The Authoritarian Checklist – John Brennan / Peter Strzok update, August 2018

August 15, 2018 by Sam Wang

I’ve left this topic alone for some time, but we must revisit it every time one of the items is checked off in a major way. On August 15, 2018, it’s Trump’s targeting of government officials Peter Strzok at the FBI and former CIA director John Brennan. Those enlarge the list of offenses under item #5 below.

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. Then I updated the list 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, while he is under investigation, appears ready to appoint a second member of the Supreme Court.

In this updated version of the checklist, we are at a score of six out of ten. For these six 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 seventh item, incitement of violence against individuals.

Finally, I leave out the degree of competence with which each action was done. This is important, since some degree of competence is essential for authoritarian rule to take hold. The current Administration seems particularly maladroit. But it is also setting a tone that may 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. Access is reduced substantially; press briefings consist of a river of lies that is something to behold. Over time, more assertive reporters such as Jorge Ramos, Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins have been tossed out. YES
  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. And now, government officials are being targeted for doing their jobs (Peter Strzok) or speaking their minds on matters of national importance (John Brennan). 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 are other verbal attacks, for instance on 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. In the end, it didn’t happen. However, 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 it’s less necessary if courts cooperate with questionable actions.


Kimberly Dick says:

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 says:

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 says:

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”.

Sam Wang says:

Read more carefully please. I said that there *isn’t* loss of press access.

LondonYoung says:

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”.

ArcticStones says:

But the Tweets!

LondonYoung says:

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 says:

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 says:

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 says:

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 says:

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 says:

Sam needs to add “vote up” buttons to the blog 😉

538 Refugee says:

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.”

LondonYoung says:

Was anyone indicted, tried or punished for treason?
Nobel prize winner Lev Landau compared Stalin to Hitler in an off-hand remark and then spent a year in jail for it.

538 Refugee says:

“Many Republicans say Trump should have power to shut down media outlets”
Even FOX has some concerns it seems.

LondonYoung says:

Strzok: It is important to remember that Strzok was using his employer funded cell phone to send text messages with personal political content. If he had been employed at a Fed regulated bank he would have been fired without a second thought.
Brennan: It is important to remember that Brennan was no longer a public employee but was using his security clearance in pursuit of personal partisan political goals. Most employers shut off all access to the employer’s confidential data when the employee leaves.
I find it objectionable that these individuals were singled out – that is not fair. However, I think the treatment they got should be applied to all government employees/retirees.

538 Refugee says:

Business and government do not fulfill the same role. If you care about your nation you don’t stop caring when you leave office. Transparency takes a huge hit if you just summarily disconnect them at the end of their service.

LondonYoung says:

I don’t take it as a given that government employees care any more about the nation than the rest of us. And the issue gets tainted by their left-ish political bias and larger-than-the-private-sector pay packages.
I have never been able to decide if having a political agenda is an indicator of patriotism or just selfishness.

538 Refugee says:

It sounds like you rebutted a point I didn’t make so you could work in ” tainted by their left-ish political bias”.

David Rasberry says:

Under civil service and FBI regulations, employees are permitted free expression of personal and political beliefs. I.E. they do not give up their free speech rights as a condition of employment.
The test is whether their personal views biased in any material way their job performance. The inspector general investigation concluded that is Strzok’s case it did not.
Trump and his supporters in Congress are specifically attacking individuals like Strzok who have long been involved in Russian counter intelligence investigations that might reveal wrong doing by the administration.

Susan says:

Re: 2, you’re giving him a pass where he deserves an asterisk at best. Jorge Ramos, Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins have all been tossed out.
(sorry if this posts twice)

Sam Wang says:

Interesting point, though I had originally intended this in the sense of of being detained by authorities, not excluded from briefings.
(By the way, Susan, and everyone: usually I require real email addresses for verification and answerability.)

LondonYoung says:

It is, perhaps, a clear step in the direction of (3).

Sam Wang says:

good point. Thank you, Susan and LondonYoung

Amitabh Lath says:

The whole planet seems to be having an authoritarian moment. Of course Russia, North Korea, and the Middle Eastern monarchies have always been but seem even more so now. Some countries that seemed headed towards open and plural societies are regressing. China under Xi Jinping is able to bend Google to its will. Hungary, Turkey, Malaysia are getting dangerous places to be for dissenters.

Lucy Berlin says:

Sadly I ask that you add Poland, Slovakia and even the Czech Republic as the formerly shining examples of democracy that are increasingly in the grip of Russia-leaning and/or populist/nationalist and always corrupt authoritarians.
Scholar Dalibor Rohac sounded this alarm on 3/27/18, in an article in the Financial Times about the former Czechoslovakia countries, called “Czech Republic and Slovakia flirt with authoritarianism”. Including this about my birthplace, the Czech Republic, whose educated people are as distraught about the descent from the principled government of Vaclav Havel, as we are about the falling safeguards under Trump:
“There is a similar, if less strong, sense of malaise in the Czech Republic, notwithstanding the parliamentary and presidential elections of October 2017 and January this year, respectively. Milos Zeman, the re-elected president, does not hide his ties to Russian business and likes to shock by his extreme rhetoric — such as calling for journalists to be ‘liquidated’.
Even more worryingly, the country is now governed by a one-party cabinet that, in defiance of all informal constitutional norms, lacks a majority in parliament. Andrej Babis, the prime minister, also happens to be the second-wealthiest Czech citizen and owner of two of the country’s leading newspapers — as well as a former agent of the communist secret police.”

Lucy Berlin says:

Sorry — I’d intended to include a link to the Financial Times article above. This is the best I can do:
“Czech Republic and Slovakia flirt with authoritarianism”

Sonia N Fair says:

Does Trump’s blindness about the brutal incident of abduction & murder of Khashoggi count in the category of journalist’s detention?

Emigre says:

Point 9: .. to incite violence ..
This should qualify also:
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” Trump said.

Andreas Miles-Novelo says:

6. Use of a terrorist incident or an international incident to take away civil liberties. Not yet.
I would disagree, while Trump hasn’t specifically done it, 9/11 and the Patriot Act fall into here and the ramifications of that are still being felt.

Arthur Klassen says:

Brought to my attention, another measure of a certain brand of authoritarianism, 20 points — not just 7 — comparing the acts of the current incumbent with the monster of Europe: “Leading Civil Rights Lawyer Shows 20 Ways Trump Is Copying Hitler’s Early Rhetoric and Policies”

Tracy says:

Here we are in 2020. The list of prosecutable charges against this administration everyday breaks the record set on the previous day. As a cleared person myself, what HRC did was disgusting and maddening. I would be in jail had I done, what she did.
With that said, the nepotistic involvement of Ivanka is WAY more slimy then anything HRC did in her whole history of government service. Let’s focus on the real problem, that you want to avoid and stop reliving the glory days of “Lock Her Up” and “Leaking Lying Comey”. Those days are over – unless and until Dump go full Borat on our country.
Direct some of the energy you use to defend the indefensible toward yourself (while standing in front of a mirror if possible) and the like-minded errant Republican colleagues in your cohort. Get educated on what information warfare is. Read up on Putin and his “Four Horsemen”. This is the mental model inside the head of the Dump.

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