Analysis: Experts both sound and quiet the alarms. “Fascism is not just any politics you don’t like. … What matters is that the 2020 results are respected.”
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Democracy did not die in Hungary in 2015 when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decided he needed an expensive border wall to see off a nonexistent “invasion” of asylum seekers.
When Poland’s government that same year started stripping power from the country’s courts by filling large swaths of the judiciary with apparatchiks loyal above all else to the incumbent right-wing populist party, the rule of law still applied.
Turkey’s leader was once seen as a potential model democrat in the Islamic world. Today, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
Experts agree that democracy is fragile, not preordained and that a country’s descent into the type of illiberal politics that has emerged in recent years in parts of Europe, in Brazil, in India and elsewhere, has been nothing if not gradual. It creeps up on you.
“Little by little there’s a tiny change in regulations in, say, the justice system one day. Then, later, appointments to high courts and ministries here and there. It may seem insignificant. You may not even hear about it,” said Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, author of “How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.”
“Fascism does not walk toward political power in goose steps,” she added, referring to the straight-legged, stiff-kneed marching steps of soldiers usually performed during military parades and ceremonies and often associated with Nazi Germany.
Temelkuran said her anecdotal impression is that many Americans tend to believe authoritarianism and other forms of threats to democratic freedoms “can’t happen here,” because of the strength of U.S. democratic institutions. “There’s also some arrogance in it. They think somewhere like Turkey is a crazy country,” she said.
What kind of president is Trump?
It may not help that there is massive divisiveness over a basic point: What is the most appropriate term to describe President Donald Trump’s leadership style?
Trump’s supporters cheer an unconventional and gladiatorial figure who they claim defends their conception of American values and interests.
His critics often use alarming if imprecise words like autocratic (ruler who has absolute power), tyrannical (exercises power in a cruel or arbitrary manner), despotic (rules by brute force), demagogic (exploits emotions and prejudice) and xenophobic (hatred of the foreign or strange).
“This is fascism at the door,” Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of Trump after he chose not to immediately disavow white supremacy groups such as Proud Boys. Trump was directly asked to do so during the first presidential debate with his Democratic rival Joe Biden. The FBI considers Proud Boys, which only admits men, “to be an extremist group with ties to white nationalism.”
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After Trump appeared on a White House balcony on Monday night following his release from the hospital where he was being treated for coronavirus and said “I led” in regard to COVID-19, historian Anne Applebaum wrote an analysis in The Atlantic magazine in which she drew some parallels to historical scenes involving Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who loved photo ops.
“Those staged pictures are what a lot of people want to see, and that false reassurance is what a lot of people want to hear. Don’t underestimate their power,” wrote Applebaum, the author of “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.”
History offers advice but not necessarily a guide.
“Some were recalcitrant; some tried not to show how much his favor meant to them; some were openly servile. In a short time, he was surrounded by a court of yes-men who frowned when he frowned or guffawed loudly whenever he deigned to tell a joke,” the Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote in 1951 in his book “The Captive Mind.”
Milosz’s words were written shortly after he defected from Stalinist-controlled Poland.
They formed part of Milosz’s attempt to explain the rise of totalitarianism (where people are completely subservient to the state) under would-be authoritarians (generally evoked as someone who exerts close and precise control over a repressive and centralized state authority). The latter is a phrase that Trump’s detractors have deployed to characterize a president who has refused to rule out staying beyond his legal term, sent unidentifiable federal forces to quell protests, described dissent as foreign interference and who routinely disseminates false and prejudicial information.
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In his choice of William Barr as America’s top legal officer, Trump appointed an Attorney General who has been prepared to reduce the prison sentence of the president’s close ally (Roger Stone) against the objections of U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors, while he has also sought to drop the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
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Trump has described Kim Jong Un, a bonafide dictator whose regime has for years presided over gruesome state-sponsored killings and a nationwide famine, as a “friend.” Tapes from the journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Rage” reveal that Trump said he gets along better with foreign autocrats the “meaner and tougher” they are.
Ways the U.S. is different
It’s important to note that the U.S. does not – yet – have a totalitarian system, an authoritarian leader or some other highly abusive and domineering form of government.
The U.S. has meaningful political participation by citizens. There is freedom of press, speech and religion. A robust political opposition and civil society provide a check on legislation, corruption and government decisions. Power is not so brazenly concentrated that state or federal authorities can demand blind submission. Trump’s domestic opponents are not customarily subject to government surveillance or arbitrary detention, notwithstanding protesters in Portland who described being held by federal agents while demonstrating against police violence and racial injustice.
