Authoritarianism, fascism, autocracy, kakistocracy, and/or kleptocracy? We can argue about which term best describes certain political regimes at the moment but few of us would want this situation, whatever the label, to develop in our own country.
At some point, voters in many countries across the globe, including Venezuela, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Peru, Sri Lanka, Chile, the Philippines, and the Ukraine have voted authoritarian leaders into power and suffered the consequences of those elections. Some of these countries have since reverted to true democracies, other have become democratic in name only. Despite there being substantial precedent from which voters, politicians, and journalists might learn, in the past five years, voters in Britain, Australia, Poland and the U.S. have unwittingly elected authoritarian leaders. The result has been severe damage to those democracies.
As Umair Haque recently pointed out, authoritarian leaders do not just walk away if they are voted out of power, rather they must be removed by force, incapacity or death. Therefore, the best way to guard against a country devolving into an authoritarian regime is to avoid electing an authoritarian leader.
“How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt was published in 2018, too late to help voters in Britain, Australia, Poland and the U.S. recognize that the conservative front runner was an authoritarian. If voters had been fully aware of the authoritarian nature of the candidate and the disastrous consequences of electing an authoritarian, the election results might have been different.
In democracies, it should become standard practice for politicians, political scientist, journalists, and voters to examine the more extreme candidates to determine whether they pose a threat to democracy. If so, voters’ attention should be clearly and immediately drawn to the threat. As writer Karyn S noted, supporters of authoritarian leaders can be unreasonably committed to the leader, explaining away truths as fake news, and enjoying the feeling of belonging to a special community of insiders. Putting voters on notice as early as possible that the candidate is an authoritarian may minimize the amount of financial and political support the candidate receives. This approach may prevent the candidate from amassing a large cult-like following of supporters.
Levisky and Ziblatt counsel that, first, political parties need to avoid choosing an authoritarian as party leader, despite any expectation they might have that the candidate could win the election. If the party fails in this effort, members of both the authoritarian’s party and the other parties should clearly communicate to the electorate that the candidate is an authoritarian. They counsel members of both parties against behaving as if the election is merely a choice between democratic leaders. Voters need to be informed as clearly and broadly as possible that there is a threat to their democracy on the ballot.
Levisky and Ziblatt posit that a candidate that exhibits one or more of the following four behaviors is likely to be destructive to democracy:
- Rejecting, in words or actions, the democratic rules of the game;
- Denying the legitimacy of opponents;
- Tolerating or encouraging violence; or
- Indicating a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
They point out that often populist outsiders, rather than career politicians, exhibit these behaviors, promising voters they will take power from the hands of established politicians and return it to the people. While Trump was a populist outsider, Johnson, Morrison, and Duda each held office prior to seeking party leadership. An absence of political credentials is no assurance of a candidate’s intention to uphold democracy.
The Weekly List, created and maintained by journalist Amy Siskind, tracks the authoritarian behavior of Trump and his trusted advisers in an effort avoid normalizing such behavior. While Siskind began the list the week after Trump was elected, numerous incidents evidencing each of the four warning signs were widely reported during the campaign. However, the reporting occurred incident-by-incident, leading to no widespread understanding of the totality of this behavior.
As evidenced by Siskind starting her publication of The Weekly List the week the election was held, along with articles published by The Atlantic and War is Boring in the latter half of 2016, there was sufficient evidence prior to the 2016 election to conclude that Trump was an authoritarian/fascist. However, there was little widespread, credible and clear reporting to this effect.
Moreover, prior to 2016, Americans as a whole had no experience with and limited awareness of what having an authoritarian leader would mean for the country. Now, in 2020, this has changed and the American response to-date is unprecedented voter turn-out. Given how close the 2016 U.S. election was, greater Democratic voter turnout and a Clinton win might have ensued had Americans truly understood Trump’s authoritarian/fascist proclivity and the dangers that posed for democracy.
Reporting on an Authoritarian Candidate
Political scientists and journalists can substantially contribute to public understanding of the danger posed by a candidate through an awareness of the key characteristics of authoritarians. These professionals track the statements and actions of a candidate more closely than do most voters. As a result, they are ideally positioned to fact-check the candidate and to synthesize information so as to spot an authoritarian and create voter awareness.
Having identified an authoritarian candidate, the use of clear, unambiguous language when reporting on the candidate’s behaviour and politics is vital to developing public awareness. For example, Trump lied and obfuscated on numerous occasions and the media’s initial level of fact checking and attention paid to Trump’s refusal to honor the democratic process was limited. Frequently, lies by the candidate were unchallenged by much of the media or, the choice of language by reporters dulled public appreciation for the behavior, for example, through use of descriptors like “misstates” rather than “lies.”
Years after the election, much of mainstream media continues to choose neutral, vague language like “detention centers” rather than “concentration camps”; and “separating migrant families” rather than “UN Crime Against Humanity.”
Although in 2020 a number of articles have analyzed whether or not Trump is a fascist, Trump continues to benefit from a dearth of media analysis and insight. For example, few publications have questioned whether Trump denouncing and defunding the UN Human Rights Council might be intended to thwart UN oversight of America’s post-2016 commissions of Atrocity Crimes. Rather, despite a number of articles reporting Trump’s anti-semitism, Trump’s assertion that the withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council relates to a mistreatment of Israel has been parroted by reporters.
Until 2019 no concerted effort by Republican politicians was made to publicly impugn Trump. Few, if any, Republicans currently in office have publicly criticized Trump. However, in 2019 and 2020, groups of former Republican leaders, advisors and conservatives formed organizations to oppose re-electing Trump. The Lincoln Project, Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform, and 43 Alumni for Joe Biden have all clearly stated that Trump is incompetent, unfit to lead and a threat to American democracy.
Regardless of whether this effort is sufficient to prevent Trump’s re-election, American has suffered from four years of Trump’s leadership. Evicting him from office may prove difficult, regardless of election results. Reversing the social, legislative judicial and political damage caused by Trump and like-minded Republicans will be time consuming, difficult and in some cases impossible.
As voters in the Ukraine would almost certainly attest to, rather than attempting to wrest control from the hands of an authoritarian and rectify his actions, it is far better for citizens of a country to learn from prior global experience and take pre-emptive action to avoid empowering one.