The United States ranks behind 51 of the 87 free nations of the world.

The United States is Backsliding Towards Autocracy and Taking the World With Her

by Tony Wyman

“Democracy in Retreat.” That was the headline for the annual assessment of global freedom completed recently by Freedom House, the independent watchdog group founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. that works to expand freedom and democracy in countries around the world.

The year 2018 marked the 13th consecutive decline in world freedom recorded by the group and included declines in the majority of nations the world depends upon for the defense of liberty.  The report blamed populism and nationalism as the major forces reducing freedom in advanced, western nations like Italy, Sweden and the United States.

Most troublingly, even long-standing democracies have been shaken by populist political forces that reject basic principles like the separation of powers and target minorities for discriminatory treatment…These movements damage democracies internally through their dismissive attitude toward core civil and political rights, and they weaken the cause of democracy around the world with their unilateralist reflexes. For example, anti-liberal leaders’ attacks on the media have contributed to increasing polarization of the press, including political control over state broadcasters, and to growing physical threats against journalists in their countries. At the same time, such attacks have provided cover for authoritarian leaders abroad, who now commonly cry “fake news” when squelching critical coverage.

The problem when leading democracies like the United States wane in their defense of freedom and democracy, according to the report, is other nations where freedom isn’t so deeply rooted begin to pull back from their commitments to provide their people with greater liberty. If the United States is retreating from respecting the freedom of the press, if the president and his party are actively working against the constitutional separation of powers, the thinking goes in newly democratic states, why should they observe those traditions?

While Freedom House doesn’t blame President Trump exclusively for the decline in American freedom, they do state the first two years of his presidency has had a negative impact on the nation’s core democratic values and has put our faith in the Constitution, our appreciation for the value of a free press and an independent judiciary, and our confidence  in our democratic system of self-governance to a greater test than has any other administration in modern American history.

No president in living memory has shown less respect for (America’s) tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections. Congress, a coequal branch of government, has too frequently failed to push back against these attacks with meaningful oversight and other defenses.

Americans, in general, share Freedom House’s concerns about the state of freedom in the country.  In a national poll conducted by the Democracy Project, 55% of Americans said they believe democracy is weak in the country and 68% said it is getting weaker.  More alarmingly, 50% said they believe the United States is in danger of becoming a non-democratic, authoritarian state.

The Signs of an Authoritarian

What makes that fear seem more realistic today is we have a leader in the White House who exhibits characteristics more often found in authoritarian leaders in foreign countries than in the president of the United States.  His calls, for example, for new elections after the perfectly normal 2018 midterms that went against him is a stark and alarming example of behavior never exhibited before by an American president.   “It’s important to understand that Trump is trying to set the stage for calling into question the integrity of the 2020 election if he loses,” said Dan Pfeiffer, former senior advisor to Pres. Obama, about Mr. Trump’s call for a new vote.  If that is the case, then Mr. Trump is preparing to undermine the very democratic process that he is sworn to protect.  And the purpose for seeking to undermine that system can only be for one reason: to replace it with something else.

Attempting to discredit free and fair elections is, of course, one of the signs of an authoritarian political mentality.  There are many others, but I’ve listed below a top ten list of characteristics political scientists often identify in politicians exhibiting signs of authoritarianism and examples of why Mr. Trump’s behavior and actions are warning signs that he has a concerning predilection for an illiberalism that could be a threat to our democracy.

  1. Diminishing the people’s faith in elections – Pres. Trump claimed elections in Florida during the mid-term 2018 elections were “massively infected” and accused officials of allowing improper ballots with mismatched signatures in the Arizona election. He claimed ballots were “all of a sudden” being found late at night and stated that “an honest vote count is no longer possible”in Florida.The president also claimed that illegal aliens were entering the country in the millions to register and vote for his opponents and that Democrats were returning to the polls in disguise to vote a second and third time. None of these accusations were true.
  2. Attack the integrity of the press to reduce the effectiveness of critics – Two days after the anti semitic
    Fake news and Trump
    President Trump routinely calls news critical of himself or his administration “fake news,” alleging that the media is out to destroy his presidency.

    terrorist attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pres. Trump accused the media of inciting anger in the country. “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news,” he tweeted.  And just days before a supporter of his sent pipe bombs to media outlets critical of the president, including CNN, Mr. Trump tweeted, “The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame … of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!”

