As Donald Trump moves to expand his authority, reduce the rights of the judiciary, and hand frightening amounts of power to the white nationalist Steve Bannon, experts on authoritarianism are increasingly worried by the dictatorial trends in the White House, particularly among the extreme right-wing of the administration that Bannon leads.
ThinkProgress recently conducted a series of interviews on Trump with a number of top academics in the field, and their answers as to what’s happening in Washington are frightening to say the least.
One of the most important takeaways from the first three weeks of the Trump administration, in these experts’ minds, is the fact that Trump has not moderated the outrageous populist propaganda of his campaign for the immensely more demanding job of President of the most powerful country on the planet:
Said Robert Paxton, the Mellon Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Columbia University: “It’s hard to say we are on track to establish a fascist dictatorship. Alternative forces are still there. Though there’s not much doubt of the desire of Trump to govern as dictator.”
Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia: “I personally think I was wrong on one important thing. I assumed that Trump would make a distinction between policies and propaganda and that the policies were in the hands of Heritage Foundation-type Republicans, who would pretty much deregulate the state and do all kinds of things that one would expect of the GOP. And that the radical right part of his entourage — mostly [Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon and to a certain extent [NSA Director Michael] Flynn — were more important for propaganda; messages, speeches, and organizing rallies to rally the troops.
Another main concern among the experts was the disturbing amount of power being amassed behind the scenes by former Breitbart editor and dangerously bigoted neo-fascist leader Steve Bannon.
Said Mudde on the matter, “The fact that Bannon is now on the NSC board, as well as [the fact that he] allegedly altered the Muslim ban by keeping green card holders in it — that’s a whole different level. That means that that he is going to be involved in the most important and hands-on decisions that President Trump makes. Bannon has a near-apocalyptic view of the world. That is pretty terrifying.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University: “The big news of the week since Inauguration is also how prominent and influential Bannon will be in this administration, and that’s perhaps the most frightening thing of all.”
Trump’s delegitimization of the mainstream media, and his particular targeting of outlets critical of his policies, is another frightening authoritarian trend that has carried over from the Trump campaign to the Trump presidency.
Mudde: “This is a very classic [reaction] for a populist or illiberal democrat or autocrat. It’s classic to think in a Manichean worldview, in which there is us and the enemy, and no space in between. Trump, as well as Bannon, clearly believes if you are not with him, you are against him. If you are against him, you don’t have legitimacy, because he won the elections. So it reflects extreme majoritarianism, where you argue — ironically for someone who didn’t win a majority — ‘I won, so I can do whatever I want, and you should just accept this, because I have that legitimacy.’”
Berman: “You don’t want a main adviser calling out individual press outlets or journalists as enemies of the state…This is a question of norms. This is clearly a violation of longstanding American norms of what we understand freedom of the press to mean.”
Trump’s announcement that the White House would publish a weekly list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, despite the fact that such immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than the native-born population, is also a classic example of nativist and fascist propaganda.
Mudde: “I studied radical right wing parties in the 90s in Europe, and I actually read their magazines. Almost every radical right party did this in its magazines. They list crimes by non-whites who are not necessarily undocumented. There wasn’t just rapes or murders — it was specifically [focused] on non-natives. It’s classic nativist, if not racist, behavior. There’s virtually no major radical right or racist organization that doesn’t do this. It’s deeply troubling and obviously what it does is identify undocumented people with crime, but also the crimes with undocumented people. So, [it implies] whites don’t commit those crimes — all illegal aliens commit those crimes.”
Finally, the Trump administration seems to be deliberately pumping out a tremendous number of executive orders and new policies in order to get in ahead of any seriously organized opposition and catch average Americans off guard. These sorts of legislative blitzkriegs are a staple of pre-dictatorial regimes, and were used to great effect by the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.
Berman: “People are so taken aback by the flurry of activity, or the nature of it. Any opposition is having trouble getting their feet anchored, though there have been a lot of popular protests, a lot of individuals speaking out in bits and pieces. It’s just not coherent, because of the nature of his policies and the unusual nature of what he’s doing is keeping people off balance. He just is who he is.”
Paxton: “All of those acts taken together are a blatant disregard of political institutions and the Constitution, and there has to be push back. When you look at Hitler and Mussolini, it wasn’t inevitable that either one of those got into executive office…
Ben-Ghiat: “This has been a Blitzkrieg of sorts, and one designed to leave Americans disoriented and caught off guard. The popular protests have been amazing to behold, and some GOP luminaries have come out against Trump’s actions. And of course the pushback from various federal agencies, and now the Assistant Attorney General.”
It is of course too early to tell whether Trump and his cronies will truly attempt to convert our American democracy into a neo-fascist dictatorship. What is no longer possible to deny, however, is that many of the early warning signs of dictatorship are there, and both Trump and Bannon have demonstrated considerable despotic intent. To prevent the demise of our cherished American democracy we must do everything we can to resist.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.