Are we on the road to authoritarianism? Donald Trump’s first year in office has prompted many observers to draw analogies to autocrats who have risen to power elsewhere, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Commentators across the spectrum have raised the alarm, including David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush; the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen; and Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die.
Trump certainly talks like an authoritarian and walks like an authoritarian. But at least thus far, he has not been able to rule like an authoritarian. That’s because his initiatives have met with resistance from the people, the states, and the courts—though, conspicuously, not from the Republican Party. Despite enjoying single-party control of both houses of Congress, Trump has succeeded in passing only one major piece of legislation, his tax reform bill, following multiple failures to repeal Obamacare. His administration is most often consumed by its own infighting and scandals. Much of what he has implemented has been via unilateral executive action, and can be reversed if and when a new president takes office. All in all, he has been a most incompetent authoritarian.
Still, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration and look toward the midterms in November, a critical question remains: Is Donald Trump’s election a step on the road to authoritarianism, or is he an anomaly, likely to be remembered as a failed leader who unwittingly catalyzed a new progressive majority? Which narrative is the right one will ultimately be determined as much by us as by Trump himself.
The significance of Trump’s election should not be lightly discounted, as it reflects an emerging and troubling trend in democracies across the world. Populism—defined by Princeton professor of politics Jan-Werner Müller in What Is Populism? as anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and asserting an exclusive claim to speak for “the people” while dismissing as enemies those who disagree—is on the rise. In the United States and Europe alike, we have seen increasing support for a politics that defines itself by what it is against: elites, racial minorities, immigrants, and, often, government itself. Trump’s populist authoritarian tendencies share disturbing parallels with those of Orbán in Hungary, the Alternative for Germany party, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Five Star Movement in Italy, which gained a troubling one-third of the votes cast in the March 4 elections.
Like his European counterparts, Trump treats his base as the “real people” and dismisses people who disagree as enemies or traitors. He rails against checks and balances, including the courts and the press. He foments scapegoating, xenophobia, and racial and religious hatred—from the Muslim ban to his reluctance to condemn white supremacists. He evinces reckless disregard for truth; The Washington Post has counted more than 2,000 false statements in just his first year in office. And Trump has shown antipathy toward the rule of law—interfering with an ongoing criminal investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election.