9 Ways Authoritarianism Is Taking Hold Under Trump
As our country slides into an ugly Americanized form of neofascism, there’s good news: nonviolent protest, when in the service of progressive, egalitarian goals, almost always wins out when it reaches a national critical mass. And we may well be on the verge of that right now. But we must understand what we’re up against.
Donald Trump and his neo-authoritarian acolytes are following an ancient playbook.
Part Machiavelli, part Caesar, part Mugabe/Duterte/Mao, it always includes a few simple and primary elements of seizing and subverting normal political power.
Here's how the president is building authoritarian institutions.
1. Lie Often — Lie Big.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt pointed out, the Big Lie technique wasn’t invented by Hitler but was essential to his success, and in the 1944 election, the Republican Party began to turn it on Democrats.
FDR wasn’t having any of it.
“The opposition, in this year, has already imported into this campaign a very interesting thing, because it’s foreign,” FDR told the nation during that year’s presidential campaign.
“They’ve imported the propaganda technique invented by the dictators abroad,” FDR said. “Remember a number of years ago there was a book, Mein Kampf, written by Hitler himself. The technique was all set out in Hitler’s book and was copied by the aggressors of Italy and Japan.
“According to that technique, you should never use a small falsehood. Always a big one. For its very fantastic nature would make it more credible. If only you keep repeating it over, and over, and over again.”
As George Lakoff pointed out in his brilliantly titled book Don’t Think of an Elephant, in order for us to process a lie—even knowing it’s a lie—we must first imagine it as a truth, a reality. (I also wrote at length about this in my book on using neuro-linguistic programming [NLP] in politics, Cracking the Code.)
If you hear, “Don’t run into the street,” you must first imagine running into the street to know what “don’t run into the street” means. You have to clearly visualize it.
If you hear “FBI spies were in my campaign,” you must first clearly imagine FBI spies in the Trump campaign, before you can process the fact that every intelligence agency and even the administration itself say that there were no spies (unless they were foreign) within the Trump campaign.
That simple act of creating the visualization that is then knocked down by the correction of the lie, instead embeds itself into consciousness as a temporary pseudo-reality and, for people inclined to believe, the actual belief of reality, of the asserted lie. From there, the lie makes its way to the conscious mind as a belief or “fact.”
Whether the lie is about a particular religion or race being “vermin” or “animals,” and whether it’s said in 1934 or 2018, doesn’t much matter: once the mental picture is formed, reality begins to waver for even the most well-informed among us.
And trying to rebut the lie only strengths it, because the rebuttal presupposes the possibility that the lie could be true. Every time a Trump or GOP lie is rebutted, it’s also repeated: The rebuttal actually strengthens, in the minds of the already-converted, the reality of the lie, and makes it easier for the uncertain to begin to believe it.
This is why fully 48 percent of Republicans believe that over 3 million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election, and similar or higher percentages of Republicans believe climate change is a hoax, the GOP tax cuts “for the middle class” were real, and that deregulating environmental and workplace protections will lead to higher wages and more jobs.
All lies; all repeated over and over again; all believed.
2. Consolidate Power While Challenging or Co-Opting Institutions That Enforce Accountability.
Every authoritarian leader who’s come to power in history, from Samaria 7,000 years ago to today’s administration from the White House at the top, to the EPA under Scott Pruitt, makes this their second big move. Weaken the institutions of accountability, while intimidating your own allies into submissive servility.
That judge was a Mexican. The investigation into Trump is a witch hunt. Congress doesn’t have the authority to investigate Republicans.
People in Trump’s own party, like Corker, McCain, and Flake, who are willing to challenge the president, got politically destroyed, so others became afraid to challenge him. Meanwhile, those American politicians and foreign powers that suck up to him and his relatives in the Trump Crime Family are richly rewarded.
This behavior is a calling card of tin-pot dictators, but it’s also the key to the power held by most national-scale modern authoritarian regimes. And once the allies of Dear Leader begin to bow to the authoritarian on bended knee, the process can take on a momentum that makes it unstoppable until it’s totally and irrevocably defeated by an external power (think Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan in World War II).