    While previous presidents have criticized the news media, some quite passionately, none have ever called the press “the enemy of the people” nor attacked the very institution of press freedom as a threat to the country as has Mr. Trump.  The result of the president’s attacks is we now have an even more polarized press than we had before his election, with major outlets exhibiting more and more partisan reporting than in the past with other president.

  3.  Alarm the faithful by creating a dangerous enemy determined to do the nation harm – For years, despite employing them himself, Mr. Trump has scapegoated illegal immigrants as a grave threat to America, blaming them for nearly all the social and economic problems in the country.  “Working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration,” Mr. Trump said during the State of the Union address. “Reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.” He added, “Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.”

    The fact there is no criminal murder wave committed by illegal aliens and that illegals actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans is completely ignored by the president.  The facts aren’t important to him when he attacks immigrants. What is important to him is the usefulness of the illegal immigrant as a tool to distract attention away from other, unflattering, issues in his administration and to increase support from his inflamed supporters.  “Scapegoating is effective because it exploits democratic principles, turning a strength—the recognition of basic human rights for all—into a weakness,” said Freedom House. “Democrats are obliged to defend the rights of even the most vulnerable or reviled members of society, and in doing so they risk being reviled themselves.”

  4. Create a dangerous, seditious internal enemy – Prior to the election of Donald Trump, the phrase “deep state” was only bandied about on the nuttiest alt-right radio channels and websites.  Now, it is common language among supporters of the president’s who actually believe there is a secret group of very powerful, but unknown, officials who are actively working in coordination with the media, the intelligence community and the FBI to bring down the president by fabricating a series of lies about him.

    “There are far too many people in the deep reaches of the federal government who harbor as deep a hatred of Trump as does anyone from the Clinton/Obama cabal,” wrote former Trump advisers Corey Lewandowski and David Bosse. “The thing is, they get away with it when no one is looking.”Even Russian President Vladimir Putin joined in, claiming, in his state of the nation address in February that the “deep state” was working against Mr. Trump.  He then went on to describe how Russia would target U.S. military bases for attack should the United States provoke a nuclear war with his country.

  5. Dehumanize groups or individuals in society – The language Pres. Trump chooses to use to describe opponents, critics or scapegoated targets of his is frequently dehumanizing.  About MS-13 members, he said “These aren’t humans, they are animals.”  Later he claimed illegal aliens, “like those in MS-13” are coming here to “infest” our nation.  “Democrats are the problem,” the president tweeted. “They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”

    Even former friends like Omarosa Manigault-Newman get the same treatment when they earn the president’s wrath.  In her case, the president called his former aide a “dog,” and said she was a “crazed, crying lowlife” in a tweet praising her firing.The reason that authoritarians use dehumanizing language is it desensitizes listeners to the plight of the target and turns down our compassion and empathy for them, making it easier for the leader to treat them cruelly without suffering much backlash from his followers.

  6. Call those who dissent traitors and label them as disloyal to the nation – The president has several times described those who either fail to support him or who openly criticize him a “traitor.”  The first to be labeled this way was former Attorney-General Jeff Session who the president called a “traitor” after the former senator recused himself from the Russian collusion case.  Mr. Trump went further when he accused the New York Times of treason for publishing an article that claimed there was, within the White House, a “quiet resistance” working to control the president and that doubted he was fit to serve in office.  The president asked then Attorney-General Sessions to “investigate” the paper because he believed publishing the article jeopardized national security.
  7. Attack the very rule of law – Respect for the rule of law is the fundamental bedrock of any strong democracy.  When the rule of law is disrespected or disregarded in practice, democracy no longer exists.  This country’s constitution established the supremacy of the law over the whims of man for more than 240 years and while we have had challenges to overcome as a nation, some severe, our respect for the traditions and practices established in the Constitution have made us the country we are. No president in American history has shown a greater disdain for the rule of law and for the traditions established in the Constitution than Donald Trump.