Federal agencies from the CIA to the Environmental Protection Agency regularly challenge Trump. There is a growing cottage industry of former White House staffers who have been free to publish books and articles arguing that Trump’s handling of everything from the coronavirus epidemic to his name-calling feuds with allies resembles a curious, chaotic and irrational mix of nihilism and temper tantrums.
None of these things are wholly true in places such as China, Russia or the Philippines, where strongman leaders exert tight control over political systems.
China’s President Xi Jinping, for example, has defended detaining millions of Muslim minority Uighurs in what many call concentration camps by insisting they are being re-educated with the “correct” outlook on China. High-profile critics and rivals of Russian President Vladimir Putin have a tendency to die from poison. President Rodrigo Duterte openly admits – brags, even – about authorizing extrajudicial killings as part of his “war on drugs” in the Philippines.
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Critics may describe the Trump administration as dysfunctional and even open to abuse by bad actors. But the overall system isn’t – as far as we know – maliciously rigged, according to Leonard Benardo, vice president of the Open Society Foundations, an organization that promotes democracy and human rights.
In the U.S. there are still, Benardo added, “fundamental democratic institutions that have been able to present those kinds of excesses from happening. We don’t have people in the U.S. being ‘disappeared’ by the state” or other unrestrained strong-arm tactics.
Case in point: After Trump cast doubt on the transition, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell vowed that there would be an “orderly” transfer of U.S. presidential power in January as there has been since 1792.
“The U.S. is not on the brink of authoritarianism,” said Ian Bremmer, the founder of the global political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, in a recent tweet.
In fact, according to Salvatore Babones, an American-born expert on authoritarianism at Australia’s University of Sydney, Trump is, if anything, anti-authoritarian.
“It’s probably more reasonable to call him dictatorial,” he said. “You can’t be an authoritarian when you disrespect all major bases of traditional authority,” Babones said, referring to Trump’s unconventional and unpredictable leadership approach on issues ranging from national security to campaigning.
However, Babones noted that Trump is dictatorial only in the sense that he appears to “simply dictate his policies,” usually via Twitter, rather than arriving at them through discussion. He does not have absolute power without any constitutional limitations.
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“I would not say he is a dictator. A dictator does not have to satisfy a Congress.”
Babones added that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only president to serve more than two terms, was also dictatorial in his governance style.
“He refused to step down. He threatened to pack the courts. The difference is that the American establishment liked his policies. So for many, he’s not viewed that way.”
Ways the U.S. is not so different
Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” published in 2018, goes one step farther.
“Trump believes only in himself as an authority. It’s called the ‘Führer principle,'” he said, a reference to the machinery of state that oversaw Hitler’s Third Reich – commonly understood as an ironclad belief in the infallibility of the leader’s words and deeds. It led to the most extreme and calculated extermination campaign against a people in history.
“Fascists target racial minorities and immigrants. They use the police in political ways. We are seeing all this with Trump,” Stanley said. “We need to focus less on what the right word is to describe him and more on the consequences of his actions.”
In addition to Trump’s refusal to commit to providing a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, the president has also encouraged his supporters to monitor Election Day polling places for instances of fraud – a federal crime if they are not there in an official capacity – raising fears of potential voter intimidation, violence and disorder more generally.
The number of Americans who feel they would be justified in using violence to achieve their political goals has increased sharply from 8% in 2017 to 33% today, and three-in-four Americans believe there will be violence following the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to YouGov, an online market research firm.
Although Trump subsequently said his words during the debate with Biden were misinterpreted when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” and he later also said he condemned all white supremacists, the group itself took his original remarks to be a tacit endorsement of their violent tactics if the election doesn’t go his way, according to messages on the group’s messaging channel.
International evidence that the U.S. should not be content to rest on its democratic laurels, that it too could be susceptible to the slow erosion of personal and democratic freedoms, is not difficult to find, according Benardo, of the Open Society Foundations, an organization founded by the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.
Hungary: Hitting media, judicial system and immigrants
A decade ago, when Orbán came to power in Hungary the country was still grappling with the aftermath of the economic crisis and relatively recent ascension to European Union membership. Since then Orbán has slowly but aggressively consolidated his executive power and critics say the country is now a democracy in name only.
During this time Orbán has gutted the country’s civil service, redrawn electoral maps, appointed friendly judges, installed party loyalists to key watchdog posts in the media and promoted a version of Hungarian ethnic identity that is white, Christian and vehemently opposed to taking in refugees who, he claims, threaten “our way of life.”
The impact has been widespread but also specific.
“I was cornered and cut off from everything,” said Béla Lakatos, a former member of Orbán’s party and mayor of a small town who specialized in minority issues.
Lakatos, who is ethnically Roma, a minority group long discriminated against in Hungary, said he quit his position in disgust over the Hungarian government’s immigration and Roma policies and was instantly targeted by online trolls and government-controlled media who accused him of beating up children and other crimes.
