Even after four years, many Americans have yet to reckon fully with what Donald Trump’s presidency means for the country’s politics and long-term future. Even if Trump fails to win re-election, he and the party he now controls have led the United States into dangerous territory from which there is no clear exit.
NEW YORK – At certain moments in history – often after substantial social progress has discomfited certain segments of society – an individual appears on the political scene claiming to stand for something grand and new. Skilled in the arts of self-presentation and emotional manipulation, he (it is always a man) captures the hearts and minds of millions with his macho bluster. In due time, a personality cult forms around him. And though he has threatened or used violence in his ascent to power, he enjoys the support of the faithful, who see him as the savior who will bring order to a disordered world.
This description of the archetypal strongman fits many current leaders. And, from Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the United States under Donald Trump, they include those governing some of the world’s most geopolitically important countries.
Since Trump took office in early 2017, the US has experienced an erosion of democracy and witnessed the unfolding of authoritarian leadership. The imminent presidential election is thus a referendum on the new illiberal direction America has taken under a president who has mainstreamed far-right extremism and pursued a foreign policy built on transactional alliances with murderous despots around the world.
Any election can hold surprises, as Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat in 2016 showed. Yet an existential dread surrounds the 2020 election, which has brought previously unthinkable possibilities to the fore. Trump has repeatedly signaled that he might refuse to concede defeat, and many worry that he will foment political violence if the outcome doesn’t go his way. The mere possibility of these scenarios is symptomatic of a degraded democratic political climate, and clear evidence of how far Trump’s authoritarian remaking of American political culture has already advanced.
Some pundits, like the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, scoff at the description of Trump as a strongman. They see the former reality-TV star as too weak and clownish to inflict serious damage on American society, even if he is re-elected. Using deeply-entrenched illiberal regimes like Putin’s Russia as a measure, these skeptics focus on what Trump has not done. He hasn’t shut down opposition media or established total control over the judiciary and other institutions, so what’s there to worry about?
But that is a misleading comparison. Every modern authoritarian leader started in a society with greater liberties, and gradually carried out a process of state capture. Especially in the twenty-first century, evolution, rather than revolution (or a military coup), has been the mode by which freedom is replaced with despotism. Moreover, without a sober look at what Trump has accomplished, we won’t be able to understand how we got to this perilous point, or what to expect in the coming weeks, months, or years, in the event that Trump wins re-election.
The history of the US presidency is a poor guide for interpreting Trump’s actions, starting with his relationship with the Republican political elites who have stuck by him through sex and corruption scandals, impeachment, and appalling mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we must look to models of authoritarian “personalist rule,” whereby power is concentrated in one individual whose own political and financial interests usually prevail over national interests. Under these regimes, loyalty to the leader and his allies, and participation in his corruption, rather than expertise or professional experience, are the primary qualifications for government service.
Trump’s success in domesticating the political class is all the more notable when one considers that most other despots founded or had already risen to prominence within their own parties. Erdoğan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Benito Mussolini, for example, had an established power base long before they started their autocratic power grabs. Trump had no such ready-made political vehicle for his ambitions. But in the space of just a few years, he has succeeded in transforming the Republican Party into just another personal franchise.
Republicans, for their part, seem to regard Trump as a means of realising their own long-frustrated aims (defending white Christian hegemony, deregulating large swaths of the economy, and cutting taxes for the wealthy). But whatever their reasons, they rallied behind him in such numbers and with such fervor as to transform the Grand Old Party.
For this election cycle, the party offered no policy platform, and instead issued an eerie statement of unconditional “support for President Donald Trump and his Administration,” illustrating the climate of fear and intimidation that now reigns within the party. Republicans have been reduced to fighting the strongman’s battles, smearing his enemies, and protecting him against any and all forms of accountability, including impeachment earlier this year.
This authoritarian leader-follower relationship reflects a fundamental shift in the GOP’s political culture that Americans will have to reckon with regardless of the election’s outcome. A host of recent comparative studies show that the Republican Party is no longer a mainstream democratic organization in either its rhetoric or its actions. It is now closer to the parties of Orbán and Erdoğan than to the British Conservatives or Germany’s Christian Democrats.
In fact, long before Trump appeared, the GOP, cheered on by a robust right-wing media universe, had been spurning its previous commitments to democratic notions of mutual tolerance and bipartisan governance. But Trump has legitimized the extremist elements that were once confined to the party’s fringes. As White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted just after Trump’s inauguration, in response to the outcry over his order barring travelers from Muslim-majority countries, “Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact. Promises made, promises kept. Shock to the system. And he’s just getting started.”
Intentionally implemented without warning, the travel ban threw the country into a state of chaos, giving the public and federal employees alike a visceral introduction to an administration that, with the full support of the GOP, had declared war on its own people. Over the next four years, Trump and his followers would separate immigrant children from their families, deploy federal forces against peaceful demonstrators, unleash a massive disinformation campaign, and dismantle or derail countless government agencies.
Only by accepting the reality of the authoritarian turn in American politics can further democratic erosion be combatted. Whatever the outcome of the election, that task remains.
•Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, is an expert on authoritarian regimes and their leaders and author of the forthcoming Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.