Packing the courts is the final step in this process, as we’ve seen in every country in history where democracy has died. Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell set this process up by denying President Obama his constitutionally provided-for court appointments, ranging from the most routine to the Supreme Court itself. Now the GOP court-packing operation, even to the point of defying centuries-old Senate traditions like blue-slipping, has moved into hyper-gear.
Even “prison reform” efforts have been co-opted to include “mens rea” (“state of mind”) changes in the law that will insulate CEOs and billionaire corporate owners from decisions they make that lead to death or environmental destruction if the prosecution can’t prove that such an outcome was not only predictable, but was their specific intent. It will end corporate perp walks for all but the lowest-level flunkies, and is tied to virtually every Republican or bipartisan “sentencing reform” effort.
And to the extent that the electorate may hold these new authoritarians in check by voting them out of office, wide swaths of the American electorate are being purged from voting rolls with Kansas’s Kris Kobach’s Interstate Crosscheck program, or blocked from voting for lack of the “Republican-certified ID” like a state-issued concealed carry permit (students with government-issued student ID need not apply to vote).
If they successfully navigate all these barriers, voters (particularly minority voters, or voters in Democratic-heavy districts) still find that their voting machines, like the ones in Detroit in 2016 that failed to record over 75,000 votes for president (Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes), are “defective.” If they do work at all, they’re put out in such small numbers that working people must wait in lines for 6 to 12 hours.
The speed with which these deeply anti-democratic changes are happening in America today is, to most historians, extremely alarming.
3. Attack the Press.
British conservative (and advocate of the American Revolution) Edmund Burke coined the phrase “the fourth estate” in 1787 to describe the press when arguing that Parliament should open itself up to newspaper reporters. Along with the legislative, executive, and judicial “estates” of governance, every functional republic since that era has included strong protections of the press as a pseudo fourth branch of governance, an explicit and public check on the abuse of power.
But to an autocrat whose wealth, power, and longevity in office depend on the abuse of power, a free and independent press is a danger. This is why Hitler shut down the independent press in 1933-’34, although he kept the appearance of press diversity by allowing many of the formerly independent newspapers to be acquired by media companies his cronies owned.
Historically, the two strategies emerging autocracies use in this regard are to: 1.) Attack the credibility and right to existence of the independent media while, 2.) Consolidating and expanding the reach and power of friendly media, typically owned by cronies of the autocrat.
Between cries of “fake news” and “pull their credentials” directed at “legacy media”; a push for corporate concentration of that media that started when the Reagan administration ended the Fairness Doctrine and corporatized NPR; and the elevation of billionaire-owned/affiliated media outlets like Fox, Sinclair, and the large terrestrial radio networks that pretty much exclusively carry right-wing talk radio, this process is already far down the road in the United States.
4. Vilify Protesters, Minorities, and Political “Enemies” to the Point of Provoking Violence.
This administration and the GOP they’ve captured have become the party “of dreadful fear and hate” that President Dwight Eisenhower warned against. We see it in institutionalized police violence against African Americans and immigrants; excessive arrests and punishments of people protesting Trump’s inauguration and speeches; new laws punishing journalists for reporting on factory farm and corporate environmental abuses; and violence-tinged rhetoric against “Mexican rapists,” using MS-13 as a rhetorical proxy for Hispanics, and saying Black NFL players hate/disrespect our flag and country, among other things.
And by accusing the other side of what they, themselves are doing, these new authoritarians deflect attention from their own very intentional strategy. Just google the words “Trump attacks liberals” without the quotation marks to see page after page of over-the-top snowflake-like examples of conservative media and politicians complaining that liberals are “unfairly attacking” Trump and the GOP.
5. Scapegoat Minority Groups to Rile Up a Mob Mentality.
Sadly, one of the psychological legacies we share with other predatory mammals is the ability to instinctually form “packs” and drop into pack-like behavior, particularly against those who are weak or wounded. Although we have an intellect that should protect us from such behavior, the instincts wired into our DNA will always beat our thought processes, at least over the short term.
Fascists and authoritarians use this core mammalian instinct, paraphrasing Sinclair Lewis, to “rouse up the rubes.”