    In 2018, Mr. Trump’s disdain for the rule of law was so blatant, it earned a deserved, and extraordinarily rare, rebuke from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, following the president’s complaint that the federal judge who ruled against the White House was an “Obama judge.”  The president said, “This was an Obama judge. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore.” To which, Chief Justice Roberts replied,  “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”  And he added, “That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”  We should be, but it doesn’t appear that Mr. Trump is.

    In fact, he’s shown in the past that he questions the objectivity of judges whenever he feels their rulings will go against him.  In 2016, he questioned the impartiality of the judge ruling in the “Trump University” fraud case, which the president lost, because the judge had an Hispanic surname.  And he referred to the judge who ruled against his Muslim ban as a “so-called judge.”

    But his attack on the Mueller investigation and on the legal process the country uses to investigate cases like the one involving the president is simply unprecedented.  “As far as I’m concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had. … It’s an illegal investigation,” said the president in an interview with The Daily Caller.

    The investigation, in the eyes of the president, is illegal, not just misguided or directed in the wrong way.  It is, of itself, illegal, a crime against the president.The reality is, of course, the investigation is perfectly legal, as courts have determined more than once, most recently last month.  But, despite this, the president insists, and his supporters in the media and in the streets repeat, the investigation is illegal.

  8. Employs nationalism and populism to motivate his following – “I am a nationalist,” the president proudly proclaimed in October last year.  And while he claimed a few days after making the controversial remark that he didn’t really know what being a nationalist meant, his campaign and his time in office have shown that he understands the philosophy perfectly well, especially when combined with populism.

    So, what is populist nationalism and why is it dangerous?  Populism is the practice by politicians of appealing to “the people” by juxtaposing their interests with those of the elite.  While not all are guilty of this, historically, populists have separated members of society into two groups: the people, whose motivates are pure and simple; and, the elite, who are motivated by greed and self-interest.  This type of populist leader argues that politics should be conducted in a way that expresses the will of the general populace, who he, of course, represents and should not be hampered by troublesome rules, traditions or legalistic principles and practices.  It is those things, the populist argues, that were created by the elite to oppress the people and keep them from obtaining that which is rightfully theirs.

    On the left, populism invariably leads to socialism, like what we are seeing currently in Venezuela.  But on the right, the sort of populism that Mr. Trump is practicing, leads to nativism and nationalism.   Nativism, the policy of protecting the interests of the native born over those of the immigrant, is a natural condition found in nationalism, which is an ideological movement that puts the interests of the nation above all else, including, if necessary to achieve the aims of the nation, even the individual’s rights and liberties.

    Nationalism, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After all, the world is made up of nations that all have their own interests and individual identities.  To simply regard all nationalism as inherently evil is to ignore the reality that the world is a troubled and complex place where circumstances arise where nations must, for self-preservation, prioritize their interests over those of others.

    Where nationalism becomes a destructive force is when its proponents view the world as a winner-take-all contest between rivals, that see competition and negotiation between nations as a struggle for domination, instead of seeking cooperation where both sides benefit.  This is the form of nationalism that Mr. Trump is projecting and it is undermining the world order this nation created, largely for its own benefit, following World War II.

    Bloomberg News described Mr. Trump’s brand of nationalism, as he related it to a United Nations audience in the fall of 2018, as an “…uninhibited, cutthroat nationalism…” that throughout history “…often caused catastrophe in international affairs.”

    Trump built much of the momentum for his candidacy and presidency through foreign-policy pronouncements that have been openly hostile to the international system the U.S. built after 1945. Yet his speech at the UN was more subtly subversive. Some parts — his paeans to the distinctive histories, cultures and traditions of different countries — had a Kumbaya quality that might seem right at home in Turtle Bay. Until, that is, one realizes that by championing unrestrained nationalism in foreign policy, Trump is inviting a return of the brutal, destructive patterns that the UN and so much of today’s international system were created to overcome.

