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‘Classic Authoritarian’: How Historians Rate Trump’s Danger to Democracy

President Trump backlit by an American flag at a rally in Minnesota earlier this month. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Joe Biden, but his rhetoric escalated last week, only 40 days before the presidential election. On Thursday, Trump expressed his skepticism that the election would be “honest” after initially saying “we’ll see what happens” when asked a day earlier if he would accept the results in November.

While Trump made similar remarks on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, he was not then the incumbent president with all the powers of the executive branch at his disposal. Last week’s comments provoked guarded critiques from Republican elected officials on Capitol Hill who often literally subtweeted him, sharing statements on social media that did not mention Trump by name.

The reaction couldn’t have been more different from leading scholars and historians who study countries that have fallen into dictatorship. A half-dozen prominent academic figures interviewed by Intelligencer warned of extreme danger for the country and analogized the United States right now to Eastern European and Latin American countries that faced a breakdown of the democratic order and sometimes plunged into autocracy as a result. Even so, they cautioned that analogies are only so useful given the unprecedented nature of events in the United States.

Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, the co-author of the book How Democracies Die, noted the chance of “an outright stolen election and Trump refusing to give up power … is quite low.” But he noted “the chances of a serious crisis are probably 50-50 at this point. Particularly given that there is a good chance even though Biden is ahead [in polls], given the distribution of voting on election night that Trump could either be tied or ahead.” He added that “the one thing I’m confident about that Trump will cry fraud, so I think there is a pretty good chance of a serious crisis on Election Night that will make Florida in 2000 look like a walk in the park.”

But while Levitsky conceded, “I don’t think fascism is around the corner … we’re not headed for 20 years of a Trump dictatorship,” other experts were more concerned.

“It’s hard for me as an historian to think of a coup d’état as well telegraphed in advance,” warned Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale and a scholar of Eastern Europe’s blood-soaked history.

Snyder noted that Trump’s repeated comments dismissing the legitimacy of the election “make it clear to us that he wants to stay in power illegally.” In Snyder’s view, this is “characteristic of an authoritarian or pre-authoritarian situation.” He said that there will likely be a power struggle after the election unless the Democrats win decisively. He analogized the situation to Serbia in 2000 where the opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic knew “that it had to win by at least ten points … by some kind of margin that looks big.” But the opposition didn’t win by a big margin — and it took mass demonstrations labeled “the Bulldozer Revolution” and the threat of a military coup for Milosevic to finally yield power.

With Trump under apparent criminal investigation, Snyder saw Trump in “a classic authoritarian position. He has to win for its own sake, he doesn’t want to go to prison.”

“He knows he’s broken lots of laws and wants to die in his own bed.”

There was also debate about how much of the danger is due to Trump’s unique personality and how much is about institutional rot within the United States. Valerie Bunce, a political scientist at Cornell, said “as someone focused on institutions, all democracies have flawed institutional designs and there are always tradeoffs.”

Scholars repeatedly pointed to the Electoral College as one such flaw that has led the loser of the popular vote to win the White House twice this century. A repeat of this scenario is a particular danger in the view of Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University and co-director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics. “Eventually, at some point people are no longer going to see the system as legitimate and that is a serious concern,” he said.

On top of these flaws is the extreme level of political polarization in the United States. Daniel Ziblatt, a political science professor at Harvard and the co-author of How Democracies Die with Levitsky, compared the level of polarization to what happened in Chile in the early 1970s. Chile “had been Latin America’s most stable democracy throughout the 20th century,” he said, but polarization beginning in the early 1960s led to the election of leftist President Salvador Allende — which was followed by a bloody military coup in 1973 that killed him and installed right-wing general Augusto Pinochet, whose brutal dictatorship lasted for the next two decades.

While no one predicted the U.S. was headed for a junta or civil war, Cornell’s Bunce said extreme polarization “makes people more and more afraid of the other party taking power” and can lead to scary results if they view that “the alternative to their preference is truly horrific.”

Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican Party also prompted scholars to point to parallels abroad. The best example, according to Bunce, was Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, who remade the Fidesz political party into the standard-bearer for his vision of “illiberal democracy.” But Bunce also noted that Orban, who has drawn praise from Trump and many in the his inner circle, had structural advantages that Trump does not. In particular, the federal structure of the U.S. means a lot of power is out of Trump’s hands, according to Andrew Behrendt, a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology who focuses on Hungarian history. What’s more, Democrats have provided a far more organized opposition to Trump than what Behrendt described as the “feckless and splintered” opponents Orban faced.

Domestic parallels were harder to come by. Sean Wilentz, an award-winning historian at Princeton University, thought the “the great parallel” was the election of 1860 where slaveholders were not willing to accept any Republican president and seceded when Abraham Lincoln was elected. Granted, Wilentz said the “ideological issues today were not quite as sharp,” and the country is not as purely sectional — after all, “Austin would have to secede from Texas.”

He also dismissed comparisons to the election of 1876, which constitutional scholars have repeatedly cited in recent months as the only time a disputed presidential election plunged the United States into political chaos. In that case, election returns from four states were disputed and the outcome was not resolved until the eve of the inauguration with a grand compromise where Democrats conceded — effectively in return for Republicans ending Reconstruction in the South. “It was a constitutional crisis, no question,” said Wilentz, but the presidential winner, “Rutherford B. Hayes was not a would-be authoritarian.”

The question that scholars struggled with most was how bad things could get today.

Tucker, the NYU professor, stressed that “where democracy is truly crumbling, opposition party candidates get arrested and don’t get approved to be on the ballot … and the entire state marshals its resources to get its incumbent candidates reelected.” That is what is now happening in Belarus, where dictator Alexander Lukashenko presided over a transparently fraudulent election in August that has led to hundreds of thousands of people marching for his ouster.

Indeed, comparisons only go so far. As Levitsky put it, “It’s hard to come up with parallels because there are so few cases of established stable democracies in wealthy countries that have had a crisis like this.”

The ultimate specter for those who study the decline of democracy is, of course, Germany and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Zilblatt said he once laughed off comparisons of the U.S. to the Weimar Republic, noting Germany in the early 1930s “had a major economic crisis and the trauma of millions of people dead in World War I.” However, while it’s not exactly the same, Zilblatt said Americans are nevertheless “suffering economically and from the trauma of death and being isolated” amid a recession and a pandemic that has left over 200,000 dead barely a month before Election Day.

Obviously, neither Hitler nor fascism is coming around the corner in the United States. But, the fact that such a comparison can even be considered by a serious political scientist with a straight face shows how far things have degenerated.

How Historians Rate the Danger Trump Poses to Democracy