While this was a common feature of American politics in the century following the Declaration of Independence when it was directed by white politicians and police authorities against Native Americans and slaves, and popped up in the 1880s against Chinese immigrants, the modern Trump Party has resurrected it to use against immigrant children, women, religious and racial minorities, and the LGBTQ community.
Not to mention provoking violence against “libtards” like Heather Heyer, whom Trump’s “very fine people” murdered last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. (I don’t want to include links in this article to neo-Nazi sites, but just google “libtard heather heyer” without the quotes; you’ll be shocked.)
6. Elevate One Religion That You Can Control (and Reward) While Trashing Others.
After World War II, one of the most interesting and conspicuous of the suicides in Germany was that of the Reich’s Bishop, Ludwig MÃ¼ller. Elevated to the head of the German evangelical movement by Hitler himself, MÃ¼ller became the most wealthy and powerful member of Germany’s clergy during the Reich. At first skeptical of the Fuhrer, he later told his colleagues that the “great goods” that Hitler would bring the church far outweighed his failings as either a person or a leader.
MÃ¼ller was neither the first nor the last religious leader to both exploit and be exploited by an authoritarian regime.
Authoritarian leaders almost always use members of minority religions as scapegoats. What’s less well realized is that they almost always (the one modern exception was communism) favor one particular religious group, and use the wealth and power of the state to shower favors on that group so long as that group helps keep them in power.
Along those lines, in 1988 the campaign of George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis brought onboard an outspoken fundamentalist evangelical Christian to lead their “religious outreach” efforts. Ex-alcoholic, saved-by-Jesus credentialed “black sheep of the family” George W. Bush worked hard through that campaign to bring religious leaders who were skeptical of the religious enthusiasm of George Senior into that 1988 campaign.
Bush Jr.’s efforts were largely successful and were repeated and amped up during his own presidency, as Jerry Falwell and his ilk became regular fixtures in the White House. In bright contrast to Republicans from Warren Harding to Dwight Eisenhower, that established the foundation for a clear quid pro quo relationship between white evangelical leaders and Republicans.
Now the religious right wants their payback.
Taking a cue from ALEC—that right-wing, billionaire-funded group that brings together state lawmakers and lobbyists to write “model” legislation on behalf of corporate interests in exchange for their funding GOP politicians—the new group is called Project Blitz. They’re working explicitly and publicly to change the legal landscape of America with regard to religion.
As Katherine Stewart wrote for the New York Times, “The idea behind Project Blitz is to overwhelm state legislatures with bills based on centrally manufactured legislation.” She quotes “Christian nationalist” David Barton as saying, “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ’em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has, so far, identified more than 70 pieces of state legislation derived from Project Blitz, with more to come. In Oklahoma, Stewart writes, it’s a bill that allows discrimination in adoptions; in Minnesota, it’s legislation unconstitutionally letting publicly paid-for schools to post “In God We Trust” in their classrooms.
Contrary to Barton’s revisionist history, this was not how the Founders saw things.
In the summer of 1786, Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. government’s official envoy, essentially an ambassador, to France. While there, he was horrified by the way the Catholic Church dictated terms to both people and government.
On August 13th, he wrote a long letter to his old friend, teacher, and mentor George Wythe, then a judge in Virginia. Jefferson started out by commenting on how his (he first demanded it, then wrote parts of it) First Amendment to the Constitution had been well received by the Parisian intelligentsia:
“Our act for freedom of religion is extremely applauded. The ambassadors and ministers of the several nations of Europe, resident at this Court, have asked of me copies of it, to send to their sovereigns, and it is inserted at full length in several books now in the press; among others, in the new Encyclopedie. I think it will produce considerable good even in these countries, where ignorance, superstition, poverty, and oppression of body and mind, in every form, are so firmly settled on the mass of the people, that their redemption from them can never be hoped. …
“If anybody thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send him here. It is the best school in the universe to cure him of that folly. He will see here, with his own eyes, that these descriptions of men are an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people.”