    The emergence of such hypernationalism was a critical driver of World War I — at that point, the most violent conflict in history. Just 25 years later, the rise of predatory regimes motivated by some of the most unconstrained, aggressive nationalisms ever seen triggered an all-consuming conflagration.

    While the world is slipping increasingly into the nationalist quicksand that consumed the planet in global conflict in the 20th Century, the United States, the nation that should be leading the charge away from this dangerous form of political expression, is enamored with its own form of nationalism articulated by President Trump.

  9. A lack of concern or respect for human rights – In June 2018, the United States became the first nation ever to withdraw its membership from the United Nations Council on Human Rights, making it one of only four countries that refuses to participate in the council’s meetings and work.  The other three are Iran, North Korea and Eritrea, all nations boasting the world’s worst human rights records.

    The White House also withdrew from the Global Compact on Migration, which is the agreement between 192 nations to safeguard orderly, protected and regular migration around the planet.  Among the pact’s goals is a commitment from all signatories to end the detention of child migrants.  The Trump Administration withdrew from the negotiations saying the aims of the organization were incompatible with the White House’s immigration policies.

    The Trump Administration also withdrew from UNESCO on 1 January 2019, claiming its motivation for the move was the body’s “bias” towards Israel.  UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization – was founded by the United States after World War II largely to promote the cross-cultural flow of ideas from one nation to another with the goal of preventing conflicts like the one from which the world just escaped. Critics of the move to defund UNESCO in 2011 and the recent U.S. withdrawal from the group, has allowed the agendas of other states hostile to the idea of freedom of speech and of the free flow of ideas to surface and take control of the agency.

    “The U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO, as well as the decision to defund UNESCO in 2011, absolutely created a vacuum that, at times, has been filled by, you know, members from the Gulf States and other member states that don’t necessarily share our commitment to human rights,” said Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, a group dedicated to strengthening ties between the U.S. and the U.N.  He added the U.S. has lost its influence in the body to nations that do not share our historical support for human rights.

    Not only has the U.S. withdrawn from key U.N. agencies and backed away from treaty obligations under President Trump, it has even gone after the International Criminal Court.  National Security Adviser John Bolton threatened the judges of the ICC, the body that prosecutes cases of human rights abuses, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, with criminal prosecution, travel bans and financial sanctions because the court was considering an investigation into American involvement in torture and other war crimes in Afghanistan.  American concern about the fairness of the trials aside, the response by the White House was draconian and unprecedented.

  10. Using state power to reward friends and punish enemies – Recent news the president tried to use government power to block the merger of AT&T and Time-Warner allegedly because of Mr. Trump’s animus towards news network CNN.  According to witnesses, Mr. Trump called Gary Cohn, the former director of the National Economic Council, and told him to pressure the Justice Department to block the deal.

    Calling Mr. Cohn and then newly-appointed Chief-of-staff John Kelly to the Oval Office, the president allegedly said, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked.”

    This wasn’t the only time the president went after the financial well-being of media companies he viewed as enemies.  In 2017, Mr. Trump attacked Amazon, parent company of the Washington Post, a paper often critical of the president, demanding Congress investigate and “go after” the company’s tax status.  Foreign Policy magazine said Mr. Trump’s words “…have the clear whiff of the authoritarian intimidation that autocrats like Turkey’s Erdogan have practiced.

    Mr. Trump has also threatened his political enemies with jail and investigations by the Justice Department.  Of course, his cheerleading in front of crowds of supporters during the campaign chanting “Lock her up!  Lock her up!” are famous, but, in addition, Mr. Trump has called upon the DOJ and FBI to investigate politicians who refuse to play ball the way the president wants them to.  “I am really not involved with the Justice Department. I’d like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at the Democrats,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “A lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me,” he said to a crowd of reporters.

Independently, the ten things above don’t necessarily indicate Mr. Trump has a predilection for authoritarianism.  But, combined, they make a strong case that Americans should be concerned that their president might be inclined, if given the chance, to drag the country away from its tradition and heritage of liberal democracy and rule of law.

If freedom and the respect for democracy is in decline in America, what does this mean for the rest of the world?