He also believes that he was effectively blacklisted from finding work as a school teacher, his profession before he worked for the government.
“(Orbán) has been peddling the same stories in the countryside since 2015: Brown and Black people will come and steal your chicken and rape your wife,” he said, noting that the government has created a culture of fear where lying has become routine and where many are afraid to speak out over concerns for their careers and reputations.
Open Society Foundations shut its office in Hungary in 2018, leaving behind what it called “an increasingly repressive political and legal environment.” Soros, who is Jewish, has become a bogeyman for unfounded conspiracy theories, anti-semitic tropes and attacks by U.S. right-wing groups. Trump himself has pushed claims that Soros funds antifa, the radical left-wing political movement. Orbán rejects accusations of Hungary’s authoritarianism as “fake news” spread by his political opponents, including Soros.
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Poland: ‘Horrible intolerances … now articulated freely’
In nearby Poland, President Andrzej Duda and the powerful leader of his ruling Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, have slowly dismantled many democratic checks and balances by filling the ranks of the nation’s courts with loyal judges.
The Law and Justice Party has tightened the government’s grip on state institutions and companies including the media, increased its powers to spy on its citizens and imposed new taxes on those who oppose socially conservative measures such as keeping gay marriage illegal, strict immigration laws and a proposed near-total ban on abortion in a country that already has some of Europe’s most restrictive reproductive laws.
“Poland has become a place where horrible intolerances, whether anti-semitism or racism, are now articulated freely in the street,” said Mateusz Klinowksi, a law professor and former mayor of Wadowice, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II.
In 2019, Paweł Adamowicz , a friend of Klinowksi’s and the mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk who espoused liberal causes including giving refuge to asylum seekers at odds with Poland’s conservative nationalist government, was assassinated by a former convict during an annual charity event. Klinowksi has been stalked.
Turkey: Jailing journalists
Temelkuran, the writer from Turkey, left her country in 2016 after a failed military coup attempt against Erdoğan that led to tens of thousands of soldiers, police and civil servants being dismissed or suspended from their jobs, and thousands jailed.
A little over a decade ago, Turkey was in serious talks to join the EU. Today, political opposition in Turkey has been so severely curtailed that it is too dangerous for Temelkuran and other outspoken journalists to return and Erdoğan has transformed his presidential power into an unassailable force that allows him to make law by decree.
Temelkuran noted that Trump started questioning the perceived sacrosanctity of U.S. institutions and norms from the FBI to the courts right after he was elected. She said she was keeping an open mind about what this relatively quickened trajectory could eventually mean for American political culture compared to that of Turkey’s and others’, where tangible declines in democracy took several years to materialize.
Brazil: Undermining educated experts
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro was elected on a platform to reduce crime and corruption and strengthen the economy. He’s spent the last few years trying to roll back the nation’s democratic order established after its military dictatorship ended in 1985.
Bolsonaro has tried to appoint military leaders to important civilian posts, undermined Brazil’s Supreme Court, accused environmental groups of deliberately starting wildfires in the Amazon and downplayed the gravity of coronavirus infections to deadly effect. He tried, but failed, to get his son nominated to be Brazil’s ambassador to the U.S.
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India: Attacking a minority Muslim population
Six years of rule by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narenda Modi has relentlessly marginalized India’s Muslims.
“Sometimes they ignored you, sometimes they might criticize you. Post-2014, social media now questions me and my religious identity before they question my work,” said Arfa Khanam Sherwani, a senior editor at The Wire, an Indian news and opinion website.
In addition to violence in Kashmir, a religion-based citizenship law was introduced that fast-tracks citizenship for religious minorities from three neighboring nations but excludes Muslims.
“First, I am discredited for being a Muslim, then for being a woman and only then as someone who criticizes the government,” Sherwani said.
Back to U.S.
Still, in the U.S. context, Michael Ignatieff, a U.S.-educated, Canadian-born former politician, historian and president of the Soros-founded Central European University, said he sees an “alarmist rhetoric about fascism and authoritarianism” and connecting it to Trump that is not only counterproductive but leading to increased hysteria. Last year Central European University was forced to move all of its U.S. degree courses from Budapest to Vienna because of Orbán’s crackdown on academic freedoms in Hungary.
“The problem is America is extreme polarization. I don’t see it as incipient fascism. And I don’t see it as a collapse of countervailing institutions,” he said. “Fascism is not just any politics you don’t like. Fascism is the explicit use of political violence, hitting people, killing people, knocking people over, invading an assembly with armed thugs.”
Ignatieff added: “What matters is that the 2020 results are respected.”
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Contributing: Szabolcs Panyi in Budapest, Hungary