a ten-point warning checklist for how 2017 America may becoming like 1934 Germany. After 7 8 10 13 28 days of the new Administration, how are things going?

I score them doing or attempting three four five (six?) out of ten so far: #1, #3, #4, (#5?), #7, and #8. Note that some of these are not yes/no issues, especially while a story is unfolding.

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition.
  2. Detention of journalists.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.
  5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution.
  6. Use of a terrorist incident or an international incident to take away civil liberties.
  7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters.
  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)
  9. Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations.
  10. Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court.

Some notes:

#2: On the day of the inauguration, journalists were arrested. Does that count? It might be an isolated instance. I’m not counting it.

#3: Trump’s only calling on right-wing outlets at press conferences. A borderline situation, but it seems like a major disconnect with the press. (Update 2/17: he called on some regular reporters, such as CNN’s Jim Acosta…though he did abuse them a fair bit.)

#4: Trump makes false claims of massive voter fraud. These claims have no basis in reality.

#5: Feb. 17: In his meandering, uncomfortable press conference yesterday, Trump said he was directing the Justice Department to investigate criminal leaks. Usually, Presidents do not direct criminal investigations because of the concern of politicizing law enforcement. Does this meet criteria? I’m not counting it yet…but it’s developing.

#8: This is in flux. Acting Attorney General Yates was a career civil servant, but also an appointee of the previous Administration. However, in light of the multiple lower-court orders regarding the executive order, her firing raises questions about whether the rule of law is being eroded. Also, Press Secretary Sean Spicer has made threats against career diplomats in the State Department that if they don’t agree with the President’s executive order, they should leave. After feedback from pechmerle (see comments), I am downgrading this for now.

#10 is looking a lot like it’s happening. As of February 2nd, Customs and Border Patrol appears to be purposely finding ways to misinterpret court orders that are clearly worded. Update: maybe they’re backing down for now.

Overall, what is probably needed is a graded scale: (a) none, (b) one or two isolated instances; (c) a pattern of conduct or purposeful effort; and (d) establishment of a standing policy. As conditions deteriorate, I can formalize this approach.

Also, unfortunately I left out things like making obvious false statements, for instance the recent falsehoods about voting fraud, or invocation of an event that never happened like the “Bowling Green Massacre”; and curtailment of free speech of government employees. Maybe that can be a separate list. I am interested in what other indicators have been left out.


Ashok Karra (@akarra) says:

The thing is that some of these “indicators” aren’t just indicators – they’re the threat itself. Taking sides with a foreign power over domestic opposition when you’re in charge is breathtakingly bad. Stories of ancient republics or Renaissance politics are filled with things like “the King of France and the Pope got together and crushed the liberty of [insert Italian city-state],” or “the oligarchs applied to help from such-and-such city and the resulting slaughter made the city a nightmare that never recovered.”
Somehow, a notion of degree needs to be added to this checklist. One of these things can be so much worse than the others.
Other things to add to the checklist:
– attempts to codify and perpetuate voter suppression
– a refusal to openly acknowledge opposition as legitimate or having grievances that should be addressed
– disproportionately long sentences for protestors
– rampant use of “delegitimizing” rhetoric: no one has any moral authority, therefore you must listen to me
– use of the most powerful pulpit on earth to perpetually distract the populace
– use of the most powerful pulpit on earth to radicalize and rally one’s supporters

ArcticStones says:

I think you will want to read this. It’s stunning! By the way, Steve Bannon is on the board of Cambridge Analytica.

LongStrider says:

They have detained multiple journalists on ‘rioting’ charges for covering protests:

Bill G. says:

This is the D.C. police though, not the Trump administration. You can certainly make a strong argument that the police may be taking queues from the inflammatory language against the press used by the Trump administration, but as far as I know there’s no indication that there are direct orders to detain journalists.

Bill G. says:

Also, I’d like to clarify: I think this is bad, regardless of where the orders are coming from.