Noting that the people of France had been “loaded with misery” by “nobles and priests, and by them alone,” Jefferson ended his letter with a call for Wythe to join him in his crusade against religion burrowing into the newly formed government of the United States by using the power of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution to build a free public school system:
“Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know, that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose, is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles, who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. But it needs but half an eye to see, when among them, that the foundation is laid in their dispositions for the establishment of a despotism.”
The religious right has made a metaphorical “deal with the devil” in Trump and the GOP that would have horrified the Founders of this nation, but is found in the storyline of nearly every authoritarian government in history. And now these so-called “Christians” want to leverage that power into ever-greater control over our minds and ever-greater access to our bank accounts.
7. Co-opt and Make Institutions of Military and Police Power into Loyal Sycophants.
Without the police and the military on their side, a tyrant’s days in office are inevitably numbered.
That’s why one of the hallmark behaviors of authoritarian leadership and its media supporters is to praise and empower, to the point of fetishizing, the police and the military. They then amplify this with elaborate displays of symbolic patriotism like singing the national song and hyper-displaying the flag.
From attacking NFL players for protesting police violence against unarmed Black people to telling a crowd of police officers to not be professional or respectful when arresting people, to chest-thumping about our military as “the most powerful ever,” Trump doesn’t even try to be subtle about his threats. The next step, if he follows the well-worn authoritarian path, is to put on Saddam Hussein-style military parades.
Meanwhile, the process that Ronald Reagan began, and Newt Gingrich sped up with his 1033 program, of redirecting billions of dollars of military funds, hardware and training to police departments, begins the process of turning ordinary police agencies into praetorian guards to solidify the power of the now-captured state.
Exempting police unions from crackdowns on other government employee union activities, like Scott Walker did in Wisconsin, hastens the process by ensuring the loyalty of the one legally armed, duty-sworn agency of government.
8. Ignore Competence and Incompetence; Only Loyalty Matters—and Is Richly Rewarded.
Mainstream Republicans on TV seem baffled as to why Trump would want clearly incompetent people like Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Wilbur Ross in Cabinet positions where they run major governmental agencies.
Similarly, average Americans can’t figure out why Ryan Zinke (Interior) is intent on selling off our national parks to mining and drilling companies; why Scott Pruitt (EPA) is hell-bent on destroying the quality of our air and water; and why Mick Mulvaney (OMB and CFPB) wants to hand banking and general corporate regulation over to the lobbyists for the banks and payday lenders.
While some of this, particularly the last three mentioned, is really all about shifting power in America away from government protections of consumers/workers and toward giving such power to the billionaire/corporate class, the key to the whole thing is loyalty.
When Trump introduced a raised-arm loyalty oath at his campaign rallies in 2016, even Glenn Beck said on ABC, “We all look at Adolf Hitler in 1940. We should look at Adolf Hitler in 1929. Donald Trump is a dangerous man with the things that he has been saying.”
Trump’s obsessive need for loyalty—the result of a lifetime of insecurity and unethical/illegal business practices—are spreading through government institutions like the EPA and DOD the way a fungus spreads through a bag of apples on a warm day. The autocrat-in-chief is being, daily, imitated by his appointed minions, to the point that there are constant leaks about the “kiss-up-kick-down” psychopathological behavior of everybody from the White House doctor to Ryan Zinke and the flag he requires be raised over the roof of his building when he’s in his office.
In the process, the public good has been forgotten—or pushed aside as Trump and his fellow hogs monopolize the trough.
Another dimension of this is, while punishing your enemies, to support your friends. Trump and his administration have showered literally trillions of taxpayer dollars on their billionaire and corporate friends, from the GOP tax scam to their widespread destruction of protective regulations, to selling off public lands for pennies on the dollar.
Looting the public trust—and rewarding your friends with the money—was well documented by Fritz Thyssen’s chilling book I Paid Hitler. It’s a visible and important key to success for autocrats from Turkey to Russia to China. And Trump has brought it to the White House in a big way.
9. Foster a Sense of Helplessness Among the Opposition.
Whether it’s done with selective and brutal enforcement of the law, subtly shutting down access to the media, or outright infiltration, destroying the opposition is a critical key to seizing and holding authoritarian power in any nation.
