It could never happen in America. Right?
Two years ago, in Minsk, I met with Mikolai Statvekich, a presidential candidate in Belarus — a country often called the “Last Dictatorship in Europe.” During his campaign, Statkevich had spoken out in favor of democracy and had organized a peaceful protest against the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. For those “crimes,” Statkevich was beaten, then abducted. Thugs from the ruling regime grabbed him, put a bag over his head, and forced him into a van. For an hour, they drove around without telling Statkevich where they were heading. His mind was racing. Was he being taken to a secluded forest to be shot? A dirt road to be beaten to death? Would he ever see his family again? As it turned out, Statkevich was tossed into a cold, dark, bare jail cell and left to rot. The regime allowed him to speak to his family for only one hour per year. Other dissidents from the opposition were tortured, handcuffed onto a medieval-style rack, and stretched until their bones cracked and they “confessed.” In that horrifying environment, Statkevich watched five years of his life slip by, day after bleak day.
Statkevich finished his story. Both of us were shaken by what he had just told me. Then, Statkevich looked me straight in the eye and said: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You won’t realize what it’s worth until it’s too late.”
I study despots. The president of Belarus is a despot. The current U.S. president, Donald Trump, is not. But Trump is acting like a despot’s apprentice — an understudy in authoritarian tactics — who threatens to corrupt democracy beyond repair. Now, more than a year after Trump was elected, he has already done serious damage, and it could get much worse.
Trump is no Mussolini or Hitler, no Stalin or Castro. Anyone who makes those comparisons is an alarmist, belittling the suffering of millions at the hands of those tyrants. Trump is hardly an evil mastermind. Instead, he is a democratically elected leader, operating within the confines of one of the world’s most stable and robust democracies. Trump’s behavior is constrained by democratic institutions. His decisions are scrutinized by a robust and free press. Even if he wishes it were otherwise, Trump cannot rule by decree. In fact, during his campaign, Trump promised to enact ten major pieces of legislation within his first 100 days. He has, so far, enacted none of them. How can a man who has struggled to change the health care laws or build a wall be authoritarian?
Over the years, I have learned that most despots are not only twisted, they are also incompetent. They are often bumbling, tragicomically unready characters who are defined not by their disciplined efficiency or effectiveness but by their reckless authoritarian instincts and impulses. Sometimes, those instincts are married to a destructive ideology, such as Nazism or Communism. But much of the time, despots are driven by narcissism, an unquenchable ego that yearns for fame, public adoration, and stardom. For many authoritarian leaders throughout history, their greatest fear was that they would be nobodies—once gone, soon forgotten. Despots fear being, as Trump often says in his most stinging insults, someone “that you’ve never heard of.”
Take Paraguay’s longtime dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. He ruled the South American nation for 35 years, until a military coup forced him into exile. Stroessner wanted to make sure that everyone was constantly thinking of him. So, he erected a giant flashing neon sign with his name on it overlooking Asunción, the capital city. Photos of Stroessner were everywhere. His name was everywhere. Stroessner even renamed a city after himself: Puerto Stroessner. But he also wanted to make sure that you knew he was the best despot — like you’ve never seen before, believe me. To make sure his subjects knew he was getting things done, bigly, he referred to himself as “El Excelentisimo.”
Stroessner’s ego was deadly. Challenging his cult of personality was dangerous. One Senator who dared, Carlos Levi Rufinelli, was tortured six different times. The regime used torture to enforce its narrative of what was true and what was false. “When they put the needles under your fingernails,” Rufinelli later recalled, “you tell them anything, you denounce everybody, and then they say, ‘See, you were lying to us all the time.’” In one particularly barbaric episode, Stroessner’s regime recorded the screams of a schoolteacher, Martin Almada, as he was being tortured for the “crime” of advocating for higher teacher pay. Thugs from the regime then called Almada’s wife and played the recording for her. Next, they delivered his blood-soaked clothes to her house. An attached note instructed her to come collect his corpse. Her husband wasn’t actually dead, but she died of a heart attack at the shock.
Stroessner’s impulses grew more destructive because he was operating in a system that indulged rather than blocked them. When people could have stood up to him, they backed down. Over time, Stroessner got away with worse and worse abuses.
When someone with authoritarian instincts and autocratic impulses enters any political scene, there are three major ways to stop them becoming a despot.