Paul Rosenberg says:

“All Governments lie.” — I.F. Stone
So “making obvious false statements” needs to be reconsidered. Fascist governments lie in ways designed to dissolve the very possibility of knowing anything. They gaslight. Trump’s response to accurate crowd size reports wasn’t just lying, it was gaslighting.

ArcticStones says:

And now Trump & Bannon are demobilizing and demolishing those agencies that register facts. This includes not only obvious things like the EPA’s climate records, but simple things like avoiding official transcripts of press conferences.
Think of the possibilities here… There may soon be no official unemployment statistics. Which would allow Trump to lie with impunity about how many jobs he has created.
Methinks it timely that we recall Hannah Arendt’s striking words:
​“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
― Hannah Arendt
The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951

Emigre says:

Fortunately some efforts are underway to preserve the information on the EPA sites:
How could one pressure Google to make the info on other sites that its web crawler collects publicly available?

bks says:

The writer Michael O’Donoghue used to say that the definition of insanity is the length of time it takes for a lie to be uncovered. The shorter the period, the crazier you are. By this standard, our president will be setting a new threshold for that definition.

Erik Johnson says:

I have been very troubled by people (e.g. Nate Silver and co.) saying things like, “Well the Republican party has been involved in a lot of moves in totalitarian directions, but that isn’t Trump.” Voter suppression has been a hive part of their agenda for a decade or more now. Bear in mind that autocratic personality cult focus don’t exist in a vacuum. Unless they are in step with larger trends in their societies, they never gain any relevance. What is more, a number of these things, notably incitement to violence were signature Trump plays in the campaign trail. A campaign trail in which Trump also asserted the election should actually be called off and he should be simply appointed president. The ugliest element Wootton his base of popular support is an openly fascist element commonly referred to as the “alt-right”, whose leading figure, Spencer, has in fact called for the formation of vigilante groups.

EMMartin says:

As a Red state resident, the failure of the media to give more than passing notice to what’s happened in Red states has been mind boggling. If they had paid enough attention, they would have seen the authoritarianism long ago.
They don’t seem to realize that every Republican legislator in every state and in Congress has signed Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. So, they don’t know how that affects the most basic local and federal government functions of maintaining and building roads and water and sewage pipes.
Every now and then there is a piece about ALEC or the Kochs, Mercers, Ricketts, Adelson, etc. I could go on. But, the fact is that the Republican Party is controlled by various groups that all have authoritarian tendencies. My way or the highway…to the politicians who seek their funding.
The newspaper in a state capital doesn’t have the resources to cover what’s going on in their state and in the surrounding Red states and see the similarities and make the connections.
That has to come from large newspapers like NYT and WaPo or newspaper groups like McClatchy, with some centrally located reporter or editor compiling the info from a group of Red states and making the comparisons between the states and showing that several billionaire families working behind various front groups have grabbed control of the majority of our state legislatures and that has allowed them to gain control of both houses of Congress.
Talking to Trump voters is not as important as looking at what’s been going on in the Red states and telling their residents how they have been manipulated and warning the Blue states.

LondonYoung says:

How about using governmental power, like the IRS, to suppress the political opposition? Say, if a group has “Indivisible” in their name, deny them tax exempt status.

Isabel says:

Is there a reason not to highlight #2?

Sam Wang says:

Might that be a one-time error by local law enforcement? Agree, it could meet criteria.
Do we meed a graded scale? For example: none: one or two isolated instances; a pattern of conduct or purposeful effort; and establishment of a standing policy. Or something like that.

pechmerle says:

Pushing back:
Over the weekend, the ACLU received just over $24 million in online donations.
That compares with $4 million they usually receive in online donations for an entire year.
Efforts on this scale really can make a difference. The ACLU is in the courts on this immigration/border freeze executive order.

bks says:

Scientists’ march on Washington:

Bruce Epstein says:

I think we’re clearly at 8 or 9 already, and it has only been a week.
I think four is a wild underestimation of reality.

