He’s now president for life,” Donald Trump told a closed-door meeting of Republican donors at his Mar-a-Lago resort on 3 March, referring to the Chinese government’s decision to abolish term limits and allow President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
Is this the “scariest thing Donald Trump has said as president”, to quote a headline on the CNN website? Was this Trump not just endorsing but envying a model of dictatorship? Or was he just joking? To be fair, the US president was smiling and there were laughs from the audience. So it was all tongue-in-cheek, right? Right?
Perhaps not. “Authoritarians and aspiring authoritarians often ‘joke’ about power grabs or autocratic behaviour as a ‘trial balloon’ to gauge public reaction,” says Brian Klaas, an American political scientist who specialises in authoritarianism and political violence, and is author of the recent book, The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy. Klaas has a point: Trump’s fellow populist, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, “joked” about assassinating reporters when he came to office in 2016. Today, the Philippines ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist.
The US president’s praise for an authoritarian power grab isn’t an isolated incident, Klass tells me. “It wasn’t a joke. It was a window into a man who values strongmen over democratic institutions and has exhibited that trait for years.”
Trump has form when it comes to praising dictators, despots and autocrats: from Russia’s Vladimir Putin (“He’s been a leader, far more than [Barack Obama] has been a leader”); to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (“He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”); to Duterte (“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem”).
In an interview with Playboy magazine back in 1990, the then property tycoon hailed the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous response to the Tiananmen Square protests. “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.” In contrast, Trump added, “our country is right now perceived as weak”.
Other US presidents have cosied up to tyrants – think Bill Clinton and Hosni Mubarak or George W Bush and the Saudis – but few have done so as proudly as the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Then there is Trump’s domestic record. Political scientists agree that authoritarian or illiberal rule is not only the result of military coups or tanks on the streets. Rather, the slow erosion of democratic norms can also open the door to creeping authoritarianism. Wittingly or unwittingly, Trump has borrowed from the playbook of every successful autocrat of the modern era.
Consider the evidence. Undermine the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary? Check. Trump has attacked “so-called” judges who have ruled against him while tweeting that a New York terror suspect “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY”.
Politicise law enforcement and the security services? Check. Trump fired FBI chief James Comey, tried to sack special counsel Robert Mueller and now wants to remove his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Demonise the free press? Check. Trump has repeatedly lambasted his critics in the media as “fake news”, “scum” and “losers”. He has dubbed leading news organisations such as CNN and the New York Times as “the enemy of the American people”.
Fetishise the military? Check. Trump has surrounded himself with unelected former generals – his chief of staff and his defence secretary, among them – and even demanded a military parade be held in Washington, DC.
Delegitimise the electoral process? Check. Trump has claimed that “millions of people… voted illegally” for his opponent and has spread false claims about “serious voter fraud” in the United States.
Criminalise the opposition? Trump has pressured the justice department to investigate his 2016 opponent, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, and called for the jailing of her former aide Huma Abedin.
The normalisation of this behaviour is perhaps the single biggest threat to American democracy – because it could outlast Trump’s presidency. “Previously unthinkable attacks on the press and calls to jail political rivals have become routine,” says Klaas. “That will have lasting consequences even if checks and balances were functioning properly, because 30 to 40 per cent of voters are not just OK with authoritarian populism; they actually applaud it.”
But wasn’t the US system designed to contain demagogues such as Trump? Such a perspective is dangerously complacent. “The constitution and the checks and balances it embeds in institutions are not magical,” warns Klaas. “They are as strong or weak as the people who uphold them or fail to do so.” And, right now, who are those people? The spineless Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader and House speaker respectively? Most of the GOP on Capitol Hill have turned a blind eye to the president’s political excesses.
Perhaps the big question is this: what if an emboldened and power-hungry Trump refuses to leave office when the time comes? If he’s impeached in the next year or two or – more likely – if he’s defeated by a Democratic opponent in November 2020, what then? “Given Trump’s narcissism; his recklessness; his instability; and his willingness to treat democratic norms as disposable nuisances,” says Klaas, “I would not be shocked if his time in office ends in an irregular way at odds with democratic conventions.” That’s a hell of a euphemism.
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war