Donald Trump’s admiration for authoritarian government leaders, who obstruct or dismantle democratic institutions in their state, has been consistent since taking office. It was most recently evident on May 13th, when he entertained Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the White House Oval office. Previously, Republican President George W. Bush refused to do so because of Orbán’s anti-democratic measures that have been well covered by Huffington Post’s S.V. Date and by Slate’s Joshua Keating. Like other authoritarians, Orbán has tried to weaken an independent judiciary and shut down the free press in Hungary. Despite these moves, Trump’s attitude is “Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected.” As if to say, he gets results and is not hampered by red tape, i.e. a democratic process.
Trump’s attitude appears to spring from his belief that he shared with Fox News in an Interview when he said, “when it comes to foreign policy, I’m the only one that counts.” That does not sound like a Republican or a Democrat, but someone who thinks of himself as being above the process of reaching government decisions within a democratic republic.
Perhaps President Trump is a wanna-be authoritarian because he expected to direct the US government as his personal business. He ran his billion-dollar business as a family operation, where he was the boss, everyone was accountable to him and no one else. He brought over that template to the White House, firing anyone who did not recognize that only he could make the final decision. Televised cabinet meetings provided each member a public opportunity to praise the president’s intelligence and leadership. There was no discussion of issues.
One could conceivably argue that Trump just lacks a basic understanding of how democracies function. His flattering of leaders who have corrupted open and unfettered public elections or censored news carried on the media, does not bother Trump. Coming from the real estate world of making big deals with both Republican and Democratic politicians, he gives every indication that he sees deal making as strictly transactional; focus on what you want and what you can get, forget everything else. In return for praising Orbán for having the same tough, inhumane immigration enforcement laws that Trump would like to adopt, he gets the affirmation he needs for pursuing his own immigration policies, even if it is from an authoritarian of a small country.
From other statements, one can see that Trump is even more focused on having his unfettered control of government than on issues like immigration. For instance, in a February 2, 2018 New York Times article Trump says that Egyptian Pres Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a “fantastic guy”, although El-Sisi got elected by jailing or threatening his contending candidates with prosecution, leaving only an obscure ardent supporter of his as an opponent. Perhaps Trump felt he had to faun over Sisi to retain an Arab ally, on the other hand he lost the opportunity of having a democratic Arab republic.
On a more serious threat to our nation’s democracy, Trump had suggested that our country should form with Russia a “Cyber Security unit to guard against election hacking.” He made that suggestion even though our intelligence services at that time said Russia, most likely on Putin’s orders, had been hacking our elections in order to swing the election to someone whom they preferred. This accusation was later confirmed in the first page of Special Investigator Mueller’s report where he wrote: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion. A Russian entity carried out a social media campaign tat favored presidential Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
Trump’s statements appear to spring from his belief that he shared with Fox News in an Interview when he said, “when it comes to foreign policy, I’m the only one that counts.” That does not sound like a Republican or a Democrat, but someone who thinks of himself as being a king above the process of reaching government decisions within a democratic republic. Such as when he congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on his National Congress, which only meets for a week every year, allowing him to serve as president for life. He told the National Republican Congressional Committee at a spring dinner that he referred to Xi as “king” not president because of that change. “He liked that. I get along with him great.”
Trump’s off-hand comments are a warning sign that political scientist Juan J. Linz identified as the behavior of politicians who pushed Europe’s democracies into collapsing just before WWII. They consisted of three traits: “a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.”
Harvard University professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have concluded that Trump exhibited all three. In his electoral campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton and had his rallies chant “lock her up”; and threatened legal action against unfriendly media. What I find most disturbing, is when he questioned the legitimacy of our country’s election results, because he didn’t like them.
On the 2012 presidential election night Trump tweeted minutes after the polls had closed on the West Coast, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” He did so because he mistakenly assumed that Obama had won the election without the majority popular vote. Trump did win his presidential election without winning the popular vote, but he made no mention of that fact. Instead he fabricated an unsubstantiated accusation that there were millions of illegal votes cast for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, something that even Trump’s foremost media ally, Fox Network, has not even attempted to prove. Trump’s mentality reveals either a nurtured ignorance or an outright hostility to our basic democratic institutions.
That attitude emerged early in his first term. After the first 100 days in office he blamed the constitutional checks and balances built into US governance for his legislation stalling. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system … It’s really a bad thing for the country.”
Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons of the Twentieth Century, lists one of the lessons to learn and practice to avoid the collapse of a democratic society is to defend the institutions which keep it alive, like a critical media and an independent judicial system. They check the powers of the government’s executive branch. Snyder cautions that those institutions don’t protect themselves, they must be defended.
Many authoritarians have the title of president and their countries are called democracies, but they are not open and free societies. We may have to work with those countries to achieve long range goals, but there is no need to admire or flatter their authoritarian leaders. Their sycophants do that, not our President, unless he is frustrated with his job because a democracy is more difficult for him to control than a family business.
Nick Licata served on the Seattle City Council for 18 years until his retirement in December 2015, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation. and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 800 progressive municipal officials. And is the author of Becoming a Citizen Activist.