John Brennan’s public service: -CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia -CIA chief of staff -Director of Terrorist Threat Integration Center -Directo...
Authoritarianism in 2020: Checking the checklist
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.
January 6, 2021: This checklist predicted the authoritarian nature of Donald Trump pretty well. There is no need to update it. We know where we are now. It is more useful as a document demonstrating when each criterion was initially met.
January 11: Here’s the second impeachment resolution.
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.
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
- Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition.
- Detention of journalists.
- Loss of press access to the White House.
- Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.
- Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution.
- Use of a terrorist or other incident to take away civil liberties.
- Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters.
- Removal of civil service employees for insufficient loyalty or membership in a suspect group.
- Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations.
- Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 high. Verdict: yes.
- 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.
- 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 Afri
can-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.
- 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.