Sean Patrick Santos says:

I think that manipulating, withholding, or simply refusing to create the statistics and research that the government has traditionally produced would be a bad sign.
Refusing access to the White House seems less important to me, in that journalists are rarely able to extract information that the administration wouldn’t already want to promote. Watching Trump or Spicer chew out the media provides a sense of drama, but it mostly seems like an entertaining sideshow rather than revealing anything really new about the administration.
However, if we can’t trust the government to provide accurate measurements with respect to the economy, or law enforcement, or its own agencies’ expenditures, it can really make it hard to judge the administration’s assertions against more reliable numbers.
This goes for scientific data as well. Consider NASA’s budget for Earth sciences:
Denying the existence or anthropogenic nature of climate change is not inherently authoritarian or fascist in itself, but what is concerning here is the significant degree of harm this would do to whole fields of research. (Thus obviously includes climate research, which relies heavily on a reconstructed historical record that covers the globe, which in turn requires a great deal of satellite data to produce, at least at the level of detail that we’ve needed for modern studies.) Dividing science into ideologically acceptable fields to be supported, vs. subversive research that will be suppressed entirely, would be a concerning development, and one that is plausibly part of the current administration’s plans.

Bruce Epstein says:

Trump just fired the acting attorney general. Cross #8 off your list.

Owen says:

I do not really think we can count that one. She took a moral and legal stand that others disagree with in direct conflict with the orders given by her superior in the executive branch. Since she was days from stepping down, the outcome was obvious either way.
What bothers me was the statement Trump released about the incident, in which he refers to her “betrayal”. That DOES sound authoritarian to me, but it’s nothing new in politics to be honest. You’re against the Iraq War? Traitor. Against the Patriot Act? Traitor. I can’t take any of it seriously anymore as much as it galls me.

Sam Wang says:

Fair point, though it seems to me that court orders are supposed to be followed by the DOJ. Anyway, I hope you agree that the situation bears watching.

pechmerle says:

“court orders are supposed to be followed by the DOJ” – yes, but these court orders are lower court, interim rulings. The president has every right to expect — and indeed instruct — the DOJ to go into court and contest these orders becoming final at the lower level and even if they do then appeal them to the circuit courts. Only if there is a truly final order — perhaps all the way up to the Supreme Court — is the DOJ fully bound not to contest the orders.
The DOJ is bound to follow the orders while they are still in effect and have not been revised by the lower courts, or overturned on appeal.
I do certainly agree with the moral position that Sally Yates took, though she had only days remaining in office anyway. And I agree that DJT’s use of the word “betrayal” was excessive — though completely in character. It would have sufficed had he said, her memo is from a holdover official from the prior administration, and I am replacing her with an official who will follow the policies of my administration

ArcticStones says:

Here is another:
# Ordering government agencies to stop gathering and publishing data that contradict the President’s narrative.
Examples: Scrubbing the EPA’s website of all data about, and references to, climate change. The ceasing of official transcripts from White House press conferences.
Coming soon (prediction): the disappearance of official, objective jobs data.

ArcticStones says:

…obviously it is easier to spread “alternative facts” if embarrassing real facts don’t exist.

ArcticStones says:

The Guardian’s article on the fear of scrubbing of factual information:
PS. Yonatan Zunger’s analyses of current developments are perhaps the most concise and clear that I have seen. Especially worth noting are the timeline he indicates, the mysterious “sale” of a 19 % stake in the Russian state oil company Rosneft (allegedly promised to Trump as a reward for lifting sanctions against Russia), and the geographic authority of the DHS (surprising and alarming, excerpt below),:
“DHS already has police authority within 100 miles of any border of the US; since that includes coastlines, this area includes over 60% of Americans, and eleven entire states. They also have a standing force of over 45,000 officers, and just received authorization to hire 15,000 more on Wednesday.)”