First, there’s preventing them from getting into power. Demagogues are a dime a dozen. They are harmless if nobody listens to them. So, most would-be demagogues and despots just scream into the wind. Their dangerous fantasies are never married to real power. Stroessner or Stalin would have been “nobodies” had they remained an irrelevance on the fringe.
Second, the political system can block a would-be demagogue from becoming a despot. When a dictator seizes power in a place like Turkmenistan or Equatorial Guinea, there aren’t any serious checks and balances in place to stop them from becoming a tyrant. However, in many countries, such as the United States, robust institutions exist that were conceived and established to divide power rather than consolidate it. Those institutions are helpful at blocking the rise of a despot, but they are not failsafe.
The third roadblock to despots is the people. American-style checks and balances are not imbued with magical powers; they are only as strong as those who deploy them when democracy is under duress. Physically, the U.S. Constitution is just ink on a piece of parchment. People, not institutions or documents, protect democracy. If the people allow democracy to wane, it will.
Donald Trump has authoritarian instincts and reckless autocratic impulses that have already been boosted since he acquired presidential power. Still, American democracy is resilient. The democratic institutions and democratic values of the people are a serious bulwark against any effort to advance authoritarianism. For example, when Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that the United States should bring back torture because “it works,” politicians, journalists, activists, ordinary citizens, and even the military pushed back. He has dropped it — for now. Democracy in the United States will not fade easily. But it could still fade, ebbing away bleak day after bleak day, until it’s too late. Well-established democracies like the United States don’t usually die with a bang. If authoritarianism is going to establish a beachhead on America’s shores, it will creep up on us, and democracy will die with a whimper.
Democracy is fragile. Like a sandcastle, it takes a long time to build, even longer to perfect, but can be washed away with a single powerful wave — like a military coup d’état or a revolution. Thankfully, those powerful waves are unlikely in the United States. But democracy can also be eroded gradually, as each wave takes a few grains of sand with it, year after year.
The Trump waves are the most serious threat to American democracy in modern history. Most of the main pillars upon which democracy stands firm — the press, rule of law, ethics guidelines, voting rights, election integrity, respect for independent institutions, and even a shared sense of what is true and what is false — are under attack. Trump is behind those attacks, using tried and true authoritarian tactics that are familiar to those who live under despots and dictators but not to citizens of the United States. Unfortunately, Trump’s attacks and tactics seem chillingly familiar.
For the last six years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people on the frontlines of the global battle for democracy — in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and beyond the Iron Curtain of the former Soviet Union. I’ve met with former despots and dictators and the (surviving) candidates who challenged them; with torture victims and those who oversaw their torture; with journalists and government spin doctors; with top-level ministers and the rebels who sought to depose them; and with coup plotters and the generals who stopped them. From the Sovietized streets of Belarus to Thailand’s military dictatorship and from the dysfunction of Madagascar to the toppled dictatorship of Tunisia, I’ve sought to understand how authoritarianism spreads and democracy dies.
Living in these countries for extended periods was a crash course in the tactics and methods of despots. I saw how they manipulate the truth, using lies as tools of control. I saw how despots abuse or destroy the press, silencing any independent sources of information that could undercut their lies. I saw how despots jail their opponents and pardon their allies. I saw how despots scheme to rig elections to ensure their own victories. I saw how despots scapegoat unpopular minorities, deflecting blame for their own failures. I saw how despots make a mockery of government ethics and indulge in kleptocracy, a government of corrupt thieves who use political power to line their own pockets. I saw how despots reward their families, hiring based on bloodlines rather than résumé lines. I saw how despots politicize institutions that dare challenge them, turning popular anger toward the increasingly rare voices of dissent from within their regime. And I saw how despots whip their supporters into a rally-around-the-flag frenzy of misplaced patriotism, wrongly equating people who oppose the government with people who oppose the nation.
There are now rumblings of these tactics in America. They are distant — for now. The horrors I’ve seen first-hand — of dissidents with spinal injuries and emaciated children scrounging for food in garbage piles — are the real and ugly face of authoritarian despotism. The United States, for all its problems, is nowhere near these human catastrophes or government failures. Claiming otherwise is hyperbole that minimizes far worse atrocities and abuses.