Third Wave of Democratic Decline

Unfortunately, the world seems to be heading into another wave of what Swedish researchers Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg call “autocratization,” in a chilling research paper you can read in full here.  In their study of every nation on the planet, measuring levels of freedom using data collected in great detail covering a period from 1900 to today, they’ve determined the world is in the midst of a significant decline in freedom that began in 1994.

This new wave of decline is the sixth chapter of the history of democracy in the world.  The first was in the 18th Century when democracy spread throughout Europe.  The rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Imperial Japan that brought about WWII and the decline of democracy in Europe was the second chapter.  The defeat of the Axis powers and the restoration of democracy was the third chapter.  The fourth was another decline when, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Cold War led to a number of military dictatorships arising in nations aligned with one of the rival superpowers.  The Fifth wave was the rise of democracy after the defeat of the Soviet Union and the liberation of former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.

The sixth, the current wave, began in 1994 and, unlike previous declines, wasn’t precipitated by dramatic upheavals like coups, military rebellions or the collapse of the previous political or economic system.  Instead, this third wave of democratic decline is the product of gradual backsliding through a breakdown of democracy into autocracy. Today’s autocrats, unlike their predecessors, have become adept at manipulating the system, of appearing to respect the norms of their nation’s democratic process as they systematically go about dismantling them.

Democratic erosion became the modal tactic during the third wave of autocratization. Here, incumbents legally access power and then gradually, but substantially, undermine democratic norms without abolishing key democratic institutions. Such processes account for 70% in the third reversal wave with prominent cases of such gradual deterioration in Hungary and Poland. Aspiring autocrats have clearly found a new set of tools to stay in power, and that news has spread. (Luhrmann and Lindberg)

Electoral Autocracy and the Future of Democracy

These autocrats “have mastered the art of subverting electoral standards without breaking their democratic facade completely,” say the researchers, citing the most popular form of autocracy today is what they call “electoral autocracy.”

This is a system in which elections are still held, sometimes even fairly, freely and with accurate vote counts, but where conditions exist that make real democracy impossible.  These conditions include the harassment of political opponents of the autocrat, restricting the freedom of the press to cover the issues as they see fit, turning news networks into propaganda outlets for the autocrat, and using the power of the autocrat’s office to intimidate and influence voters, election officials and others associated with the electoral process.

While the number of nations that have become autocracies was greater than the number that became democracies in 2017, the first time that has happened since 1940, the researchers say we shouldn’t panic about the future.  After all, they say, the number of democratic nations in the world remains high, in fact it is close to the record.  “We still live in a democratic era,” they reassure readers.

Chart showing number of new autocracies was greater than the number of new democracies in 2017.
The number of nations that became autocracies was greater than the number that became democracies in 2017. This was the first time since 1940 that this has happened. A global war between fascist states and the remaining free world is what ensued.

But then they warned the trend predicts a much less bright future. “About a third of all autocratization episodes (N = 75) started under a democratic dispensation. Almost all of the latter (N = 60, 80%) led to the country turning into an autocracy. This should give us great pause about spectre of the current third wave of autocratization. Very few episodes of autocratization starting in democracies have ever been stopped before countries become autocracies.”

In other words, there is about an 80% chance that a nation that starts the process of autocratization will finish the process as an autocracy.  Historically speaking, it is rare for a nation to begin the process of undermining its democratic norms and traditions without going all the way.  If what we are seeing in America today is the early stages of autocratization, we may have only a slim chance of stopping the process before it is too late.

In his first inaugural address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan said that America’s contribution to the world was to be proof to those living in tyranny that a life of freedom was possible.  If our president’s actions show the rest of the world that the freedom we’ve promoted, exported, fought and died for are no longer as valued here as they once were, we empower those who seek to oppress their people.  But, if we demand that our president honor our Constitution, the rule of law, and the traditions that have made this country great, we empower oppressed people around the world to shrug off their chains and create for themselves a life of freedom worth living.  As Ronald Reagan said,

As we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.

Of course, before we can inspire the rest of the world to believe in democracy and the freedom it brings, we have to decide if we still believe in those things ourselves.


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