Erica says:

Re: #5. What about Chuck Jones? It’s true that he wasn’t placed under arrest or tortured. But he received death threats and people showed up at his house.

notamobster says:

Where’s the link to the authoritarian test you did for President Obama? I’m no Trump supporter, but in my experience these things tend to be more partisan hackery than anything resembling the slightest pretense of intellectual integrity.

Sam Wang says:

The point of this exercise was to perform an honest experiment. I came up with this checklist in advance of the Inauguration. The experiment is then to see if the items on the checklist came true.
You are welcome to attempt to compare the events of the Obama Administration with this list. I doubt that you would get much of a match.

Kanwaljit Singh says:

Maybe the link isn’t there because President Obama was not an authoritarian?

Emigre says:

Should scientists participate or not?
IMO, given the intransigent mindsets of Trump and Bannon, appeasement will not be beneficial.
Scientists’ march on Washington:

Sean Patrick Santos says:

I don’t think that blaming Al Gore for doubt about climate change really holds water. Look at Gallup data, for instance:
Or Pew:
The biggest drop in belief did not occur in 2006 when “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, after which the public continued to trend towards greater acceptance of climate change for two more years. The decline happened in 2009, when the Tea Party was formed and the “Climategate” email leak occurred. At that time there were a lot of negative stories about climate science in conservative media, because painting climate change as a hoax was something that fit in well with a broader narrative about shady international conspiracies intended to benefit a cultural elite at the expense of ordinary Americans, by means of big government. (See also: Trutherism, Birtherism, “death panels”, ACORN, and FEMA death camps, all of which became hot topics to varying degrees as part of a blossoming of conspiracy theories that occurred as part of the conservative backlash in 2009.)
Anyway, the point I’m making is that climate science has indeed lost traction with the public by being politicized, but it was not because scientists did anything particularly outspoken to provoke conservatives. Instead, a lot of firepower was aimed at climate science simply because it was a convenient target, and in particular, portraying climate scientists as frauds was a useful way to cast doubt on federal regulations and spending in general.
Climate scientists are, by themselves, not particularly powerful at influencing the public. There are probably a few thousand people in the U.S. who are involved enough in climate science to participate in the kind of public outreach suggested in that article. Not all of them are particularly capable or motivated when it comes to that sort of outreach. They are most likely concentrated in parts of the country where most people already believe in climate change. So I’m skeptical that there’s any reasonable strategy for climate scientists to change minds without relying heavily on national media in some way.
All that said, I think that the question of how to present climate science to the public is mostly irrelevant to this protest anyway!
The stated purpose of the March for Science is not to educate the public about a specific subject, but to call for public funding for science, public communication of science, and for public policy to acknowledge the findings of the government’s own research. A number of the participants are inevitably going to be people who are not necessarily scientists themselves, but are concerned that the EPA is going to be gutted and muzzled, or that NOAA is going to be forced to release the internal emails that Lamar Smith is after, or that the recommendations of the CDC are going to be ignored for political reasons in the face of a deadly pandemic (think HIV or Ebola). Given the international nature of most research, doubtless some people there will be protesting the impact of travel and immigration bans on science as well. Some will probably advocate for greater diversity in the leadership of the major science agencies.
That doesn’t mean that this protest will necessarily be the most effective way to address all of the above. I really don’t know who in the Trump administration will end up being susceptible to what kind of public pressure. But I did want to point out that that op-ed does not really present an accurate picture either of how the public views climate science, nor of the issues at stake for this march.

bks says:

Attending a mass demonstration is food for the soul. It’s much better than re-watching Fail-Safe(1964) and ruminating, alone, at 3am. The date for the march has been set as 22 April. You can organize a local march if D.C. is inconvenient. See you then.

pechmerle says:

Donald J. Trump ✔ @realDonaldTrump
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
3:13 AM – 2 Feb 2017
13,762 13,762 Retweets 43,300 43,300 likes
Triggered by the (minority, non-student) outbreak of violent protest against a scheduled speech by the professional provocateur Yiannopoulos. An element of #5 from Trump here. But what most troubles me is that the violence was carried out primarily by “black mask” anarchists, who actively want chaos and violence in return, to undermine democratic institutions that they do not view as legitimate or necessary.
This kind of supposedly anti-fascist violence provides fuel for the push in the authoritarian direction of government. It provides ready-made excuses for the greater power of the authoritarian-leaning government to be brought to bear. I’m deeply concerned we’ll have more incidents like this and that Trump will seek to capitalize on them — probably successfully with many in the public.
I am inexorably reminded of this, from Mein Kampf: “If Social Democracy is opposed by a doctrine of greater truth but equal brutality of methods, the latter will conquer.”

ArcticStones says:

As Trump seeks to expand his authoritarian influence beyond US borders, there is some very interesting push-back. In an unprecedented move, EU leaders are calling for a rejection of Trump’s likely EU Ambassador!
The quotes herein, not least by wannabe-ambassador Ted Malloch, are far beyond anything that I recall reading from the usually-staid world of diplomacy.

Charlie Carter says:

PEC is missing a crucial element of the transformation to a dictatorship. Ms Conway is acting as a “Minister of Propaganda”. Her mission is purely to sow disinformation. The media have no purpose in interviewing her and the media do a disservice to the nation by interviewing her. The accounting in my book is thus 5 of 11.

Bulgakov's Cat says:

do u think this matters?
ur confirmation bias is betraying u again
Silvers poll aggregation estimate of Trump support is 45%.
Trump got 46% of the popular vote.
Trumps base doesnt really care if he hits all 10 points on ur list– they dont care at all if Trump grabs pussy, lies constantly, or starts WWIII.
their brain biochemistry is DIFFERENT than yours.
we are devolving into homo sapiens americanus red and homo sapiens americanus blue.
its not polarization– its pseudo-speciation.

538 Refugee says:

Quasi related? It speaks to ‘mindset’.
Talk about your slippery ethics slope. How much of the ‘professional’ reasoning here is being tainted by politics. The fact that this is even being debated speaks volumes. Does being a pathological liar and megalomaniac qualify as mental illness as such? All this was known before people voted. As unhappy as I am with the results there are some paths even I wouldn’t go.

ArcticStones says:

26,000 mental health care professionals have signed a petition declaring that, in their evaluation:
“…Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States. And we respectfully request he be removed from office, according to article 3 of the 25th amendment to the Constitution.”
Granted, while some may debate the ethics and validity of diagnosing, or casting judgement on, a patient they have not personally evaluated, this is truly unprecedented!
Let us also recall that five Presidents (Carter, Bush I & II, Clinton and Obama) spoke out against Trump, indicating they deemed him unfit for this nation’s highest office.
This is NOT normal!

Robert says:

It looks like we’ve got another instance of #8.
It has been reported that Trump fired Craig Deare from the NSC for criticism.

pechmerle says:

#3 just took a jump upwards, with today’s news briefing from which NYT, CNN, several other mainstream sources were barred. While Fox, Breitb*rt, other favored sources were admitted. ‘Get your news only from those we trust to spin it the way we like it.’

T McDonald says:

The exclusion applied the the BBC and The Guardian. The BBC is well-known for its objectivity on world affairs. The Guardian is similar, but the point is even foreign media are being excluded.

CL Qualset says:

How about revisiting and updating this article in light of the state of emergency declaration?

Sam Wang says:

I agree that something significant just happened. But what item on the list has changed? #6? Yet it’s not a real emergency, right?

Jake Frost says:

Will you be updating this?

Sam Wang says:

I don’t really see the need. We know where we are now, and his presidency is nearly over. It seems more useful to document when each criterion was initially met.

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