But the death of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism start with complacency. In places where democracy has recently been destroyed, such as Thailand or Turkey or the Philippines, or where democracy is fading fast, as in Hungary, would-be despots chipped away at the limits place on their power. Left unchallenged, aspiring strongmen grow bolder. Citizens often don’t realize what is happening — until it’s too late.
In the United States, we have not yet reached that tipping-point. Americans are some of the luckiest people on Earth. We are born into a society of riches and freedoms. There’s poverty and inequality and injustice, but we are blessed with democratic avenues to redress those grievances. People can protest openly. We have a meaningful say in decisions made about our lives. When we speak out, we are protected, not tortured. Sadly, though, what we take for granted can be taken away.
The Founding Fathers of the United States anticipated that this moment would arrive. They designed a system built to withstand a divisive demagogue. They put checks and balances in place. They carved out a separation of powers that makes it difficult to consolidate power in a single person. But their enduring genius is being tested in ways they could not have anticipated.
Americans are split, and despots are most likely to emerge when the political or economic system — or both — fractures. As a nation fractures, it creates an opening that an opportunistic, self-interested demagogue can exploit. That opening now exists in America. Donald Trump is starting to exploit it.
The combination of several factors — tribal partisanship, media polarization, uncompetitive elections, the death of bipartisan compromise, political disengagement, economic decline, rising inequality, and demographic change — has created a perfect storm. As it swirls around American politics, authoritarianism finally has a chance to make landfall too. Angry citizens who think the other side is an enemy don’t have the patience for thoughtful compromises and reasoned debate about policy ideas. Angry citizens want quick solutions. They want the “I alone can fix it” candidate, not the “incremental change” candidate. And, over time, millions of Americans have gravitated toward authoritarian attitudes. Screw checks and balances if they are a roadblock to solutions!
The threat that Donald Trump poses to democracy is real. Ronald Reagan was right when he said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Recent research from Yascha Mounk at Harvard and Roberto Stefan Foa from the University of Melbourne has shown that young people take democracy for granted in the United States. Three in four Americans born in the 1930s — the generation that witnessed the horrors of totalitarianism — believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy. Fewer than one in three Americans born in the 1980s see democracy as “essential.”
Americans mistakenly tend to think that we are immune from authoritarianism. It could never happen here. But in the run-up to World War II, 20,000 Americans packed Madison Square garden for a pro-Nazi rally. Swastikas were slapped on portraits of George Washington. The pre-war isolationist movement pledged to put “America First.” And while the U.S. didn’t ban Japanese people from entering the United States “until we figure out what the hell is going on,” as Trump has suggested with Muslims, America’s government did round up Japanese-Americans and lock them into internment camps. People involved in those black marks in our history are still alive. It’s not as distant as we sometimes think.
Where do we go from here? If he makes it to the end of his term, there is still a lot of Trump left. Can our democratic sand castle survive years more of these authoritarian waves? And if it doesn’t, what are the most likely scenarios for where we’ll end up by 2020 when Trump is supposed to be up for re-election?
As I see it, there are four plausible scenarios, ranging in order from the optimistic to the cataclysmic. First, the Trump Vaccine. If the backlash against Trump is robust enough, he could end up acting like a vaccine for American democracy. Perhaps he will galvanize enough opposition that more political norms are enshrined into law and civic engagement becomes resurgent. In this hopeful scenario, citizens deploy to the ramparts and defend democracy.
Second, Democratic Decay. This is the most likely scenario. America’s democratic sand castle doesn’t get washed away, but it is severely damaged as wave after wave hits its walls. The damage will be gradual, but it will add up. Even if Trump’s presidency is a failure, he can still poison the minds of millions of people to hold authoritarian views. That damage will take decades to repair—if it is possible at all.
Third, the Forerunner. In this scenario, Trump paves the way for an even more dangerous successor. This person, a Trump 2.0, will have the authoritarian instincts of Donald Trump but the polished smoothness of Barack Obama and the people skills of Ronald Reagan. With Trump normalizing authoritarian behavior, Trump 2.0 can do even more damage.
Finally, there is the prospect of American Authoritarianism. If a person like Donald Trump is in office in the aftermath of a mass casualty terror attack, a widespread war, or a nuclear nightmare, it is plausible that American democracy could die with a bang. This is, thankfully, the least likely scenario. But it is not impossible.
Democracy is worth defending. It’s time we all heed the words of Mikolai Statkevich: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You won’t realize what it’s worth until it’s too late.”