When I was a teenager, Richard Nixon was behind efforts to shut down the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. His attacks on Martin Luther King Jr. are well known, and I still clearly remember the guy who always showed up at Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) meetings yelling that it was time to “kill the pigs” and “burn down the ROTC building!” We later learned he was a police informant, although most of us suspected it at the time.
But the infiltration word of its effectiveness—along with the murder of JFK, MLK, RFK, and members of nonviolent dissident groups like the Panthers—did its dirty work.
Numerous people, at first enthused by the nonviolence and human rights advocated by Students for a Democratic Society and the ’60s Civil Rights movements, drifted away from political activism and, in the 1970s and ’80s, fell into sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and religious cults. And, as Reaganomics began to strip the middle class of the economic independence they enjoyed pre-Reagan, people bonded more and more to the corporate world and left politics behind.
Today, with government agencies able to turn a cell phone into a remote spy device, even people planning simple protests (from the RNC in 2004 to inaugural protests in 2017) often find themselves in jail cells or court before they take any direct actions whatsoever. Trump’s regime ramped up the charges against the 2017 inaugural protesters to the point where hundreds were facing over a decade in federal prison, further terrorizing any potential future protesters.
Fear, and a sense of powerlessness or resignation, are two of an authoritarian regime’s most powerful weapons.
Defeating Neofascism, Neo-Authoritarianism, and Corporate/Billionaire Corruption
The good news is found in recent research on the ways that societies come back from, or restore democracy to, authoritarian and/or highly corrupt governments. While surprising, it’s not counterintuitive.
Maria J. Stephan, director of educational initiatives at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and Erica Chenoweth, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, published a mind-boggling paper almost a decade ago titled “Why Civil Resistance Works.”
In the first (!) comprehensive look in 200 years at how people take back their governments, they found that nonviolent resistance was nearly twice as successful (53 percent to 26 percent) as violent opposition at restoring democracy to, or exacting consequential political concessions from governments that had flipped authoritarian. (Chenoweth lays it out in a fascinating TEDx talk, as well.)
In just six years, for example, they showed non-violent-led civil reform movements having major successes around the world: “Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004-05), Lebanon (2005), and Nepal (2006).”
Looking all the way back to 1900, they demonstrated that that two-to-one ratio of the success of nonviolent versus violent movements held.
Even revolutionary violence and terrorism as methods to produce political and social change (the methods we used to liberate the U.S. from Britain in 1776, and the Confederacy tried without success in 1861) are only effective 7 percent of the time, they found—a fraction of the 53 percent success rate demonstrated by historic nonviolent movements like those led by King and Gandhi.
Of course, these things can rub both ways. When our nation elected our first Black president, the Koch billionaire network and friends funded the Tea Party to "create a movement" out in the streets and in front of the cameras. That nonviolent movement, once activated, was sufficient to change control of an entire political party, the GOP.
Similarly, it seems that the progressive movement to return the Democratic Party to its FDR roots, which kicked off in a big way with the 2015 Bernie Sanders candidacy, has already succeeded in producing a deep and lasting refutation of the “Third Way” corporatist political alignments that had controlled the Democratic Party since 1992. The job isn’t yet finished, but it’s moving at a lightning pace.
And, most encouraging, it was done without being funded and directed by a small group of cranky billionaires. It represents a true people’s movement, which means its power to produce deep and lasting change is massively greater than a few rich people buying politicians and owning media.
At a time when several American billionaires are funding openly racist media vehicles and explicitly using them to foment white rage, resentment, and fear, this small cabal is moving the hate-based Right closer to widespread acceptance and political power.
Meanwhile, less-well-funded but equally passionate progressive movements are pushing hard for health care for all, free college education, and rights and decent pay for working people, all while respecting the entire range of minority rights.
Whoever wins the hearts of Americans and gets them into the streets first will transform America for generations, and if the turnouts for things like the Women’s March or kids walking out of school across the country protesting gun violence (versus the tiny white nationalist rallies that get so much coverage) are any indication, progressive America is winning.
But there’s still a long way to go: Tag, you’re it.